human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Rebuilding a village in the south of Georgia

350,000 people were forced to leave their homes and start a new life in other parts of Georgia after the war started in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. This is the story of three refugee women, brought together by their desire to rebuild the community of the village Tsintskaro; a village almost abandoned in the south of Georgia.

“This is where the road becomes broken,” says Gia, as we go through a dense fog barely able to see more than 10 meters in front of us. The road is full of pits and we can’t see anything around us, except for a couple of boulders. We drive on this road for about 40 minutes until we get to our destination, the village Tsintskaro. After passing a couple of houses that seem to be abandoned, we stop in front of a concrete building, a bit larger compared to the other surrounding houses. This seems to be the only noisy place in this village; there are lots of sounds, music and laughter coming from inside the building.

There are three women waiting for us in front of the building. After we say hello, they greet us in Georgian and they invite us inside the community center. We first enter a narrow hallway and we immediately notice a room to the left full of kids singing carols. They sit in a circle looking at their teacher, a volunteer who comes here from time to time to teach them music. The building has three more rooms – the kitchen, where you can find all the resources necessary that transform this community center into a shelter for emergency situations and floods, a room with some sports equipment and another with two computers.

We sit around a table together with Gia and the three women. George Datukashlivi, known as Gia, is the community facilitator from Caritas Georgia, and he is the one who taught the community from Tsintskaro how to protect themselves from floods and what measures need to be taken to reduce its negative effects. Mrs Nora, Mrs Neli and Mrs Tsiuri are three refugees who now live in Tsintskaro and became the informal leaders of this community. Until 2008 they lived in Kodori, a beautiful rich region in Upper Abhkazia, where the soil was fertile and the weather was good most of the time. They were living a quiet life there: “We had a farm with 80 pigs, but we didn’t even call it a farm, it seemed to be something usual to have so many animals,” says Mrs Nora, smiling.

But everything changed after the war with Russia, which started on the 8th of August 2008. After just one day, the Russian army forced the families in that region to abandon their homes. The families took what they could and in a short time they were in a truck with other refugees on their way to Tbilisi. Now their homes and land was on Russian territory and it was forbidden for them to get close to that area.

They spent a month living in a school in Tbilisi, together with many other refugees who came from Upper Abkhazia or South Ossetia. They had a tough life there, and in September as the school was about to start, they received two options from the Georgian Government: they could either accept an amount of money equivalent to 7,000 US dollars at that time and buy a small place in Tbilisi or they could receive a house in Tsintskaro, a village with many homes abandoned by a Greek community. Georgia always had a significant Greek population, but the community had dwindled in the ‘90s due to repatriation or emigration to Russia when the conflicts started. “Many of the refugees chose to stay in Tbilisi, especially because Tsintskaro had so many problems. But we decided to take this option, we liked more the idea of having a house and a small plot of land,” says Mrs Neli.

The Tsintskaro community was already mixed and complex with different ethnic and religious groups. In the past 20 years a lot of refugees came from Abkhazia after the conflict in ’92, eco-migrants who were coming from places ruined by natural disasters and a significant number of Azerbaijani who lived isolated from the rest of the people, because they didn’t speak the Georgian language. A lot of people were living without electricity, gas or clean water in houses that still legally belonged to the Greeks. On top of this, the village was flooded every spring. Even though this affected only a few homes directly, the whole community suffered because access to a wellspring was cut during floods, and the wellspring was the only source of clean, drinkable water in the village.

Once the last group of refugees came to the village in 2008, things started to change. In addition to the 570 families living here, there were approximately 70 new families coming to begin a new life in the village. Among them there were these three women, together with their families. The houses they received needed a lot of changes made to them for them to be able to live comfortably. After they managed to refurbish them, they began to see all the problems the village had.

In a community that had already become used to having a hard life, and where the municipality wasn’t involved in fixing the problems, the three women decided to lead the change and to involve others in their activities. It was very hard in the beginning, but with the support of a local foundation Taso and UN Women they started two self-support groups led by Mrs Nora and Mrs Neli. Their goal was to gather the community to discuss each and every one of their problems and also the problems of the whole village.

Becoming so involved in solving the problems of their community gained the attention of other organisations that also wanted to help. This way, Caritas Georgia became the first in 2012 to make a water supply system in Tsintskaro. They came back later in 2014, when they had the opportunity to help them further through other projects and funds, and so they helped them with their annual problem – the flooding. Supported by Caritas Romania, they managed to attain the necessary funds to implement an educational project in Tsintskaro to reduce the effects of the floods. The collaboration with them started because “Caritas Romania has a great experience in community based Disaster Risk Reduction methodology, and it’s seen as an example in the region regarding the work they did in this field, so they are definitely someone who can teach communities about how to protect themselves from natural disasters,” says Irene Spagnul, Italian Donors Relations and Private Fundraising at Caritas Georgia.

This methodology is much appreciated because it has a different approach. It involves the community in generating solutions for their problems, instead of them waiting for answers from the authorities. This increases the chances for the community to find, not be given, the best, customised solution for their situation and for the project to produce results even after it has officially ended. During the workshops they had, people learned how to identify the problems that the community is facing and how to generate solutions, as well as learning how to involve other members of the community. As a result, the most involved participants were the children, who proved to have a very important role. This also connects the two major ethnic groups – Georgian and Azerbaijani. Azeri children were the ones who managed to involve their parents in the activities of the project, even though their parents did not speak the Georgian language.

Even though the main topic was disaster risk reduction, the effects of the project reached far beyond: “The training they received during the Disaster Risk Reduction project gave them more knowledge, helped them analyse their situation better and to understand what the problems are that they need to fix and how. This project gave them more confidence to act on other aspects of their lives that need to be improved and strengthened the community even more. It was their idea to build this community center where we are right now. Its purpose is to shelter 20 people in case of floods, but now it is used as a place for the community to come together,” says Gia.

Once they learned the problem solving process, they continued with several other small projects that slowly gave them more confidence in their own power: they bought two computers for the community center, and they made a small beauty shop, a bakery and a tailor’s shop. They are very proud that they managed to buy music instruments for the children who come to the community center for different activities. Another big success is the improvement they made in the relationship with the municipality; if before their arrival here the national authorities barely knew where the village Tsintskaro was, now this community is used as an example of civic involvement. “They learned how to be assertive in the relationship with the municipality and they became bold and started talking about the problems they have everywhere they went. It’s the best way to make the Georgian Government listen to you,” says Gia. Now they are invited to attend different national conferences, and thanks to their perseverance and effort, they are confident that they will find the necessary funds for all the projects they want to start.

Thanks to the results they had with the community center and other projects, the entire community now trusts them and every time they look for solutions to their problems, they go to them. The village still has a lot of problems, for example legalisation of homes, high unemployment rate and access to gas. With all this, they also started to help others by giving small funds to a neighbouring village to help them buy books and other materials for their playgroups.

The headmaster of the school asked Mrs Neli why she was struggling so much to build toilets in the school and fix the heating problem when she doesn’t herself have children who attend: “I am not doing it for my children; I am doing it for our children who are all the children in the village. I am getting involved because I know it’s in our hands to solve the problems in our community,” says Mrs Neli, and everyone else nods as a sign of approval.

The next days are again full of activities as they have another meeting in Tbilisi to try to solve their biggest problem – the legalisation of homes – so we let them prepare.

They take us on a last tour of the community center, then we go back to Tbilisi. As we leave the village, Gia turns towards us, trying to explain what we saw and heard: “They’ve been through hell. They’ve been through war, natural disaster and tough winters. They’ve seen it all and they are still positive. They didn’t become victims and they understood that no one except them will solve their problems. We just helped them mobilise and taught them a process. Our work was easy. Their job is much harder; they need to bring the necessary funds to continue what they started and for the next projects, and they have our full support for that. Now they know they are capable of doing anything.”

Blog written by Horatiu Ticau and Catalina Contoloru

Rebuilding a village in the south of Georgia