The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 30, 2009


Heading home to Turkmenistan after a semester at CCHS

Come February 2, America’s Groundhog Day, foreign exchange students Hojavepa “Vepa” Iqdirov and Gulnara Tuwakgylvjova will be returning to their city of Balkanabat in Turkmenistan, one of the five former Soviet Republics in Central Asia, bordering Iran and Afghanistan to the south and across the Caspian Sea from Georgia to the west. These students have spent a semester in the junior class at Concord-Carlisle High School, thanks to the efforts of David Nurenberg, a teacher of English and Literature at CCHS who, in the Spring of 2008, took part in a teacher exchange program in Turkmenistan, sponsored by a U.S. State Department grant (IREX). Following his experience in this remote, insular, Muslim country, made up mainly of desert, Nurenberg persuaded CCHS to set up a sister school program with Balkanabat School 17.

A recent visit to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. finds Gulnara and Vepa at the visitors’ center posing in a scene from early American history. (Courtesy photo)


During his two-week stay in Turkmenistan, Nurenberg lived with a family in Balkanabat, a city of 90,000, and spent his days at Balkanabat School 17 where he was a guest teacher in the English Department, sharing an exchange of ideas with his students on the cultures of their two very different countries. Vepa and Gulnara were both students at this school and took English with a teacher, Rita, who had previously visited the U.S.

Staying with a host family in Carlisle

I recently spoke with Vepa, who has been living with his hosts, the Huntress-Peterson family on Indian Hill, for the past five months. I was originally introduced to this young man, then

Host Greg Peterson takes a spin with Vepa on the ice at Bryant Park during their visit to New York City during the holidays. (Courtesy photo)

age 16, when he accompanied Karen Huntress to the Primary Election at Town Hall in September. Vepa’s fellow student, Gulnara, has stayed with her hosts, the Bhatia family in Concord, throughout the semester.

During our recent meeting, I asked Vepa how he had learned that he would be coming to school in the U.S. “The Turkmen Embassy called to say that the school where Mr. Nurenberg taught would take two students from our school for a semester,” he replied. Because of Homeland Security rules, student visas could not be issued for less than a semester, which worked out well for all those involved. “I studied English with the same teacher for seven years and I got better in the last two years,” explained Vepa. “We knew about it a month ahead, but didn’t believe it could happen until we got the notice, ten days before we were to leave. My family couldn’t believe it. They cried; they were so happy and excited.” Gulnara’s family, who knew Vepa’s, were similarly elated.

At the end of August, the two students took the train to the capital city Ashkhabad, where they boarded a plane to Azerbaidzhan; then on to Frankfurt, Washington and finally Boston. “I did not know who the host family was until I got on the plane,” added Vepa.

Graduate of Balkanabat School 17

Vepa had already graduated from his school in Balkanabat, which went only through tenth grade, with all grades in one school. There were 700 students in his school, 90 who were in his tenth grade class which was divided into sections A, B and C. The new, forward thinking Turkmen president, elected in 2007, is responsible for adding the tenth grade to the school system which had previously only gone through the ninth grade. Students study English, Russian, Turkish and Turkmen. There were no computers at the school while Vepa was there, but 20 have been acquired in the past few months, as well as Internet access.

In Turkmenistan, 35% of students go on to college in Ashkhabad. In his county’s schools, Vepa explained, the focus is on learning about Turkmenistan and the former Soviet Union.
“In English class, we studied a little about the USA, but more about Greece and Alexander

Gulnara (left) joins Vepa (right) and Vepa’s host Karen Huntress for a fall weekend exploring the colorful New England contryside. (Courtesy photo)

the Great of Macedonia. Here in the U.S. there is a broader scope of studying all countries,” he observed. In his Turkmenistan school, there were no extra-curricular classes of art, music or sports. There is no school cafeteria and students have only 15 minutes to obtain food from vendors situated outside the building. Vepa has kept up with the activities going on back home in Balkanabat through weekly phone calls to his mother and emails to his father sent through a friend.

Asked about his semester as an exchange student at CCHS, Vepa was eager to share his experiences with me. Four grades in one school with 2,000 students compared to ten grades in one school with 700 students in Balkanabat was a new experience for him. Three hundred computers in a school, all with Internet access; languages such as Spanish, Chinese and French being taught at school; a school cafeteria with a whole 47-minute period for lunch; bathrooms easily available and white boards and then magic boards, where images get captured and stored on a computer – these were all special features of his semester at his sister-school in Concord. The courses he took during the semester included ESL (English as a Second Language), an architecture course, a computer class, Spanish and physical education. “CCHS with its 2,000 students and variety of courses is like a Turkmenistan college,” he added.

Miranda Morrison, a CCHS senior, remarked on how well Vepa and Gulnara had done at the school. “Coming from a country where the culture is so different, it must have been a big challenge, but their enthsiasm got them along well with teachers, as well as students.”

Campaigning for Obama

Outside the classroom, Vepa was most enthusiastic about the role he played as a member of the junior varsity soccer team and the friendships he established with players, including Evan Scarlett and Zander Ansara, both who are from Carlisle. One experience Vepa will not forget is his trip up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire with Amanda Peterson in October to campaign for Barack Obama. Sent out from the local headquarters, Vepa and Amanda went door-to-door in one of the neighborhoods, urging residents to vote for Obama. “Vepa was for Obama,” said host family member Greg Peterson with a twinkle in his eye, “and that’s why he won.”

“I would like to invite him to Turkmenistan,” said Vepa. “He is your first black president and I am hoping he will keep America smart.”

During the holidays, with Vepa’s and Gulnara’s departure approaching, the Peterson family, along with friends, took the students on a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. and New York. “Washington was like my capitol; it is beautiful and quiet, but with nothing to do,” reported Vepa. “I liked New York City much better. It is loud and exciting. We stayed in a nice hotel, saw Chicago, went to the top of Rockefeller Center, visited the site of 9/11, skated at Bryant Park, and visited the zoo.”

Life-style in Turkmenistan

Asked about the living arrangements in his country, Vepa explained that most Turkmen sit on carpets for eating, watching TV, and sleeping. The sleeping bed, called a “yorgan-dushek,” is rolled up and put away during the day. A carpet cover or runner is used during meal times. Some families own a computer. Most people in Balkanabat live in apartments, built Soviet-style, each with a kitchen, a bathroom and several common rooms. As for the food in Turkmenistan, Greg Peterson, sitting with us at the family’s dinner table, was quick to announce “the food is terrific,” having sampled Vepa’s manty (steamed meat dumplings) and palow (rice with meat, onions and carrots). “When my mother cooks manty, the whole world loves it,” added Vepa.

Talk turned to Vepa’s trip back home to his family in Turkmenistan. “I will miss my host family, the U.S., Massachusetts, my school, my friends, and my soccer team,” said Vepa. “Things are changing in Turkmenistan. With our new president, we are moving forward,” he said confidently. He is hoping his host family will come for a visit, as well as members of his soccer team, now that traveling in his country is much easier. Once at home, Vepa will prepare for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foriegn Language) and continue to study English in preparation for admission to a university.

Final words came from teacher David Nurenberg, who had initiated the sister-school program. “It was successful beyond our wildest expectations. The maturity and willingness of Vepa and Gulnara to take part in the school community and the CCHS students welcoming and learning from them, showed the best face of America.”

“I want the program to continue but funding is in doubt. We are looking for financial aid, a one- or two-week exchange program for our students, like the one we have in Japan, I believe would be the best,” added Nurnberg.”∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito