By Yelena Shuster, K11, Azerbaijan

Last week I arrived in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan to begin my three-month fellowship at Komak credit union. For me, Baku is a special place because like the country of my birth (Ukraine) it was one of the 15 republics that made up the former Soviet Union.

So you may wonder, where is Azerbaijan?click on the map below for details

Azerbaijan is a small country located on the cusp of Euro-Asia, bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Iran and the Caspian sea. In Baku, many Azerbaijanis consider themselves Europeans (and if we consider sports membership a sign of identity, all Azerbaijani sports teams compete in European regional games but not Asian ones).

The population, estimated at 9 million, are mostly Shi’ite Muslim and Turkic people, and as of 2008, 52% of Azeris live in urban areas. The official language is called Azerbaijani (very similar to Turkish). An interesting fact about their alphabet: it has undergone 3 transformations in the past 100 years! It was Arabic until 1929, Turkic until 1939, Cyrillic until 1991, and today it’s Latinized!

Politically, Azerbaijan is a republic with a constitution and elected representatives. However Freedom House’s rating of “not free” (after a thorough assessment of Azerbaijan’s democracy and civil rights) is more realistic. Despite a literacy rate of nearly 100%, access to non-biased news sources is limited, the media is censored, and access to international news sources like BBC is restricted. In a recent incident, Azerbaijani police arrested and sentenced two video bloggers to jail for criticizing the government. Corruption is also ubiquitous. On my third day here I was forced to bribe an official to accept my registration papers. As I held my grease money, I saw a local man slip 30AZN (approx. $38) into the official’s desk as the latter nodded habitually and proceeded with my paperwork. “You’ll get used to it” my Azerbaijani co-worker consoled me.

Azerbaijan’s single most profitable resource is petroleum, which although helpful for the economy has not come without a cost to the environment. According to the CIA, the Caspian Sea is one of the most ecologically devastated areas in the world because of the severe water pollution from oil spills! Nevertheless, because of its oil, Azerbaijan has become one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Even the president’s 12 year old son is joining the ranks of the rich. To what extent this economic growth will effect the rest of the population remains to be seen…

This past week, heavy rains flooded several districts, damaging some 20,000 houses and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes. According to the Red Cross, “A disaster of this scale has not occurred in 50 years in Azerbaijan and the damages caused by the current floods will demand longer-term efforts including restoring infrastructure; compensating residents for lost income and livelihoods; providing people with drinking water; and controlling the health situation to avoid spreading of malaria and inflectional diseases.” If you’d like to help, now and especially in the future, make a small loan to someone.

Flag of Azerbaijan: the blue band recalls Azerbaijan’s Turkic heritage, red stands for modernization and progress, and green refers to Islam; the crescent moon is an Islamic symbol, while the eight-pointed star represents the eight Turkic peoples of the world.

Who am I? My family immigrated to America in 1992, when I was seven years old, to escape the systematic anti-Semitism and endemic economic asphyxiation constraining life in Ukraine at the time. In Brooklyn, I grew up amidst Russian speakers from all parts of the former Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan. In college I studied anthropology and last year I spent 11 months backpacking and volunteering in Southeast Asia. Since leaving Ukraine, I have never been back. So despite Azerbaijan being almost 1000 miles away from the country of my birth, Baku feels familiar and I keep finding remnants of Soviet influence and Slavic culture. I am also happy to practice my mother tongue (Russian) which although it’s not spoken by everyone here, is still understood more or less ;-)

Throughout my fellowship, I hope to meet brave and ingenious individuals and share their stories with you. Until then, follow my journey and support borrowers in Azerbaijan through Kiva!


Central Baku with construction looming in the background.

Construction in downtown Baku

Soviet style housing in Baku's 9th district

Fruit vendor


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