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Volunteering in Azerbaijan
by Jody Martin

A wholesome meal twice a week brings sustenance and cheer to Sabirabad's isolated, sick, elderly and destitute citizens.

When New Zealander Jody Martin accompanied her husband on a Federation mission to Azerbaijan in May 1999, she was shocked by the scenes of poverty and misery she encountered. Her initiative, together with volunteers of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society, to set up a project to help the most vulnerable, brought both comfort and a new sense of purpose to the community.

I had been forewarned that the situation was dire. Even so, arriving in Azerbaijan, I was struck by the stark contrast between my native New Zealand, lush and prosperous, and the grimness and desolation in the country that was to be my home for 12 months. My husband had been appointed head of the Federation subdelegation in Sabirabad, whose job it was to manage seven camps accommodating 33,000 people displaced by the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict over this disputed enclave, which brokeout in 1988 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, remains unresolved to this day and the displaced are still waiting to return home.

Not just the displaced, but local residents too, had been hard hit by the drawn-out conflict, a deteriorating economy and the resulting decline in the social welfare system. They were also adjusting to the profound changes brought about by the break-up of the Soviet Union. Unemployment had risen drastically and corruption was rife. Particularly striking was the number of men, young and old, hanging aimlessly around the streets, with no jobs to go to and no money to pay for a newspaper or even a cup of tea or coffee. The sense of despair was palpable.

An idea is hatched

The displaced were already receiving regular assistance from the Federation and other aid agencies, but the people in the wider community were getting little or nothing. Although the staff of the local branch of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society were concerned by the problem, they were at a loss as to how to tackle it. By their own admission, organizational and coordination skills were lacking, suppressed during the Soviet period when initiative was discouraged and people feared failure. Anxious to do something myself, I approached the Azerbaijan Red Crescent's regional centre in Sabirabad and together we came up with the idea of delivering hot meals and basic foodstuffs to the town's most vulnerable people.

We began by identifying where the needs were greatest. The Sabirabad regional centre already had contact with many vulnerable people through the existing visiting nurses programme, funded by the Federation. Many of the beneficiaries were elderly and living alone; some were bedridden or otherwise incapacitated; others were single-parent families. All were desperately poor.

Many of the homes we visited were cold and damp, with nothing to brighten the walls, and the furniture basic: one bed (the children sometimes slept on the floor) a few blankets, some cooking utensils and a little oil burner for cooking and heating. In winter, many children stayed home because they did not have enough warm clothes to go out in and the schoolrooms were unheated.


Helping hands

The next step was to create a team of volunteers to help prepare and deliver the food. By this stage, I had become an official volunteer of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent. To recruit more hands, we invited the young people attending English and first-aid classes at the Regional Centre to assist with the project. Young, unemployed men also proved a fertile ground for recruitment. Although they would have loved to have found paid work, volunteering for the Red Crescent at least gave them a focus and a means to occupy the empty hours.

We set ourselves up in the kitchen of the youth coordinator's mother, who became a dedicated volunteer herself. The women cooked the meals and the young men delivered them, as it was not culturally acceptable for young, single, female volunteers to deliver the food. Other volunteers scoured the neighbourhoods on foot visiting families or individuals who had been reported to the Red Crescent as being vulnerable. They then had to decide the extent of their vulnerability, and if and how we could help them. If they were elderly and incapacitated we would deliver a hot meal. However, if they were able to prepare the food themselves, we would deliver rice, sugar, flour or any other goods that had been donated but which were not needed for the preparation of the daily hot meal. We also bought large sacks of flour, sugar and rice with donated money and distributed these commodities in smaller bags to vulnerable families.

Besides the "meals on wheels", the volunteers helped out on other projects run by the Red Crescent in Sabirabad: they helped build toilets for the elderly living alone in the camps; they delivered clothes donated by the Swedish Red Cross to the vulnerable; and they cleaned houses for people who were too old, too ill or too weak to do it themselves. Nazim, chairman of the local Red Crescent branch, worked as hard as any volunteer; his kindness and compassion were legendary and he was constantly being approached in the street by people requesting his assistance; he never brushed them off.

On the road

A generous personal cash donation from a visiting Federation consultant working on a socio-economic survey of the camps and community got the project rolling. To keep it going, we decided to elicit the support of the local people. A team of volunteers, equipped with posters and red crescent badges, went out into the community to ask for donations of money or food. Although many of the local people were facing hardship themselves, they responded with what little they could afford, expressed interest in the project and were vocal in their support. Shopkeepers donated sacks of rice, potatoes and onions, and market traders, mostly the rural poor, gave surplus vegetables. Some financial assistance was also sought - and received - from the Federation.

The benefits of the project went beyond just a simple hot meal. For many of the beneficiaries who were living alone and with no family to look after them, the social contact was as important to them as the daily sustenance, as was the feeling that there were people in the community who cared about them. At the same time, helping people worse off than themselves gave the volunteers a sense of purpose and involvement, a distraction from their own personal struggle to survive in the poor economic climate.


Strength to strength

Tasaduf, who had begun as an interpreter and became the driving force behind meals on wheels, took over the running of the project after we left Azerbaijan a year later. Himself from a poverty-stricken family living in a remote village of Azerbaijan, he had put himself through university, obtained a degree in accountancy and taught himself English. Under his direction and that of other staff and volunteers, the project is being expanded to branches in nearby towns and villages, where volunteers are being recruited.

The project's future was further secured by the donation of a new van from the oil company, Exxon. The acquisition was a tremendous boost to the regional centre, whose lack of transport had for years severely limited its capacity to assist the vulnerable. Until then, a taxi was being used to deliver the meals (for which only the petrol was paid - the service was free). In addition, Exxon donated petrol and maintenance for a year.

As more and more NGOs leave the country and the economy and social structures continue to decline, the needs in Azerbaijan will inevitably increase. Small initiatives such as this one, which tap into and build on the energies and resources of the local community, provide a glimmer of light in an otherwise bleak and futureless landscape.

Jody Martin
Jody Martin is based in Paekakariki, New Zealand.

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