Photos by Jahangir Youssif
Story of one family
“I work as a cleaning lady, and my husband is a construction worker. On your way here, you might have seen piles of sand, that’s where my husband sieves sand. When there’s no work, he works as a handyman in houses," Gulnar Suleymanova says.
Hers is the story of a family subsisting behind the walls of fancy construction buildings erected ahead of Azerbaijan's European Games slated for June 12-28.
"Our monthly income is not more than 250 or 300 manats ($238-$286)," she adds. "That’s barely enough to feed ourselves."
Gulnara's family of five lives in a wagon located in an area known as Balakhani oilfield, behind the Baku Olympic Stadium. Inaugurated on March 6, 2015, the stadium was generously funded by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic ("SOCAR"). It took almost four years to build the modern sport venue that meets international technical recommendations and elite stadium obligations.
Hunger, thirst and ailing health
"It’s cold in the winter, and it doesn’t matter how much you use the heater," Gulnara says. "In the summer, it’s terribly hot. We take water from the neighbor. Water, gas, electricity are all one big problem. When it comes to living, you have to experience it yourself in order to understand. It’s hard to describe."
After ten years of renting in different places, the family settled in this oilfield wagon. The smell of oil is ubiquitous, but it's one of their lesser problems.
Glancing at the polished stadium from the vantage point of Gulnara's harscrabble livelihood, one can't help but wonder at whose expense constructions like this rise.
Hunger, thirst and the deteriorating health of her two children are the other hardships.
"My son got hearing impairment after a treatment with antibiotics. I have communicated this problem to many places," Gulnara adds. Her daughter suffers from vision problems.
Each time she glances at the Olympic Stadium, Gulnara wonders about how many people like her child could get medical treatment with all that money expended on building it.
"Only one hundredth of those four billion manats would be enough to treat my child," she sighs. "But they didn’t do it to me. Wherever I went, I got nothing. How come there’s no one in the entire Azerbaijan who can help my kid?"
Instead, the government chose to bankroll 6,000 European countries' athletes by paying for their travel and accommodation expenses - a move widely seen by human rights groups as an attempt to whitewash Azerbaijan's dismal human rights record and endemic corruption. President Ilham Aliyev reportedly spent over $10 billion on sports venues and infrastructure.
Plight gone unheeded
As we enter Gulnara's house, we're faced with a dim, narrow room with scant furniture.
"I don’t have a table. I can’t offer you a chair, because I don’t have it," Gulnara says. "This is both my living room and bedroom. I don’t have proper curtains, and I don’t have money to buy something to cover the floor. If you ask for a bathroom, we don’t have it either, we shower at the neighbors' place."
"I don’t have a kitchen. Everything I have is inside this room," she adds.
Gulnara's multiple pleas for government help fell on deaf ears. She applied for targeted social assistance but could not get with the existing regulations.
"They told me your husband must have a job in a state-funded entity. You need to bring a paper proving that. If I had a job in a public company why would I ever need your social assistance?!" she wonders.
In despair, she sent a letter to First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva but her request was not accepted. "They said since the year 2015 they stopped sending children abroad for medical treatment," she adds.
"Wherever I went, they shut the doors on me"
"I went to ask for assistance to many places," Gulnara says. "Wherever I went, they shut the doors on me. I didn’t see a single open door in this country."
Barely making ends meet in the shadow of an opulent construction rising as a monument to the Aliyev clan's rampant corruption, residents like Gulnara can't help but wonder what good these costly projects to their families and diminishing livelihoods.
"They build sports complexes, construct roads, but who benefits from them? Why don’t they help children? Why don’t they think that there are small children, sick and poor people living in this country? Why don’t they help them?" she questions.