To a Kid From Tajikistan, “West Virginia is Real America”


There are those who find the good in everything – we call them optimists. Optimism isn’t always easy to achieve, even for the overly fortunate. For one who has seen many of life’s challenges to exude such positivity, though, is a rare and pleasant treat for anyone who crosses his path.

Ahliddin Davlatov, or as many of his American friends know him as “Alex,” is an international exchange student at West Liberty University with a smile that can cure any bad mood. He comes from Tajikistan, a mountainous Central Asian country wedged between Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan with a population of about 9 million. While he calls the capital city of Dushanbe his home, Davlatov found another home in West Virginia.

Alex at Castlemans Run Lake in Ohio County.

So similar to the Tajik mountains amongst which he grew up, Davlatov found a love for America’s “Mountain State.” He arrived in the United States in January 2017 as a member of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD). The program offers deserving students one semester scholarships, of which Davlatov is continually appreciative. With his passion for education and incredible work ethic, it is no surprise that he has enjoyed every bit of this journey. Considering the constant need to put on a happy face throughout his life, this opportunity has been Davlatov’s dream come true.

When he was one month old, his father passed away. “My mom told me that he only saw me one time before he passed away, so I don’t remember anything about him,” Davlatov said. After the fact, the relatives on his father’s side were not consoling. “We were not welcomed,” he remembered.

So, he and his mother went to live with her parents, where he grew up for two or three years. However, things didn’t get easier.

“[During] hard moments of life where people lacked food and they did not have enough food to eat, obviously the whole family, they would go and beg for food, so my grandfather got mad and told my mom to leave the family,” Davlatov said. “She was told if she didn’t leave, then my grandfather would hit me with a stick in the head, and something would happen to me. I was not even three years old, and my mom took me one day and left the house.”

His mother brought them to the city, where she would find their new home with a woman they met in a nearby market selling candies. They stayed with her for a year or two.

“I grew up seeing my mom’s friend’s family and my mom’s friend’s parents, and I thought they were my grandparents,” Davlatov smiled. Eventually, his mom saved enough money to buy their own place, but they still kept in touch with the family. She worked at a university, where she also studied, but they still had financial trouble.

“Even though we were independent and living in our own house, she couldn’t afford much food and school supplies,” Davlatov said. “School is not free in my country, so she had to pay for everything – for books, for all of the fees.”

Alex enjoying an American burger at McDonald’s in Elm Grove.

“I had a rough childhood,” Davlatov admitted. “I grew up in different situations, and they just went back and forth. Sometimes there was no food, sometimes there was a little bit; sometimes happiness, sometimes crying. And I would sometimes go and collect steel from the street and go and sell it in the market to people and go and buy something to eat that day so I would not have to go home and ask my mom for food. I realized life earlier than my peers, and I just got into life real quick. I did not have a long childhood that I would be remembering in the moment.”

He made the best out of the hand he was dealt, and though he tries to keep a constant positive attitude, Davlatov dealt with some adversity. He sees everything as a challenge, though, and he always has something insightful and inspiring to say.

“I felt sad and happy at the same time, that I was succeeding, but the people surrounding me would laugh at me saying, ‘You don’t have a father,’ and I never had a father and never felt the love of a father and how it felt,” Davlatov remembered. “I always considered my mom my father, too; she was the one who raised me, and I like to look at things as challenges that I can overcome.”

During school, he had to get a job at a local soda factory, where he would work 12-hour night shifts starting in the eighth grade. “In the morning, I would go home, wash my hair, and head back to school,” Davlatov said. “I think it was a good choice, even though it was a really, really hard moment for me to get a job at that age. I just got a job to be able to buy my school supplies and to buy food so that whenever I needed something, I did not need to ask for money from my mother; if she didn’t have any money that would not make her feel good that she couldn’t give me any money while I needed it.”

He was an honest worker, which his boss recognized and admired. His fellow workers were friendly to him as well, and some of the men would call him their son.

“I have a belief that when there is something hard that you overcome, on the other side something magic happens,” Davlatov said. “You get to a point when you can have fun, just like when you climb up a mountain. You don’t know where you’re going until you climb up to the peak and look down at where you climbed from. I was beneath everything, and I had to work on something I believe in; that was life succession.”

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His succession came in 2014, when he would take his first trip to the United States. After teaching himself to speak English with the help of the American Corners, where he spent a lot of his time, Davlatov attended a summer camp in New Mexico, where he met people from 45 other countries. He got to explore Colorado and Pennsylvania, too, before returning home to Tajikistan. That’s when his love for America grew.

“I only stayed here for a month, but despite one month, my life changed totally,” Davlatov said. “I was interested in America deeply from the very beginning, but once I saw it in reality, I became beyond interested that I wanted to come back here right away.”

After applying for a “flex” program during his junior year of high school and not getting the scholarship, he waited patiently until he learned about the UGRAD program during his first year at a university.

“I have been here for almost four months now, and my life is changed,” Davlatov said. “I look at life with a total different perspective, and I’m looking forward to coming back to the U.S. again to get my bachelor’s.”

“The people here and the feeling I get, and the life compared to what I would be living when I go back home, it feels like a luxurious life here,” Davlatov said. “I see many Americans who are not thankful for what they have and what they can get in their lives, and I hear a lot of them complaining about what they have here. But for me, it’s a whole big new world of dreams.”

Davlatov’s favorite part of the United States by far is getting to stay in West Virginia.

“I wouldn’t be making a mistake to say that I love West Virginia more than I do any other state,” Davlatov said. “It’s real America.”

Davlatov is the first Tajik to ever study at West Liberty University. “I thought I was at Harvard University because of the design and the red brick,” he laughed. At West Liberty, he’s taken classes like linguistics and criminal justice, as well as diving into campus life. He’s enjoyed playing volleyball, Frisbee, and soccer, learning in martial arts classes, playing piano, and even playing bingo in the student union. He also immersed himself in the local area, where he’s made even more friends and done various volunteer activities. He’s participated in activities at the Wheeling Soup Kitchen, a local church, and Youth Services System.

“I love volunteering, and when it comes to helping people, especially when you are volunteering, you’re not only enjoying it but helping other people make a change in the community,” Davlatov said. “Making other people know that you care makes them feel important.”

Alex speaking at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Wheeling.

Now that his semester with the UGRAD program is complete, he is doing everything he can to return.

“I want to be able to come back to West Virginia, to West Liberty University, to study here, but at the same time, I want to work in many things,” Davlatov said. “There are many young people back home who are not supported to study, not encouraged to be alive and do what they like to do. They can’t do most of the things they love to do, so I want to be able to learn all of these skills and improve my skills in the U.S. so I can possibly do anything to be a change in my community and bring a change in the world. It starts with little drops and becomes a big river, and a big sea.”

“I want to be able to do something,” he smiled. “I would love to live in the United States permanently.”

He did offer some of his insight regarding the world’s current political climate and the United States’ new president.

“Government is hard to understand,” Davlatov said. “People who think badly are everywhere; good people and bad people are everywhere in the world. Anybody can do a change in the community, only with the agreement of the country and its people.”

“America is not a dangerous place despite its president,” Davlatov said. “Here, I find a lot of Americans feeling Christian.” Davlatov is a Sunni Muslim.

“I was here for a couple months and found out that the president banned Muslims from other countries coming into the U.S., and some people who were in the flights were thinking about America and seeing their children,” Davlatov said. “Here in America, there are a lot of Muslims as well. Just check them really well, and then let them enter the border and do all the questioning you want. I’ve never felt threatened in the U.S. despite my religion.”

When it comes to the future, Davlatov hopes to receive a degree in political science in the United States. “Any kind of job I would love to have in the United States,” he said. He wants to be able to unify people with his contagious spirit and uplifting attitude. “Peace is the most important thing this world needs, because it is the world we are living.”

Davlatov is working to return to West Virginia, and with his positive outlook and fearless smile, he will certainly try his hardest to achieve his dream. Right now, Tajikistan is welcoming back a young man with many talents and a love for community and friendship.

Daniel Morgan and Ahliddin Davlatov.

On a personal note, Davlatov has become one of my absolute best friends in the short time I’ve known him. He’s one of the most caring individuals I’ve met, and his heart and aspirations are pure. Anything Ahliddin sets his mind to, he will accomplish. He’s my brother, and I sure hope he makes it back here soon.

Editor’s Note: Daniel Morgan is a student at West Liberty Univeristy and the editor of the Trumpet. Photos by Daniel Morgan.