Astana, Kazakhstan : During my one-year assignment in Kazakhstan, there were a few questions with which I became familiar. One of these questions was why I chose to come to Kazakhstan. Being a statistician, I must say that it could be called a chain of random events. I received the announcement of the volunteer position one week before the application deadline, just when I was about to finish my dissertation. To my surprise, almost everything in the terms of reference matched to my background. I was open to opportunities anywhere, but this assignment happened to be in Kazakhstan and I was ready to be there. From a romantic or determinist point of view, what happened was that Kazakhstan chose me.
As many volunteers in Kazakhstan are experienced in environment, poverty, human rights and NGOs, my background was an unusual mix of statistics, public health epidemiology and research. This, however, was exactly the combination requested by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). I soon learned that Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries shared the same challenges originating from drug production, trafficking and use. Many countries in the region are being used to traffic drugs into more lucrative markets, and this process leaves challenges in its path in each country. For public health concerns, this means a trail of addiction, HIV, hepatitis-C and tuberculosis for drug users while the treatment and services are not always available to all.
I have to say it has been an interesting year, professionally and personally. Working with the UNODC country office and regional programme has deepened my understanding of the drug market and interrelated challenges as well as how to work within an international organization and its mandate. Gathering information from drug users for research purposes presented me with significant challenges, and I have learned a great deal from conducting such a study.
Drug users are often stigmatized and neglected with little resources spent on their concerns, and a significant amount of work in this area is done on a voluntary basis. I have been fortunate to receive this volunteer opportunity and to be part of a dedicated group of people who strives to create solutions. I believe that I have been able to help deliver more information on issues associated with drug use in the region and to contribute in developing the local health care system dealing with drug use problems. Looking back at my year, a lot of excitement and anxieties were involved in moving to a new country at the beginning. As for returning, however, I even feel emotional while thinking of the newly created connections to the host country and people I will be leaving behind. It has been a fulfilling experience which I could recommend for anyone who wishes to make a difference and has an open mind towards new cultures. For me, it has been a memorable volunteer opportunity to learn about the work of UNODC Kazakhstan and its generous people, as well as about myself. I warmly recommend volunteering for anyone who is interested in creating positive changes in the society and to oneself.
Bio: Antti Impinen was a Finnish international UN Volunteer, served as Epidemiologist-Statistician in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Astana, Kazakhstan from October 2011 to October 2012. He has worked for 5 years as researcher in the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, Finland and has PhD in Public Health from University of Helsinki and MSc in Statistics from University of Jyvaskyla.