A Woman of Passion in Azerbaijan  and WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE                     

AZERBAIJAN MAGAZINE - By Maia Woodward 

 

It was during a visit to an orphanage in Azerbaijan that Leslie Harnish had a profound realisation that moved her to make children with disabilities the basis of her World Vision Children’s Programme.

It was during a visit to an orphanage in Azerbaijan that Leslie Harnish had a profound realisation that moved her to make children with disabilities the basis of her World Vision Children’s Programme.

“When I visited the orphanage, I realized that all the children had disabilities. It really tugged at my heart strings and afterwards, I just couldn’t sleep. Everything suddenly came together and I realized that children with disabilities have no access in this society. In Azerbaijan they are just hidden away.”

Even visits to World Vision Internally Displaced Camps, which became home to 10 percent of the population after the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, only served to enforce her conclusion.

“Even children from the poorest of the poor, from families in these poverty stricken camps, could at least claim the love of their parents” says Leslie.

By late winter 2004, Lesley was discussing the possibility of an inclusive education program with the Ministry of Education in Azerbaijan. Throughout these discussions, Leslie made it clear that raising public awareness on the issues faced by disabled children was crucial.

When I visited the orphanage, I realized that all the children had disabilities. It really tugged at my heart strings and afterwards, I just couldn’t sleep

As the wife of an American Diplomat, Leslie Harnish has traveled the world and left her mark in many of the countries she has lived in. Soon, she will be moving on once more, but her absence will be sorely felt by the colleagues in World Vision Azerbaijan who have all grown to love and respect her.

Leslie first came to the attention of World Vision when she was working as a consultant with Save the Children in Kosovo. It was an exciting time to be there as the newly elected government was being installed and Leslie was coordinating a coalition of International NGO’s working in Kosovo to promote the rights of the child.

This international coalition worked closely with the government to mainstream children’s rights and ensure their inclusion in the basis for all government’s legislation.

“We laid a platform for children’s rights” says Leslie. “World Vision Kosovo was an incredible partner in this, so when I was approached by them to work in Azerbaijan, I was pleased to apply for the job!”

Four years later, the coalition is continuing to defend the rights of children in Kosovo.

One of six children, Lesley learned from a young age about being a team player and became passionate about giving. “Giving is something my family really believes in”, she says. “It is just in the fabric of our family, in the fabric of our lives, so giving comes naturally to me”.

From a young age, Leslie lived this philosophy and volunteered in hospitals, museums and city slums in her home country the United States of America.

In February 2004, Leslie officially joined World Vision Azerbaijan as a Program Manager, working with a children’s coalition in Azerbaijan for children in especially difficult circumstances.

During this time, she was asked to identify the greatest need for children in Azerbaijan and create a children’s programme around this issue. Leslie ran around interviewing NGO’s, speaking to Unicef and after extensive research, realized there were a lot of needs, all seemingly as urgent as the other.

After to her visit to the orphanage, however, she soon became a passionate advocate for children with disabilities in Azerbaijan and began tough discussions with the authorities on inclusive education for all of them.

As these discussions were talking place, an extraordinary thing happened.

WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE author, Linda Lee Ratto, contacted Leslie after she had found Lesley’s husband's grandmother's paintings on their family website and wanted permission to use them to illustrate a historical children's book she was about to publish.

Incredibly,
 Where Dreams Come True, is set in late 19th Century America, and tells the story of a young woman with disabilities and her courageous fight for education and acceptance by society. This young girl had to deal with her parents, the school and her community in general to claim her place in that society.

In short, it dealt with all the issues Leslie was trying to raise awareness of for children with disabilitiesin the 21st Century Azerbaijan.

Leslie wasted no time in organising the ‘Chief of Mission’ spouses and asked them to raise money to translate the book and create 5000 copies which they could donate to schools. Coffee mornings, charity bazaars and visits to local companies began.

They raised US$80, 000 and currently have 180,000 copies of the book.

By winter 2005, every 4th grade school in Azerbaijan not only has a copy of the book, but the book has been read and discussed and a report from each school has been submitted to a national competition. This book, and the authors’ subsequent visits to Azerbaijan will remain part of the national curriculum over the next decade.


In just a year, Leslie convinced the Ministry of Education to work with her as World Vision Azerbaijan on an awareness raising project, to change the school curriculum, and to initiate a pilot project on mainstreaming children with disabilities.

On the International Day of the Disabled in December 2005, no one in Baku was allowed to let this day go unnoticed as Leslie and her team created public service announcements on three TV stations, and displayed images on electronic billboards and banners in the major streets of the city, of a child with disabilities declaring “I am a Child too”.

Inspite of all her obvious success, Leslie believes her biggest achievement has been contributing to the ‘paradigm shift’ in the way that kids with disabilities are being now being educated in Azerbaijan.

“Institutionalisation is condemnation and home schooling is a paper exercise, it just doesn’t exist. Before, children with disabilities were hidden and marginalized with very few educational opportunities and little access to society. Now, we have got the train going, we have created the engine and the Ministry will have to add on the cars”.

Seifu Tirfie, World Vision Azerbaijan National Director is the first to underline the importance of the work Leslie has done for World Vision Azerbaijan;

“She brought a strong advocacy component to her programs, World Vision is now paying a leading roll in an NGO coalition for Children’s rights.”

Tirfie explains that much of Leslie's success is not only due to her love of children but because she understands the influence she has as the American Ambassadors wife, and uses this positively to benefit all children.

“She never hesitates to use her status to advocate for children and is straight forward in expressing her feelings. She gains respect as she always encourages people, including staff to value every God given day”.

Leslie agrees that this status, together with her tremendous energy has helped her make changes in many countries she has lived in. “In this position, you are really blessed to help people just because you have access and because I have energy and leadership, it all works”.

The first time Leslie realized the power of her position was in Egypt,where she set up 22 environmental clubs for children. “I did this on my own because I thought the streets were dirty. Initially, when they asked who I was I told them I was their neighbour, but when word got out about who I was, the doors just opened up”.

Leslie has undoubtedly changed the lives of many children in Azebaijan and there is one child in particular who has touched hers.

She never hesitates to use her status to advocate for children and is straight forward in expressing her feelings. She gains respect as she always encourages people, including staff to value every God given day

Jamilla is 17-years-old and an orphan. At 16 she was sent to an institution as she had been diagnosed as ‘mentally retarded’. Leslie knew Jamilla wasn’t retarded and had to watch as Jamilla was sent to an institution. She didn’t give up and at 17, Jamilla has now been re diagnosed as being a ‘normal’child.

Although Jamilla is still living in the orphanage, Leslie has helped her find part time work at McDonalds for four days a week. The World Vision team is still trying to find her a transitional home and to help her find an identity.

Leslie knows Jamilla is just one child of many, but says if you “really believe in a child, there is a lot you can do for them. I have already seen hope in one young woman’s eyes and that will always follow me”.

 

First published on March 8, 2006

 

US Embassy, Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan

Linda and her husband David

with Ambassador Reno Harnish and World Vision Children's Director, Leslie Harnish

Baku Booksigning at US Ambassador Residence

Baku International School

Linda with Headmaster, Dr. Scott Root

Republic of Azerbaijan

Right:  Linda, US Ambassador's wife and WORLD VISION Director, Leslie Harnish with Azeri-English teacher + students. A Book Contest allowed three blossoming Azeri-English students to recieve autographed WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE books and appear on international television with author, Linda Lee Ratto, EdM

UNICEF Headquarters, Baku

Linda with UNICEF Director and Italian Ambassaor's wife, Mrs. Iwona Pavesi, staunch supporters of the Department of Inclusion Project, for which Linda's book, WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE was the flagship.

Linda, Azerbiajan President's wife, Mrs. Ilham Aliyev, Mrs. Leslie Harnish

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