Azerbaijan International

Winter 2000 (8.4)
Pages 40-42

Bridging the Gaps
The Finns Fascilitate Food Projects

The idea, in its inception, was quite simple. Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the repercussions that had resulted from the Karabakh war, some of the members of the Greater Grace Church in Baku, spearheaded by its pastor, Matti Sirvio, decided to create a soup kitchen to prepare daily meals for some of the city's neediest people. It started out on a small scale - a few dozen people were fed each day, then 50, then sometimes as many as 100.

As the project developed, its impact began to reach far beyond Baku to a group of isolated villages in the Ismayilli region, high up in the Caucasus mountains in north-central Azerbaijan. In order to supply the soup kitchen with meat and produce, the church involved the Finnish-Azerbaijani Society and decided to provide cows and goats to the villagers and help them gear up for agricultural projects for the following year. As payment, the families would get to keep a portion of the produce - meat, milk and cheese - and sustain the soup kitchen in Baku with the rest.

Above: In cooperation with the Finnish-Azerbaijan Society and local Azerbaijani villagers, the Finnish company Aker Rauma Offshore brought in heavy construction equipment used in the oil service industry to help rebuild a bridge on the road that leads to Galajig, an isolated mountain community in the Ismayilli region of the Caucasus mountains.

To the Society's surprise, there was a major hitch in this plan. The only road into one of the villages crossed over a bridge that was in a very precarious and dangerous condition. They expected that it would be a simple job to repair it, but it turned out to be a major reconstruction that needed cranes and equipment to be brought in by the oil service company Aker Rauma. In the end, the village was once again connected to the outside world.

This past September, we asked Ismo Haapala, Finnish Honorary Consul and Business Development Manager of Aker Rauma, to tell us how this seemingly small project on the part of Finland grew to make such a significant contribution to Azerbaijan in two separate regions of the country.

In 1993 and 1994, tens of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees poured into Baku after fleeing their homes in Karabakh because of the war with Armenia. Ismo Haapala had been working in Baku for a few months at that time and remembers the sense of depression and hopelessness that was in the air.

The elderly were particularly vulnerable, especially those who didn't have relatives to take care of them. Since their pensions were negligible, many of them were suffering from hunger.

Left: The newly completed bridge to Galajig, built by the Finnish-Azerbaijani society, with the help of local community members and engineers from Aker Rauma Offshore. Now villagers in Galajig can transport vegetable and milk produce to Baku all year round.

Hannele Haapala recalls that dismal time in the city's history: "We started hearing reports that people were coming to hospitals and dying-not from sickness but from hunger. It was shocking."
A Soup Kitchen
Members of the Greater Grace Church in Baku came up with the idea to create a soup kitchen. Pastor Matti Sirvio helped to get it organized. Then the group reached out to Helsinki's Finnish-Azerbaijani Society to get it involved. Sirvio has since moved to Uzbekistan, where, in addition to establishing another church ministry, he has started a similar humanitarian soup kitchen project.

"When we started back in 1995, we rented a small place near the Nariman Narimanov Metro Station," Hannele says. "The blind, the poor, the retired came to get their food each day. Some of them were invalids, so we started taking food directly to their homes. We named the Kitchen 'Marhamat', which means 'Mercy' in Azeri. Mikayil Ahmadov helped start the project and continues to be its Director."

The Society does more than just feed the hungry, she explains: "There are also volunteers who visit homes and help with other needs, such as cleaning, fixing lights and furniture and whatever else needs to be done around the house. We want to help the people who have a very hard life in Baku."

Above (also bottom): The Finnish-Azerbaijani Society, members of the local community and engineers from Aker Rauma Offshore celebrate the completion of the new bridge to Galajig.

As more and more people began to rely on the soup kitchen, the Society decided to relocate it closer to Narimanbeyov Square. Of course, they were running into financial difficulties all the time. In 1999, the Society decided to seek assistance from the Finnish government.

Far-Reaching Benefits
Even though this project was designed to help Baku residents, its effects are being felt in a profound way in the countryside, too. Now the soup kitchen contracts with five villages in the Ismayilli region (Galajig, Ivanovka, Hajihatamli, Mujuhaftaran and Galinchag), which is located about three hours northwest of Baku.

"We're helping each village get started farming," Ismo says. "The project owns the animals, and the villagers who tend them get to keep part of the produce as their salary. This enables the people to make a living without leaving their own villages."

Left: The old bridge had nearly collapsed and every year during spring floods when the snows melted off the mountains, the road became impassable.

The Society first had in mind to structure the project somewhat differently. "The original idea was to build a barn for ten cows and hire people to take care of them," Hannele recalls. "Then the milk, yogurt and cheese could be brought to Baku.

"However, when we went to these villages, we saw the extreme poverty that the people were living in. So instead of building a barn for ten cows and having two or three people take care of them, we ended up buying 15 cows and giving each family its own.

"We now have 15 needy families being supported by these cows. They had been too poor to be able to afford any livestock. We bought the best cows so that they would produce lots of milk. A highly productive cow costs between $200 and $300. Of course, you can find cows for about $150, but they won't produce much milk. We wanted each cow to give about 20 liters of milk per day. This enables the family to live off two-thirds of the produce, and the other one-third goes to the kitchen."

If the cows produce offspring, a similar formula comes into play. Hannele believes this encourages the villagers to take good care of the animals. "They know that having more animals will increase their standard of living. If they take excellent care of their single cow, then there's the possibility that it will someday give birth to a calf. Then that's twice as much income for the family."

Next year, the Society plans to provide the villagers with some chickens. They didn't start this year because grain is expensive for chicken feed, but by next year the villagers will be growing their own grain.

Some of the villagers are even raising pigs. "We are experimenting with ten pigs," Hannele explains. "Originally, we didn't think about offering them, but people asked for them. If the experiment goes well, we'll add more next year." During the Soviet period, several districts in Azerbaijan catered to Russians and Armenians and became famous for their hog-producing farms despite the fact that Azerbaijan is traditionally a Muslim country.

Making it Happen
One unexpected obstacle in this supply setup involved Galajig, a remote mountainous village with a population of about 1,000 people. The only road - an extremely treacherous one - that connected the village to the rest of Azerbaijan passed over an old, crumbling concrete bridge. In early spring, when the snows from the Caucasus melted and brought swollen river waters down through the valleys, this bridge was usually impassable.

"Had we known at the very beginning that we'd end up having to rebuild the bridge, we might not have tackled this project," admits Ismo. "But since we had already committed to the villagers, we decided to push forward and include the bridge repair as part of the project. We thought we could use the old structure and do some repairs, but we ended up rebuilding the entire bridge.

"When we investigated, we discovered that the foundation of the bridge had been mostly washed away over the years because of the rising waters. The concrete slabs were just propped up on the gravel in the riverbed. There was nothing to secure them and very little steel in the concrete slabs to reinforce them," he observes.

Finnish company Aker Rauma, which is involved in construction as it relates to oil service projects, lent support by bringing in the necessary cranes, generators and tools.

"Our Finnish engineers came up with the basic idea of how to design the bridge," Ismo says, "but it was the local people - 100 percent - who carried out the physical work. It was very much a joint project."
The reconstruction took 17 days during late July and early August of this year, when the river bed was at its lowest. "It's probably the best-built bridge in all of Azerbaijan," he says.

The bridge was constructed to be one meter higher than the original bridge so that water can no longer wash over it as it has in past years. The village is no longer cut off from the rest of the country during the rainy season. Galajig is now producing goats, potatoes and onions.

Flour Mill
Another obstacle turned up in the villages selected for growing wheat. The problem was that there was no flour mill in these villages, and the people were paying too much to transport their wheat to the nearest mill. Once again, the Society came up with a workable solution.

"We bought a second-hand mill in Finland and received another one as a gift from a private donor," Ismo explains. "The mills have the capacity to grind about 1.5 tons of flour a day. We're waiting for the next major oil service shipment from Finland to bring the mills here, as they can be brought in free of charge as humanitarian cargo. Once we take them and set them up in the villages, the people there will pay the same amount as they would at other mills, but they'll save all their transportation costs. Again, a portion of the money for grinding the flour will go to support the soup kitchen. This is another way that we can help the people in the village and support the soup kitchen at the same time."

Food for the Future
Once the project is completely in place, the organizers hope that it will be self-sustaining. "It should maintain itself," Ismo insists. "Once you've set this project up, you don't need to pump it up with money all the time. After the first few years, the villages will produce enough to support themselves as well as the kitchen, year after year." They've added a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the project to facilitate transporting the produce to and from Baku.

This long-term perspective fits the Society's strategy of working side by side with the Azerbaijani people to ensure that their needs are met. "We didn't want to help in the usual way - buying a container full of things, dumping it in the middle of a village and then just disappearing," Ismo says. "Enabling Azerbaijanis to care for themselves is a goal that is definitely within reach. We're using everything we know about this country and this region to make things happen."

Azerbaijan International (8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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