Aytakin Huseynli grew up in Azerbaijan, at the time a Soviet Republic next to the Caspian Sea. She was a child as the Soviet Union collapsed and protesters demanded Azerbaijan’s independence.
In response, the Soviets blew up TV news stations and sent in tanks and troops to kill men, women and children in the streets of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, where Ayatakin and her family lived.
“People were hiding in basements,” she says. Her parents were among the protesters and narrowly escaped the massacre; they had gone home to check on their children. It was January 20, 1990.
By 1991, Azerbaijan was at war with neighboring Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war resulted in thousands of displaced people and refugees in Azerbaijan, an area slightly smaller than Maine.
Growing up in war and chaos, Aytakin knew she wanted to help others, but she didn’t know the path to take. The profession of “social work” didn’t exist in Azerbaijan. Later, Aytakin would go to great lengths to change that.
‘A very oil-rich nation’
Aytakin goes by her first name, which she says is customary in her country. Today is she a doctoral student at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.
Previously in Baku she studied English literature then switched directions to work as an advocate for women’s rights. She earned a diploma in Women Human Rights and a bachelor’s degree in English and German philology. All the while, she was active in social issues in Azerbaijan, specifically child welfare, poverty and women’s employment and empowerment.
“It is a very oil-rich nation, which produces a lot of money for some people,” Ayatakin says, but the most vulnerable people often aren’t taken care of.
Something like social work existed in Azerbaijan until the 1920s through charity organizations set up by the local elite, including oil barons. But many of the programs were abolished when the Soviet Union took over. The Soviet line, Aytakin explains, was that social problems simply did not exist.
The closest thing to a social worker in Azerbaijan was a “social service assistant.” The assistants, with no degree in social work or anything else, helped elderly and disabled people with household chores.
From Baku to the Brown School
One day in Baku, Aytakin was online and her path became clear. In the United States, she learned, degree programs existed in “social work.” She researched the meaning of “social work.” She read about the Brown School. She knew where she belonged.
“I was interested in eliminating poverty in societies, especially among children,” she says.
In 2004, she graduated with a Master of Social Work, with a concentration in Social and Economic Development and a specialization in research. Then she returned to Azerbaijan with a mission: to bring the social work profession to her country and establish laws, regulations and educational standards governing it.
Over the next 10 years, she managed to do just that. She founded the Azerbaijan Social Work Public Union (AZSWU) with a friend, Amalya Sezgin, and conducted workshops to spread the word about social work and its importance.
Today, eight universities in Azerbaijan offer social work bachelor’s or master’s programs.
Today, AZSWU has more than 250 social worker members and is itself a member of the International Federation of Social Workers, ensuring that the quality of social work in Azerbaijan is in line with international standards.
A chilling holdover from Soviet days
While she was busy founding the social work profession in Azerbaijan, Aytakin also worked as country director of Hilfswerk Austria International and as national adviser for UNICEF, which works in 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives and help them fulfill their potential.
Aytakin took aim at a chilling holdover from the Soviet system: Many children continued to be relegated to institutional care in large facilities with rigid regimes. She worked with Azerbaijan’s government to replace institutional care with such alternatives as foster care and small group homes, and to offer training and services to reunite children with their families.
“I was trying to do something useful for the country, for society” says Aytakin, who is 39.
Yet Aytakin still found herself with questions. How could she make social work more effective in Azerbaijan? How could she identify and understand roadblocks to social policies in her country? She left Baku again in 2014 and returned to the Brown School, this time as as a doctoral student.
Last year, her paper “Implementation of deinstitutionalization of child care institutions in post-soviet countries: The case of Azerbaijan” was published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
Her work on behalf of children continues. She is studying social welfare and justice issues in natural resource-rich countries and is a research associate at the Center for Social Development (CSD). In her work at CSD, she tries to find ways to link Child Development Accounts (CDAs) to wealth generated from natural resources. (The CDAs allow parents and children to accumulate savings for post-secondary education, homeownership or business initiatives. In many cases, public and private matching funds are deposited into the accounts to supplement savings for the child.)
In December 2017, she and CSD Director Michael Sherraden engaged in week of CDA policy meetings at the invitation of Azerbaijan’s deputy-minister of international affairs. The meetings were productive, but as always, achieving a national policy will be a long process.
“Aytakin is leading her country in establishing social work education and professional practice, and at the same time undertaking research toward a major policy innovation,” said Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor.
“Economic, social and political conditions in Azerbaijan do not make any of this easy. But Ayakin is bright, persistent, a superior organizer and very effective,” he said.
“International doctoral graduates from our school have often become important national leaders, and very likely Aytakin will be among them.”