By Steffan Hacker
Habitat for Humanity International photographer and multimedia producer
In the fall of 2006, I hunched in the front seat of a small but hardworking Soviet-era antique rattling its way up a hill in the city of Khujand. As we passed unfinished block apartments, I caught glimpses of people squatting in spaces that can only be described as concrete caves.
It was my second time in Central Asia, and the sight of people living in these conditions continued to challenge the comfortable notion I had once accepted as a young world history student that the demise of the Soviet Union had been good for all people in the region. For many people, the collapse had been sudden and recovery would be gradual at best.
When our destination came into view — a brightly painted nine-story apartment building on the edge of the mountains — I smiled at the cheerful pink, blue and green exterior. Not long before our visit, the building had been in much the same condition as the many derelict structures we had just passed on the drive.
I was traveling with Habitat World managing editor Shala Carlson to do a story on the project, and we had an appointment with one of the first families to move into the newly renovated building. It was quite cold outside, so the warmth of the Zohidov family’s apartment felt good as we removed our shoes at the front door and were welcomed in. Mother Omina and daughters Manizha and Farzona brought us hot tea, fresh bread and fruit, candy, cookies, and platefuls of warm rice pilaf.
After eating more than my share of pilaf, my favorite Tajik food, I took photos of the family and their apartment. The girls were eager to let us see their room and to show off books from their favorite school subjects. I listened as the family chatted with Shala about the changes their new home had brought to their lives. Hearing them describe the harsh, cramped conditions of their old apartment, I was struck by the realization that they hadn’t been able to have guests, that the new apartment was not only a better place to live but allowed them to practice hospitality, a cherished part of their culture.
This January, Shala and I had the privilege of revisiting the Zohidov family, this time accompanied by Farhod Nabiyulloev of Habitat Tajikistan and Barbora Fricova of Habitat’s Europe and Central Asia office. The family welcomed the whole group of us, again with great hospitality. Manizha and Farzona were still eager to talk about their favorite subjects and to show off their room, which still looked new since they had taken such good care of it. Given their young ages last time we visited, I had assumed they wouldn’t remember us. I was taken aback when Farzona came into the room, smiling proudly and holding up a photo taken of us — she, her sister, Shala and I — as we were ending our visit in 2006.
Seeing this photo reminded me of the special honor I have as a staff photographer for Habitat. Not only do I get to visit many places and meet lots of people, I also on occasion get to go back and reconnect. I see firsthand the changes in lives and communities. Much has changed, for example, outside the Zohidov apartment. The Habitat building is now fully occupied, and other developers have taken on more construction projects and renovations in the area, which now seems less desolate. As we got ready to go this time, Farukh joked that he hoped to see us again in another 4 years. I told him I was already looking forward to it.
To learn more about the Khujand apartment building renovation and Habitat’s work in Europe and Central Asia, read, “Rising from Ruins.”