BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz schools are teaching their pupils to reject terrorism and embrace ethnic diversity.
The efforts come as authorities concede that more than 500 radicalised Kyrgyz have joined the militancy in Syria.
With the support of UN Women, two Kyrgyz NGOs -- Agents of Change and Sputnik/Spark -- implemented a pilot project to teach harmony and love of peace in Kyzyl-Kiya, Batken Province, and Talas city, Talas Province, as well as in surrounding villages.
The pilot project started last October and concluded in June. It involved 3,200 schoolchildren from 60 secondary schools, as well as more than 10,000 college students and secondary-school teachers.
The project was open to children in grades 8 through 11, regardless of their schools' language of instruction. Children of several minority groups in Kyrgyzstan are able to attend schools taught in their native tongue.
Kyrgyz educators hope to expand the project to other schools in the coming school year.
Authorities have concerns about radicalisation in northern Kyrgyzstan, even though the majority of Kyrgyz militants come from the south.
The first known Kyrgyz citizen to join militants in Syria, a resident of Kyzyl-Kiya, did so in 2013, according to the State National Security Committee (GKNB).
Since then, of the more than 500 Kyrgyz who have gone to Syria, about 50 were residents of Kyzyl-Kiya, according to the GKNB.
Teaching tolerance and peace
The pilot project dubbed "My Safe and Peaceful School" is meant to eliminate any desire to join the militancy.
"[The project] taught our children how to behave safely, so that they can meet challenges ahead of them, like extremism, and to get along with different ethnic groups and individuals," Kakhramon Shakirov, a counsellor at Kurbanov Secondary School in Uch-Kurgan, Batken Province, told Caravanserai. "They learned to find common ground with peers from different ethnic backgrounds and how to behave in a crisis."
Participating children learned how to analyse various conflict situations and to take effective steps in eliminating their causes, Dildora Khamidova, a spokeswoman for UN Women in Osh Province, told Caravanserai.
Aichurek Kurmbanbekova, a resident of Kyzyl-Kiya and spokeswoman for Sputnik/Spark, said the children, in groups of 15, attended 30 hours of classes on the topic of peace and conflict resolution.
"By the end of the course, they analysed all the conflict situations and attempted to find solutions," she told Caravanserai. "They shared what they learned with classmates who didn't participate in the project."
"We intentionally took ethnically diverse schoolchildren in different communities so that they could ... overcome their mutual stereotypes," Gulnora Satybaldiyeva, principal of Kurbanov Secondary School in Uch-Kurgan, told Caravanserai.
Finding common ground
One distinctive trait of the project is that, besides the 3,200 pupils, 500 adults from local governments, elder courts, law enforcement and the clergy attended classes on human rights, including freedom of religion.
By the end of the project, the adults had developed 48 action plans on resolving conflicts in local communities.
"As a father of two schoolchildren, I'll feel safer if my children have that training," Makhmujan-aka of Uch-Kurgan told Caravanserai. "Today, our children are more at risk than our generation was."
"We live in a multi-ethnic country," he said. "This kind of training can only help them find common ground ... Extremists are actively recruiting youth. Why? Because they lack knowledge ... and because they're not interested in solving their own problems."
"We are an oriental people," Makhmujan-aka said. "We don't listen to young people ... Maybe now is the time to listen to them?"
Resonating with girls
The project seemed to have the most impact on girls, said Shakirov, the counsellor at Kurbanov Secondary School.
"The girls who were trained in the programme went on to host meetings and discussions in mahallas [neighbourhood associations] with women and other girls who hadn't participated," Shakirov said. "They discussed issues that matter to the local community, such as how to attain inter-ethnic harmony, fighting extremism and protecting women's rights."
"Female participants of the project feel as if a new door opened in their lives," he said. "Many of them ... want to continue their education so they can help their community."