One of the Stranger Places I’ve Been

If you’re paying very close attention to the almost non-existent street signs in Georgia, and happen to know the Georgian script, a few hundred meters outside the city limits of Telavi you might notice a gravel path named after a city in a far-away region of Georgia.

But you probably won’t. 

We didn’t, and we were looking.

But if you do, you’ll find a host of problems. 

Here you’ll find is a collective settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs). I’m not sure exactly how it differs from a refugee camp, except that it looks far nicer than the satellite pictures we see of conflict regions on the news. There is one main building, what looks to be a small apartment block from the early eighties. Nearby, patches of wildflowers grow, and the wilderness has begun to reclaim the remnants of a long-defunct factory. The sun is shining just a little too brightly for such a gray place, so I have to squint while my eyes adjust, and it takes a few moments before the shadows in the shade come into focus.

Some men sit at a table playing cards, and a girl stands in a doorway that once led to a now-absent balcony. She tells someone inside that we’ve arrived, and we meet them near the entrance on the other side. 

I’m here almost by accident. An Evergreen professor connected me with another alumna who would be coming to Telavi, and after meeting her in town I tagged along, curious to see an IDP settlement so close to my current home.

Georgia has a very serious IDP problem. The estimated IDP population is around 280,000, in a country of just over 4.5 million. These people were displaced by several conflicts, notably the civil war of the 1990s, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and ongoing disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The group outside Telavi originally came from Gori, where their communities were destroyed during  Russian occupation in 2008. You can read more about them here.

Walking into the building, it’s not clear what the structure was meant to be. The colors suggest a hospital or clinic, but the level of disrepair reminds me of every school I’ve seen here. It’s not bad enough to be dangerous, but neither is it somewhere anyone would choose to go. Someone is watching TV, and the buzz of an old screen echoes gently down the bare halls.

We move from apartment to apartment, giving each family 50 dollars, raised at a fundraiser in Canada, and recording data for further projects. 

As each door opens, a smell wafts out to greet us. Because people here rely on small-scale agriculture, the crops of summer and fall require putting-up to carry families through the winter. Grapes, corn, figs and peppers hang from every windowsill, slowly drying. The yeasty smell of new wine fills every corner of one family’s apartment. Across the hall, massive jars stacked hold brined vegetables, while vinegary cucumbers and peppers wait on shelves for colder weather.  The ancient bluish glass cools the colors of summer, reminding us that December isn’t that far away.

The woman we met first, a powerful personality, guides us through the building, sharing news and relating each family’s struggles. Each person receives 28 Georgian lari per month from the government, as few jobs are available to those without strong connections in the local community. Though food and clothes are fairly cheap here, this stipend (about 17 dollars) falls short, especially during the school year, as parents must pay for their children’s transportation. 

When asked about the future, most families voice worries about heating. The snowy mountains beyond the Alazani River hardly  ease concerns about the coming cold. Though winters are not especially harsh here, the community needs several hundred lari to heat their homes, a number which is apparently ignored by whoever calculates each household’s needs. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these dwellings is that they reflect a rather high standard of living in comparison to the average apartment here. Not only are they, like most Georgian apartments,  incredibly clean, but also outfitted with functional and even rather modern furniture and appliances. At first this seems a bit odd, but it quickly becomes clear that these are government issued. The walls are bare aside from rugs hung up to ease the echo in the otherwise bare rooms. It is not the custom to decorate walls here, but in this community the lack of anything personal, the absence of the sentimental value people attach to the objects and structures of home, creates a rather glum atmosphere of impermanence. In keeping with their IDP status, these people have no real feeling of home in the settlement they’ve lived in for five years. 

The concept of social security here relies on families and relatives. Such social networks, along with a strong sense of friendship and loyalty, hold Georgian society together. The connection people have to their family and even the village of their ancestors is amazing, especially when seen from a society  where identity is based so heavily on individual values and traits. Though this can be a heartwarming cultural difference, when these networks are upset, the result is all the more devastating. Such is the case with IDPs who are forced to move far from home and family. 

We could hear kids playing the stairwell from the other end of the hall. As we got closer, they noticed us and wanted to share their fun. A girl who looked to be around ten had a litter of kittens sitting in her lap, their eyes just beginning to open. In a country where spay-and-neuter programs are practically non-existent, this is a fairly common sight. But these kids, in a variety of generations-old hand-me-downs, were doing something I had not yet seen here. In this concrete tower where mold climbed the walls like ivy, this community of children were caring for the kittens, feeding them bread dipped in water, as the mother cat slinked out the door on some feline errand. Each child had some role in the nursery-like drama, a complex system of imaginary work. They were looking after the kittens in the way children look after dolls, with the otherworldly tenderness of some story taking place far from the crumbling stairway, deep in the imaginations of kids whose lives have been defined by displacement and loss.

Recalling this moment I can only barely keep my eyes dry. Children who probably can’t remember what home feels like, who systems of welfare have largely forgotten, and who see little of the development happening in their own country manage to build their own community to care for the animals with whom they share their temporary home. They create the very thing they lack, that which reality has failed to provide them with. Even if it is only play, these children show more concern for stray cats than society shows for them. 

Unfortunately, I can’t offer a any resolution to the issue. My memory of these children, of the food put up for winter, of empty shelves and walls hangs like the last notes of an unfinished song. A tension here, between the strong ties of community, importance of hospitality, and patriotic support of IDPs waits for the right moment, while economic development speeds by on the highway. Somewhere along that highway, you might notice the path we arrived here on.

There seems little hope for these folks in establishing a sustainable livelihood here, even with outside help. I imagine it is hard to plan for cases like these, to provide for people in a situation which never should have arisen.  But surely there must be something better than anxiously waiting for winter.

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One comment

  1. Thanks so much for this Sophie. Let your mom and I know what we can do to help these folks now. When you come home for Christmas, or maybe before, we can brainstorm ideas for longer term help.
    Love You!

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