Oksana Ibragimova: “Even if international donor funding stops, we believe that our work won’t!”

14 July 2017

Oksana Ibragimova – a harm reduction activist from Kazakhstan, who has been involved in the development of life-saving programs since 2009. Now Oksana is a Specialist on Advocacy in the Kazakhstan Union of People Living with HIV.

- Oksana, how long have you been working in harm reduction?

- I started working in harm reduction in 2009 as an outreach worker. I had been an active drug user for 10 years. I remember that my first work was related to needle exchange, motivating people who use drugs to do HIV-test. Back then, the drug scene in Kazakhstan was dominated by heroin, and it was all quite serious, especially for youngsters. A lot of overdoses. We really saved very many lives and at that time I understood how important was that work.

Afterwards I was invited to join NGO “DoveriePlus” (TrustPlus) as a social worker. I was working as a consultant on ARV treatment adherence issues. We would visit rehab centers as trainers and speak about HIV and Tuberculosis, about living with those diseases and about prevention. It is a very special feeling when supervisors see you not as a drug user (and I’d been one of their clients as well) but as a person with an experience of promoting harm reduction.

- Where did that capacity come from?

- I was lucky that there were many international organizations working in my country at the time and they trained us on various issues. I was a social worker until 2014 when the Kazakhstan Union of PLHIV invited me to do advocacy. Right at that time Kazakhstan started implementing the EHRN project “Harm Reduction Works – Fund It!

- And that’s where you encountered the EHRN?

- No, in 2012 I attended a training session on advocacy and harm reduction organized by the Network in Moscow. Nurali (Nurali Amanzholov, President of NGO “Kazakhstan Union of PLHIV” – EHRN) found the means to send there on Kazakhstan’s behalf. I remember the first session led by Mikhail Golichenko (lawyer, Senior Policy Analyst at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network – EHRN) and Erika Matuzaite (formerly Coordinator of EHRN Campaign “Women Against Violence” - EHRN). I was watching with my eyes wide open, those were amazing things happening around harm reduction! By the way, we’re still friends with the guys who were at that session. Recently I met them at the EHRN’s Regional Conference in Vilnius (April 4-6, 2017), and we had our shared memories. Everyone has realized their potential; someone has already become the head of their own organization. Basically, that Moscow trip in 2012 was very important in terms of my work with the EHRN. The training session proved to be some kind of catalyst, and two years later I immersed myself in the project “Harm Reduction Works – Fund It!” I also want to express my deep gratitude to Olya Belyaeva (Manager of the EHRN’s Membership and Community Strengthening - EHRN). Olya taught me a lot, and not in professional way, but personal too. Every human is a unique one. We never used to have this experience. Since then, I’ve been fully engaged in the process, both in terms of the project and in terms of harm reduction overall.

- Do you mean yourself or all the NGOs that existed in Kazakhstan at the time?

- This was a catalyst both for me and for those organizations. Gradually we have become known; we have grown into experts. Before, it would have been impossible to imagine a situation when one of our guys came to a decision-maker’s office, said “I’m from the drug user community” and suggested considering some harm reduction ideas. Today we have that and it’s being done at an appropriate level. They are inviting us as trainers, for example the trainees at the Ministry of Interior. We are starting to figure out financing issues. Thanks to the project “Harm Reduction Works – Fund It!” the voice of the community is heard across different cities, and Kazakhstan is a huge country with 16 regions (the 9 place in the world)!

- Since then, what has changed for the drug user community in Kazakhstan?

- The community itself has changed completely! We weren’t educated and never presented ourselves or represented our interests. But during the last 3.5 years, already about 15 people emerged in Kazakhstan who can express themselves well, speak at working group meetings, participate in the national commission and defend harm reduction.

There’s another issue: working with social media. I admit, earlier our guys weren’t even good with computers. And writing a report or posting something on the Internet was a huge endeavor. Now we understand that if we don’t start showing what we are doing, sharing our successes and problems, nobody will have a clue. Social networks have become real advocacy tools. Thanks to them, many people know about us and about our work.

- What does your organization do?

- The Union has existed since 2009. It includes 14 organizations covering pretty much the whole territory of Kazakhstan. In 2005 the organizations created by PLHIV joined to have access to quality HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services. Our leader is Deputy Chair of the CCM (Nurali Amanzholov, President of NGO Kazakhstan Union of PLHIV - EHRN).

Now we have a few projects, mostly with support from the Global Fund. We have won a tender for the project “Partnership for Equitable Access” (a project by the East Europe and Central Asia Union of PLWH (ECUO) – EHRN).  

We are working on the development of standards for working with PLHIV, men who have sex with men and sex workers. This is what we’re aiming for.

Since 2014, the project on "Adherence and motivation of PLHIV to ART" is underway. The main objective of the project is to contribute to improving the quality of life of PLHIV, by supporting people living with HIV and increasing the number of patients on the therapy".

We are dealing with the problem of tuberculosis, by strengthening community systems and moving to an outpatient model of providing medical care.

- What gives you the force to keep going?

- First, it’s probably the fact that I’m from the community. I realize that once someone too gave me a hand. Now, I think it's my time to help people from the community to change their lives. To make it full and meaningful, to live, to create and to help. Second, everyday something is materializing, we have successes cases! It’s great to be empowered, there’s understanding that anything is possible. In 2014, when we had as our goal the opening of an OST site in Almaty, we had serious doubts because it had taken so many years. But it happened. We did it! Now our main goal is to make it real for stable domestic funding for harm reduction programs.

Our collaborative projects with the EHRN have greatly contributed to our experience. This helps me to keep going. And even if the international donor funding stops, we believe that our work won't!