Volunteering at the Tien Shan Mission

Nicolas (back row, centre) and the children supported by the project

Jesuit Missions’ volunteer Nicolas Mariscal Palacio recalls his life-changing experience of working with disabled children in rural Kyrgyzstan last summer.

In the heart of Kyrgyzstan lies a Jesuit mission on the shores of lake Issyk Kul overlooking the dramatic Tien Shan mountains.

The Jesuits run a summer leisure and rehabilitation centre for disabled children from across Central Asia, most of whom are Muslim and Russian-speaking. It provides a space for the children and their families to take a break from their daily struggles. 

Thanks to the support of Jesuit Missions, two other volunteers – Aisling and Matthew – and I were able to spend time there in August 2023. We were hosted by Fr Remi Kalski SJ who does the incredible work of running the centre, with a non-stop schedule of summer and winter programmes.

We led a variety of activities for the children such as lessons in astronomy, swimming and singing as well as various sporting events. Initially, I found the cultural and language barrier a challenge but the openness of the Kyrgyz people made it significantly easier to find innovative ways to communicate.

The Kyrgyz countryside

Throughout our stay, we received a number of visiting groups, including at the Young Catholic Festival, where most of the country’s Catholic youth came together for a spiritual and recreational encounter.

They participated in a variety of sporting activities with constant opportunities for personal reflection and group discussions. We were also joined by the Bishkek’s Children Conservatory, an initiative supported by the Polish embassy, for a well-rounded music camp. Over time the community developed a unique atmosphere of cultural encounter and gratefulness to one another.

I was deeply moved by the testimony of a mother and her two children who had to flee Cuba and leave their family behind, due to constant life threats from the authoritarian government and lack of medicine for her disabled child.

Cuba has a very limited range of visa-free destinations and Kyrgyzstan was one of the few viable options. Upon their sudden arrival and lack of knowledge of the Russian language, they were remarkably supported by the local Jesuit community.

“The immersion into an often-forgotten part of the globe changed my way of looking at and understanding the world”

Even though there are only around 500 Catholics in all of Kyrgyzstan, the strong sense of fellowship made me reflect on what the early Christian communities must have been like.

The immersion into an often-forgotten part of the globe changed my way of looking at and understanding the world.

It opened my mind to a completely different culture in a country that not too long ago was part of the Soviet Union, which continuous to uphold a strong nomadic tradition and is proud to trace its origins to the early Turkish migrations.

The ecumenical, cultural and socio-economic dimensions made it a unique volunteering experience that I will never forget and highly recommend.

Interested in our Kyrgyzstan programme? Contact info@jesuitmissions.org.uk for more information. You can also visit our Volunteering page to discover other ways to support us with your time.

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