In a Muslim culture, and secure
David Huwiler wishes Americans knew more about other countries and cultures. Like the country he's lived and worked in for the past 2-1/2 years: Kyrgyzstan. And like the culture that he's come to feel at home in: Muslim.
As president of the American University in Kyrgyzstan (AUK), the first American-style university in central Asia, Mr. Huwiler was far from New York last September. But he was very close to the action that followed: Afghanistan is just a few hundred miles from the capital city of Bishkek, where Huwiler works.
He stayed put through it all, even as other Americans including all Peace Corps volunteers in the country returned home. But he felt welcome where he was.
"There's a lot of things that those of us who live in this part of the world wish that Americans understood better," he says. "People [in the United States] would be shocked to know how positive and friendly the feelings are here toward the US.
"The variety of Islam that is practiced here is very tolerant, very moderate," says Huwiler, who previously worked as vice president for academic affairs at Champlain College in Vermont. "The country in general is quite supportive of America. When we got to work on the morning of Sept. 12 , there were hordes of students standing out in front of the university, very early, with American flags and banners saying, 'We share your suffering.' "
For a while, he says, he followed recommendations about personal security safeguards from the American Embassy in Bishkek. To avoid being obvious targets for violence, embassy officials urged local Americans to vary the routes they took to work each day, to stay overnight at work once or twice a week, and to not take taxis.
The only permanent change he made, however, was buying a car to avoid spending time on the street searching out taxis with unknown drivers.
"All of us have gotten more relaxed," he says, referring to his American colleagues (including those who returned after leaving last September).
There are some inconveniences about living in Kyrgyzstan. Although most amenities are available in the capital, which has a population of 700,000, Huwiler says there's the occasional month when there's no hot water. And then there's the fact that getting to the US is a 30-hour trip. Still, he says, the work makes everything worthwhile.
"There is great potential for AUK to become a model for higher education throughout [the former Soviet Union]," he says. "That's pretty exciting. All of the Western faculty here, including many from the Ivy League, say these are the best students they've ever taught.
"There's also a sense that the students here represent the next generation of leadership in central Asia," he says. "So we have a real opportunity to change things here."