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Astana’s Growing Expat Scene Struggles to Find its Place

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ASTANA – The number of foreigners living and working in Astana long term has risen in recent years with the opening of new schools, businesses and embassies. However, it still takes some work to find and integrate with the expat community.

“Three years ago, Astana had somewhere between 500, 000 and 700, 000 people, but I was always wondering where they were. The streets were empty; restaurants and shops as well, ” said Firmin Van Haelst, 45, of the architecture and engineering company VK Astana, who has been here for three years. Van Haelst is originally from Belgium.

But, he said, things are beginning to change. Last year new places like Mojo and The Barley, an upscale restaurant and bar complex, started opening and new faces, Kazakh and foreign, started filling them, he said.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg. Either there is now a crowd that can afford to go to these kinds of places, so they pop up, or they pop up and then the people come – that, I’m not sure yet. But it’s really become more attractive, because it was, like I say, quite boring. The opposite side is that I could drive from my home to the office in 10 minutes before. Now it takes me 20 or 25. The number of cars is really exploding.”

Though long-term expats here are getting a sense that there are more foreign faces on the street, the actual number of foreigners living and working in the city seems to be a secret. And for all its growth, Astana still trails Almaty in the number of foreigners applying for permits to work: Almaty granted 9, 315 such permits to foreigners in 2013 compared to Astana’s 6, 275.

So the expat scene is, according to Pieter Van Wingerden, 32, “in its infancy, and unclear as to where it wants to go.” Van Wingerden, originally from the Netherlands, has been in Astana for three years working at Eagilik Public Fund, and he, along with the other expats who spoke with The Astana Times, has seen big changes in the size of the expat community in the past few years, if not necessarily in its makeup.

Nazarbayev University and Nazarbayev Intellectual School have attracted lots of new teachers, the North Caspian Oil Consortium and other companies related to energy have brought in their staff and embassies moving to Astana have brought many foreign families up from Almaty. This rise in expat numbers, however, has not necessarily created a more unified community of foreigners.

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