CNEWA

ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

A Place to Belong

Street youth in Georgia find support at Caritas

A van turns off a paved street in a remote suburb of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, then bumps along a muddy alley flanked by dilapidated homes behind high metal gates. Around another corner, the gated homes are replaced by shanties patched together from found materials. A handful of children in tattered clothes and ill-fitting, mismatched shoes emerge from the shanties. They wave and chase the van around puddles until it parks in a cul-de-sac.

“Hello! Hello!” the children shout, surrounding the van, thrilled that their mobile schoolhouse has arrived.

The mobile school comes to this settlement every Tuesday. It is operated by a project of Caritas Georgia, called “Emegobre” (“Be a Friend”), which runs a youth day center in Tbilisi.

A mobile classroom is wheeled out of the trailer and unfolds into several sliding panels with interactive games that introduce the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic to children with little formal education or, like these children, with no education at all.

Teacher Teona Gedenidze facilitates learning for street children in Tbilisi. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

Teona Gedenidze, a teacher and mobile school coordinator, turns on some music, attracting even more children. A 14-year-old assistant peer educator and beneficiary from Emegobre helps Ms. Gedenidze teach the 12 excited children who gathered how to count and the Georgian alphabet. After their lessons, they participate in a theater production and dance.

“For these kids, this is the only education they have ever seen,” says Ms. Gedenidze.

Caritas has another mobile school, operated by “Tbili Sakhli” (“Warm House”), a 24-hour care facility for youth in Rustavi, about 18 miles from the capital. Last year, the two mobile schools reached 246 children.

Both mobile schools target impoverished communities of predominantly Kurdish-Azeri migrant families from Azerbaijan, where begging is punishable with jail time. Many of these migrants cross illegally into Georgia seeking work. As undocumented migrants, they have no legal rights.

The mobile team has greater success with their interventions when children are young; interventions become more difficult the longer a child is on the street.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to education,” basic education is unattainable for many underprivileged children in Georgia. Myriad circumstances keep them out of classrooms and on the streets where they beg, netting between 20 and 50 Georgian lari ($7-$20) a day, well below the average daily income in Georgia, according to the country’s National Statistics Office. The average monthly wage is 1,858 lari ($700).

Often, these children are forced to beg by a family member; some of these children are their family’s only source of income. In some cases, parents will settle their debts by handing over their children to creditors, who will force the children to beg until the scores are settled.

The U.S. State Department, as well as nongovernmental organizations, including Anti-Slavery International and the International Labor Organization, have identified forced child begging as a form of trafficking and modern slavery. The U.S. State Department has documented that street children in Georgia are vulnerable to other forms of trafficking as well.

As they get older and their cuteness fades, a child beggar’s earning potential decreases. By the age of 14, social workers indicate, boys will typically turn to crime, such as theft, and girls will turn to prostitution. Since Georgian law does not prosecute children under 14, many youngsters are exploited by older teens, like modern-day Oliver Twists.

While there are no accurate figures on the number of street children in Georgia, a wide-ranging study conducted by Save the Children in 2007 and published in 2009 estimated that close to 1,600 children were living on the streets of Georgia’s four largest cities: Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Rustavi and Batumi. It also reported that 86 percent of these children were not enrolled in school and 60 percent had never entered a classroom.

Caritas Georgia staff Tamar Sharashidze and Jemal Chachkhaia work at Emegobre Day Center for street children in Tbilisi. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

The absence of current accurate statistics reflects the state’s disinterest in underprivileged children and families, according to social workers. Georgia has yet to develop a housing strategy or action plan for the homeless that corresponds to international standards or mechanisms for the prevention of homelessness.

Sopo Mezvrilishvili first came to Caritas at 6 years old, when her single father dropped her off at the Caritas Nutsubidze center in Tbilisi. When he died two years later, she was placed in a state orphanage, but eventually joined other children on the street. She returned to Caritas as a beneficiary when she was 18 and then again at 20, when she was pregnant with her first child. She stayed at Caritas’s St. Barbare Mother and Child Care Center in Tbilisi after her third child was born.

Now a 30-year-old single parent with little education, she has been supporting her family as a surrogate mother. Surrogacy is a legal source of income in Georgia that some women turn to when in financial difficulty.

Ms. Mezvrilishvili brings her three daughters to Emegobre daily to take part in various activities. She is determined to provide her children with the stable life she never had, but the odds are stacked against her. Her brutal experiences on and off the streets have made it difficult for her to think beyond the present day. When asked what she would like to do in the future, her face draws a blank. She is in survival mode, all-consumed with the dread of a looming eviction from her little apartment, as rents across the city suddenly almost doubled.

“I love these children. I want them to have a good life. All children have that right.”

“Sopo loves her kids so much and is so involved in their lives, but with no stable income, she has no prospects to have her own place. There are no state programs for single moms,” says Irina Abuladze, director of Emegobre.

According to the National Statistics Office, the average unemployment rate in Georgia was 16.4 percent in 2023, although unofficial estimates place it far higher. Despite social welfare reform, programs remain severely limited. 

International humanitarian organizations, such as Caritas, have tried to fill the gaps in the country’s social safety net, but increasing needs are proving to be too great a challenge for nonprofit groups.

In particular, youth workers are reporting a sharp increase in juvenile behavioral problems, among at-risk youth.

“We need special services with psychiatric care,” says Ms. Abuladze.

The state covers less than 50 percent of the cost of running seven street youth programs, which offer 24-hour shelters, day facilities and mobile outreach teams in Batumi, Kutaisi, Tbilisi and Rustavi. These programs are run by various international providers, in addition to Caritas.

However, maintaining sufficient qualified staff under these conditions is difficult. With Caritas staff overwhelmed by the physical and psychological needs of these youth, Caritas made the difficult decision to close its 24-hour centers in Batumi and Tbilisi; the 24-hour shelter operated by Emegobre is in the process of closing as well.

Sopo Mezvrilishvili and her daughters attend the Emegobre Day Center daily. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

“There was just me and another guy working the 24-hour shifts,” says Caritas youth worker Jemal Chachkhaia in Tbilisi.

“Ten of the 12 kids suffered from behavioral problems. The slightest thing could set them off. We had to close before there was a catastrophe.

“We applied to the Ministry of Health for assistance, but they never returned our calls. These kids are aggressive and need professional help.”

In the past three years, Mr. Chachkhaia has also noticed an increase in drug abuse.

“Before, kids sniffed glue,” he says. “Now, the kinds of drugs they are taking are harder, more dangerous. Kids need money to get these, so they steal.”

No studies have been conducted into the causes of these behavioral changes among street youth in Georgia, says Tamar Sharashidze, child and youth program manager for Caritas Georgia. In past years, almost all their cases stemmed from poverty.

These children are forced to beg by a family member; some of these children are their family’s only source of income.

“Now we are getting children whose parents aren’t necessarily poor, they just can’t manage their kids,” she says. “We applied to government ministries over a year ago, asking them to form working groups to study this, but they have no interest.”

No institutional treatment centers for at-risk youth exist in Georgia. The state had a boarding school in the western part of the country that Ms. Sharashidze describes as “horrible,” but it was closed and not replaced.

“As bad as that [boarding school] was, at least it was better than the streets.”

Rustavi is an old industrial city of 140,000 and home to Tbili Sakhli, which runs a 24-hour care center for children with a maximum capacity of 12. Local businesses chip in to cover the rent. Some of the teens were moved from the Tbilisi shelter, including 17-year-old Sandro, who is eager to practice the English he has learned by watching YouTube videos and listening to music.

“I had special problems with my family and came here six years ago,” says Sandro, whose last name is omitted to protect his identity. “The teachers helped me to learn and go back to school, and the psychologist helps me with my problems so much. I love helping the other children here and would love to do social work after university.”

Ilona Martinova, a 17-year-old former beneficiary, is shy to speak about her past. She recently reunited with her biological mother and now volunteers at the center. “I feel a responsibility to the other kids,” she says.

Ms. Sharashidze of Caritas Georgia says many staff were former beneficiaries. Valeri Chidzovi, 24, arrived at the shelter as a young teen and is now a peer educator at Tbili Sakhli, while he studies at the Tbilisi culinary academy. He often helps in the center’s kitchen, sharing what he has learned with the youth.

Tbili Sakhli and Emegobre offer psychologist visits to both adults and children, as well as sessions on abuse, human rights, gender discrimination, household skills and how to protect children from violence.

Mujer con los ojos vendados juega con niños a su alrededor.
At the Emegobre Day Center, moms and children play games meant to strengthen the parent-child bond. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

Nadia Koldari is an ethnic Moldovan who grew up near Caritas Nutsubidze in Tbilisi. She has known Ms. Abuladze, the director of Emegobre, since her youth. Ms. Koldari never learned to read or write. Now married with two children, she brings her children to the center with the support of her husband and attends parenting sessions there in an effort to break the pattern of street life.

“Our children do not beg,” she says proudly. “They will study and go to university.”

Most beneficiaries learn about Caritas through word of mouth or the work of the mobile teams, which each consist of a Caritas psychologist, peer educator, driver and a state social worker. They visit children at subway stations and where they are most likely to be working or gathering. The goal is to build trust and to let the children know about the Caritas center. Once relationships are established, the team provides some educational activities on the streets.

First contact with vulnerable youth is also established at police stations. Since the state has no programs for juveniles under 14, nor the right to intervene unless children are registered wards of the state, the police call private care providers, such as Caritas, whenever kids are caught breaking the law or are victims of domestic abuse and cannot be returned to a family member.

The mobile team has greater success with their interventions when children are young; interventions become more difficult the longer a child is on the street.

Back in the activity room at Emegobre in Tbilisi, a dozen children of various ages are standing in a straight line holding back giggles. A Caritas staff member has blindfolded Ms. Mezvrilishvili. As part of the game, the mother of three must walk down the line, touch the face of each child and guess which child is hers. Three other mothers wait their turns.

“I love these children,” says Teona Jujoy, a mobile team psychologist, as she watches Ms. Mezvrilishvili run her fingers atop a little girl’s head. “I want them to have a good life. All children have that right.”

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA’s presence in Georgia reaches back decades and has touched thousands of lives. Today, CNEWA works closely with Caritas Georgia to bring healing and hope to those left behind, including street children, providing them with educational opportunities, counseling and a place to call home. However, the lack of government funding for such social service projects means Caritas Georgia relies heavily on donations to continue this critical work. CNEWA sponsors these projects, as well as programs that provide support for single mothers, victims of domestic abuse, the elderly, those with special needs and other vulnerable groups.

To support this mission, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit cnewa.org/donate.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español

share