ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Helping Hand for a War-torn Nation

Caritas Georgia comes to the rescue of the exhausted people of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

It is hard to believe how many tragedies have befallen the former Soviet republic of Georgia. A small country located along the Black Sea, Georgia is rich in history, culture, religion and tradition.

Georgia has never been left in peace for more than a few years. Its geographical location – at the crossroads between Europe and Asia – brings many troubles to the country and its Christian community.

The people of Georgia were not ready for the dilemmas that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Day by day, the country was hit by disaster: armed conflict in the southern region of Ossetia; civil war between supporters of the ex-president and his opposition; numerous earthquakes and floods throughout the mountainous part of the country; conflict in the Abkhasia region, resulting in more than 350,000 internally displaced persons; disarray within the government; increasing crime and violence; and fighting in Chechnya, resulting in 7,000 more refugees in Georgia.

Between 1990 and 1993 Georgia’s economy declined by roughly 70 percent. In 1994, the monthly inflation rate was 60 percent and unemployment exceeded 8 percent of the workforce. In a socialist economy, these are staggering statistics. This economic collapse devastated the living standard of most of the population, and poverty became a common phenomenon in Georgia. Although some real economic gains occurred in 1995, wages were still too low to cover essential household costs for many people in the country. In 1999 the per capita gross national income fell to $577, one of the lowest among the former Soviet countries.

As a result of these pressures, Georgians are selling their personal effects and assets to cover basic human needs. In addition, public funding for social services has collapsed, leading to a worsening of health standards. Electricity is now rationed; only four to five hours per day are permitted. A lack of heat and hot water during the winter is also common.

Prior to the breakup, the Georgian education system was the most advanced among the countries of the former Soviet Union. The situation, however, has changed, as schools are often cold and teachers are underpaid. Reforms carried out by the government, though potentially helpful, cannot provide overnight results. This means that Georgian children, especially in rural areas, are deprived of the opportunities to acquire new skills and to develop personally.

The same problems can be seen in Georgia’s medical infrastructure. Over the last five years the population’s health stat-us has severely deteriorated. The infant mortality rate has risen by 13 percent and the adult mortality rate by 18 percent. To a large extent, this deterioration can be attributed to the collapse of public health services. The government responded to this problem with an aggressive reform aimed at reducing public sector involvement and transferring medical services to the private sector, which severely limited free health care. As expected, the health fund created following this reform covered only a small percentage of the population, turning medical services into an inaccessible luxury for those not covered.

For five years Caritas Georgia, the relief and development agency of the Catholic Church in Georgia, has viewed the poor and socially disadvantaged as members of the community and as responsible participants in their own lives. This is why Caritas incorporates Georgians into organization activities, encourages them to adopt responsibility and enables them to help themselves. Caritas Georgia has stood by its people in their recent struggles: with women in their struggle for equal rights; with children in their struggle for a normal childhood; with the elderly in their struggle for survival; with orphans in their struggle for love and protection; with the sick in their struggle for quality health care; and with all the Georgian people in their struggle for a life without constant fear.

The relief of human suffering, the development of people and the fostering of charity and justice motivate all activities of Caritas Georgia. The agency’ policies and programs reflect and express the teaching of the Gospel while assisting persons on the basis of need and not race, creed or nationality. These victims of war, deprivation and the collapse of the social welfare system look to Caritas for life-saving support. They know that need is the only criterion for assistance.

Caritas believes that no one should go hungry. When people are starving they have no chance to learn, to work, to acquire new skills or take advantage of developmental opportunities. Caritas’ fight against hunger is essential as it tries to help people achieve a fundamental right – the right to food.

The organization’s food distribution program tackles Georgia’s poverty at its source by delivering food into the hands of the country’ poorest. Since 1994 the program has provided food for 10,000 people through three soup kitchens serving daily meals for 550 persons. Last year 3,150 hungry people received food aid thanks to the dedicated work of 21 staff members and the financial support of CNEWA and other donor agencies.

Caritas Georgia continues to provide aid in its attack on the medical problems of Georgia’s poor. One way has been through the polyclinic in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi; its staff of four physicians see roughly 2,000 persons a month. The clinic provides diagnostic services and treatment using modern medical equipment. When needed, free medication is also available.

In 1995 Caritas Georgia expanded its medical activities in Georgia’s highlands with the opening of medical clinics in the village of Khisabavra and the town of Vale, thus ensuring that these populations would not be deprived of medical care.

The country’ ongoing turbulence and strife continue to affect its children, who are often confronted with the same problems as their parents: displacement; refugee life; violence on the streets and in the home; substance abuse; abandonment; and crime. There is a need for organizations like Caritas Georgia to provide aid for the nation’s future – its children.

Recognizing this need, Caritas opened a youth rehabilitation center in 1997. One year later, a second center opened. These centers host 200 children; Caritas social workers identify and treat posttraumatic stress disorder and other conditions plaguing these young victims of war.

In 1999 the qualified teachers, psychologists and psychiatrists of these youth centers went a step further and designed a rehabilitation program with an emphasis on strengthening the social adaptation skills of the children.

In all the youth centers the children are involved in creative activities such as knitting and ceramics. Occasionally the centers organize exhibitions, sports competitions and concerts.

Charity shows are a favorite Christmas activity for the youth, who often take the shows on the road and perform for orphanages throughout Georgia.

Since 1996 Caritas has also operated a summer camp for Georgian children in the village of Bakuriani. The program provides 500 poor children from all over the country with a chance to rest, restore their exhausted nervous systems and experience an enjoyable and interesting holiday, a first for many of Georgia’s youth. Camp life is active and every day is different; geography, history, music, drama, fashion shows, hiking, excursions and sightseeing are just some of the activities enjoyed by these children.

For the members of Caritas Georgia there is nothing more inspiring than the happy faces of children who in the past experienced only pain and suffering.

Four years have passed since that cold winter day in 1996 when a homeless woman was found dead at the entrance to the Caritas Georgia office. Everyone in the organization was shaken by this horrible incident. This was also the day, however, when the decision was made to build a shelter for Georgia’s homeless. November 1999 marked not only Pope John Paul II’s historic trip to the country but also a papal dedication of a new shelter for the homeless in Tbilisi. (Incidentally, it was also the first shelter in which the Pope spent a night.) Presently 20 people from the streets live in a “fairy tale,” as the people themselves call the place. Thanks to Caritas Georgia, they can spend the last years of their lives in dignity.

In 1998 Caritas Georgia took a significant step toward self-support. The organization understands that foreign aid has its limits in terms of time and target specifications, so Caritas developed a new income-generating bakery in Tbilisi. The new project will help Caritas to produce income for its charitable activities as well as provide jobs in the capital for about 30 people.

Caritas Georgia believes that those carrying out Christian service should have eyes to see and ears to hear and empathy for human suffering, as well as knowledge of how that suffering can be healed. For Christians, and especially those members of Caritas Georgia, charity is always an available service.

Father Witold Szulczynski, S.V.D., is Director of Caritas Georgia.

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