MANAS AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan --
A symbolic ground-breaking ceremony was held April 14 in Birdik Village to signify the start of a school renovation project between the United States and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Nearly two weeks after work began on the $470,000 project to repair the school, a ceremony was held to recognize the development partnership between the U.S. State Department, U.S. Central Command, Manas Air Base and Birdik Village. Nearly 200 villagers, construction workers, students and distinguished guests attended the ceremony, including the U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, the Manas Air Base commander, several local civic leaders and the school principal.
"With our village's tight budget, we never thought it possible to ever see this dream become a reality," said Mr. Syrgak Kydykeev, the local administration leader of Birdik Village. "We appreciate everything those who have contributed to this project will accomplish," he said.
Before the ceremony began, Mr. Kydykeev presented Col. Christopher Bence, the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing commander at nearby Manas AB, with a ceremonial robe known as a chapan, and a traditional Kyrgyz felt hat known as a kalpak. Adorned with Kyrgyz-unique emblem embroidery, the white costume is only worn for special ceremonies and is presented to an honorary guest held in high regard. Colonel Bence donned the robe and hat and wore both proudly during the entire ceremony.
After the cheers of the crowd quieted, the Birdik Village School principal, Ms. Olga Voroshihina, brought out a large, round, homemade bread loaf, called nan, sprinkled with sesame seeds and wrapped in a ceremonial towel. After pieces of the bread were broken and shared amongst the audience to symbolize peace and prosperity, the ceremony began with speeches.
"Some time ago it was brought to our attention that there was a nearby village with a school that needed some repair work," said Colonel Bence. "The future of Birdik Village rests with your children. They need a warm safe place to learn and grow," he said to the crowd of nearly 200 villagers, students, construction workers and embassy and base representatives
Among the guests were 70 children who for years have made a daily two-mile trek to and from school in a neighboring village, facing many hazards and dangers during their daily trip. The roads along the route are laden with potholes, forcing vehicles to drive erratically and crisscross to both sides of the road, attempting to avoid both pits and oncoming traffic. The children walk along well-worn paths, trudging through the extremities of each season, from bitter blowing snow, drenching rain, mud and hopefully for only one more summer - sweltering heat.
"As your neighbor, guest and friend, we decided to help in some way," said Colonel Bence. "I look forward to seeing all the smiles on all the children's faces, when they finally get to attend school in their own village," he said.
"It brings me great joy that in some way we are able to make life better for the people of Birdik Village. As guests in this country, it's our honor to be able to give back to the citizens for all their hospitality," said the colonel.
In America, walking four miles back and forth to school would not have been unheard of some 50 years ago, but for Kyrgyz children, walking such distances for an education is not uncommon well into the 21st century. Now, because of the partnership underway, the Birdik Village children will be able to focus on being in school - not getting there.
"I have been dreaming about this school for so long and now that dream is coming true," said Olga Voroshihina, the Birdik Village School principal.
Up until 1998, the building was used for kindergarteners, but the conditions inside deteriorated to the point that they had to shut the school down. Ms. Voroshihina did everything she could to solicit help from agencies around the world to help her get the school back on its feet, but to no avail. The school was in such disrepair, she found it difficult to prove to different agencies that the intentions to rebuild were good.
"I tried every way I could and just wouldn't give up. The renovation of this school is a blessing for us all," she said.
"I can't wait until the moment the children come to school here for the first time. To see their smiling faces and hear their laughter will bring the greatest joy and happiness for to our village," said Ms. Voroshihina.
As a special thank you, she gave freshly picked tulips to Lt. Col. Patrick Crabb, chief of the U.S. Embassy's Office of Military Cooperation, for his unwavering efforts over the past two years to secure funding for the project and help ensure it became a reality.
"It is a great pleasure for me to participate in the ceremony," said Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller, the United States ambassador to Kyrgyzstan.
"Now that I've personally seen the condition of the school, and the road conditions that the children have to walk along every day while getting to and from school, I am impressed by the children's loyalty and love for school," she said.
"For the past four years the military cooperation office has provided funds for a variety of projects to repair four schools and shelter-care facilities totaling $4 billion. Colonel Crabb and his predecessors in deed and not in name have proved that Americans are not indifferent to the needs of the people of Kyrgyzstan. That is why in the spirit of care and neighborliness, we are gathered here for the groundbreaking ceremony of this significant project," said Ambassador Gfoeller.
When the comments stopped, the children who will one day attend the school put on a concert filled with music, classical dances, and poetry readings, to include excerpts from the famous Epic of Manas poem.
Following the recital, the children gave each of the distinguished visitors a shovel and hard hat to make the symbolic dig into the ground to signify the beginning of a new life for Birdik School.
Maj. Johnnie Adam, deployed to Manas Air Base to oversee the project, gave a tour of the gutted schoolhouse. Since the contract to rebuild the school was awarded March 17, Imarat Stroy, a local Kyrgyz company, has worked quickly to remove windows and frames, broken plaster from walls and ceilings and rotted floors, all in preparation for the rebuilding effort.
As the visitors crunched along the floors covered with broken glass and brick, Major Adam pointed out what will be renovated such as new plaster over brick walls, new flooring of wood and vinyl, and ceramic tile in the kitchen and restrooms.
New light fixtures and radiant heat will also be installed and the school's exterior resurfaced and topped off with a sloped metal roof. Empty holes staring out from the brick walls are scheduled to receive new doors and insulated windows and frames.
"It is our anticipation that we will need additional funds for unforeseen site conditions such as the question of structural integrity of the existing concrete roof panels as well as site improvements like fencing around the site for the children's safety, landscaping, furniture and playground equipment," said Major Adam. The Kansas Air National Guardsman is deployed from the 184th Civil Engineer Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. In his civilian job, he is a registered architect with 12 years experience in educational facilities, design and construction administration.
"We have been and will continue to visit the site daily to verify the contractors are constructing the project according to the documented plans to ensure that the community is getting a quality product, said Major Adam. He and Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Hodge, the assistant project manager, are deployed to Manas Air Base until the project is completed sometime this fall.
The renovation project will take about six months to complete, said Major Adam. "I had the opportunity to come for only a few months, but chose to stay for the entire project so that I can see the end result of something that I started. It's imperative to keep the continuity. We're here to see the project through," he said.
"This effort is a grand project. It'll take a lot of hard work, but working together we'll see it through," he said. "This project is so very important because the children will have a school in their own village which they will be able to attend," said Major Adam.
Before the guests from Manas AB and the Embassy departed, the children challenged the base Airmen to an impromptu and friendly soccer game. The children's agility and sheer numbers got the best of the guests as the Airmen chased the ball around and curious cows and sheep watched from the sidelines. Wet with sweat and panting furiously, the Airmen grinned as the children of Birdik danced in victory.
As the children bid the Airmen farewell and construction resumed in the nearby building, it was clear everyone who attended the day's events walked out a winner with the knowledge that Birdik's children - and the future of Kyrgyzstan - will enjoy a better future.