The last few days — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and today — have been grueling, emotionally and physically. CNEWA’s Thomas Varghese and I spent Tuesday in Tbilisi and then began a two-day excursion to Georgia’s southwest and western regions. We climbed elevations of more than 12,000 feet, reached plateau lakes and descended only to repeat the same slog. We have traveled hundreds of miles, some paved, many not, flirting along the Armenian or Turkish borders for most of the way.
We have learned that, while our journey to Middle Earth on the surface may seem as if we have stepped back in time, we are in the modern world with all of its challenges, but in concentrated form.
We began Tuesday meeting with the head of the Assyro-Chaldean community in Georgia, Chorbishop Benjamin Beth Yadegar. Assyro-Chaldean Catholics, he explained, have been present in Georgia since the “Year of the Cross,” 1915, when the Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish allies began their deportation and murder of the Ottoman Empire’s many Christians: Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean, Greek and Syriac. Some survivors found refuge in Georgia, only to be exiled to Siberia 20 years later by Stalin.
Thousands of Assyro-Chaldeans have returned from their Siberian exile, the gregarious priest told us over steaming-hot tea, but their socioeconomic situation is horrible. Living in crowded and filthy villages around Tbilisi, many have vitamin deficiencies, poor health and almost no education.
When he arrived as a newly ordained priest in 1995, Chorbishop Benjamin came with nothing to a community that had nothing. In those years, Georgians of all kinds suffered tremendous deprivations. They lacked water, food and fuel. A once-favored republic of the Soviet Union, in which numerous republics were connected in a complex web of economic dependence controlled by Moscow, Georgia descended into chaos when it declared independence. Moscow flipped off the switch, imposing a rail embargo and cutting the flow of everything from power and fuel to meat and dairy products. While economic advances have been made since, the country has yet to recover.
The young priest has breathed new life into the Assyro-Chaldean community, building a gorgeous church, appointing it with icons and furnishings handsomely made by parishioners trained in the parish’s many workshops. (Chorbishop Benjamin descends from a long line of carpenters, and his exquisite work furnishes even the parish conference room.) But, he admits, he is dealing with a reality common in the lands of the Eastern churches: emigration.
“We cannot stop this reality,” he said, adding that many young men from the community, particularly between the ages of 25 and 45 have moved to Istanbul. There, they find work in what is clearly the economic and political powerhouse of this region, Turkey. Most of these laborers are unskilled, and have only a remedial education. “Boys do not study. Our girls do, but once they finish university they don’t want to marry an unemployed boy with no education,” the chorbishop said.
We ended our pastoral visit on a high note, however, visiting with the many parishioners who work with their shepherd in producing Assyro-Chaldean dictionaries, lectionaries, vestments and even sacramentals, such as enameled medals and crosses. Many of these items are commissioned by parishes in the Americas, Europe and Oceania, enabling Chorbishop Benjamin to feed his sheep with income as he nourishes them spiritually.
We ended Tuesday with visits to many of Caritas Georgia’s excellent programs in its Caritas House, which stands on the outskirts of the city. Caritas Georgia is an aid organization of the Catholic churches in Georgia — Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Roman — and programs include spiritual formation for its staff and volunteers; workshops for needy children such as decorative arts, music, dance, iconography, art therapy and carpentry; and a soup kitchen and social programs for impoverished pensioners. The size, scope and quality of care is breathtaking. The imagination and commitment of the team running these programs is humbling.
Walking through the halls as the sun set, I distinctly heard a waltz by the great Polish composer, Frederic Chopin. The sound from the piano was clear and the playing, professional. But this was not a recording. The instrument needed tuning, but it did not mar the beauty of the waltz. We walked into a hushed room, were ushered to a seat as if in a concert hall and watched and listened as the musician poured her heart and soul into that waltz. When she finished the last chord, her audience, erect in their seats, applauded politely and happily. She then began a Russian love song, her trained soprano voice strong yet soft.
I watched her audience, impoverished elderly pensioners all, listening and yet perhaps not. “What were they thinking of?” I thought. “Remembering their youth, their former lives as architects, economists, doctors and lawyers?” These beneficiaries of Caritas Georgia’s “Harmonia Club” — including the retired artist on the piano — were not peasants from the villages, but well educated men and women who survive on less than $95 a month (the average household income is $488).
Pointing to the musician as the audience applauded, Nino Tcharkhalashvili, Caritas’s human resources manager, said the pianist lives with her 90+-year-old mother, pooling together their meager incomes.
We left as the pianist ended an aria in honor of her mother, seated behind her, a survivor of the “Great Patriotic War,” World War II. The audience gave mother and daughter a standing ovation.