Healing the lives of Georgia’s abandoned children through art

Healing the lives of Georgia’s abandoned children through art

By Tawnya Ferbiak and Irakli Gioshvili

Friday, February 8

Chronically ill in a decrepit orphanage with no electricity or running water, little food and thin walls that could not keep out the freezing Caucasian winter, Pavel Nefedov was facing a bleak future. But the timely revival of a traditional Georgian folk art and the charity of one of Georgia’s most famous artists and teachers helped transform Pavel’s life from one of hopeless poverty to one of dignity and hope.

Abandoned by his parents when Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1989, Pavel’s Russian parents returned to Moscow, leaving four sons behind in Tbilisi. Pavel and his twin brother were the oldest of the children at four years; their youngest brother was only eight months. They quickly found themselves in a state orphanage, where each of the Nefedov brothers lived until they turned 14, the age when the government turned orphans out. With little skills or education, most children leaving the orphanage faced a destitute life of begging on the streets.

In 2000 Nino Chubabria, formerly a geologist and horse trainer, received a call from the UK Department for International Development requesting she assist a project to found a nonprofit to help street children. The previous director had stolen a significant portion of the budget, putting the project at risk of being cancelled. Chubabria agreed to help for a short while, but when she met the children she was quickly hooked and committed herself to the cause. With Orthodox priest Father Giorgi serving as president, the Mkurnali (“Healer”) Association for disadvantaged youth was founded.

The Mkurnali Association began providing humanitarian aid and vocational training to needy children in its founding year, helping adolescents and young adults break a hopeless cycle of poverty and crime. The first workshop the association offered was in enamel jewelry making; seven years later, it is still the organization’s biggest success.

2000 was also a notable year for Georgia’s post-Soviet revival of the enamel arts because Tea Gurgenidze, one of Georgia’s most respected enamelists and teachers, decided to open the country’s first school for enamel arts, the Ornament Gallery near Tbilisi’s historic Chardeni Street. Volunteering her time over 20 months to instruct the Mkurnali Association’s needy children free of charge, the first workshop was a huge success. Almost all of the children Gurgenidze instructed are now supporting their families with their enamel work.

Thirteen-year-old Pavel was one of Gurgenidze’s first students. Now 21, Pavel has supported himself as an enamel artist since he left the orphanage. Both Pavel and his twin would later marry girls they met in the orphanage, and have children at age 19. Today the entire family, brothers and wives, work together in their own workshop, employing other former street children. Pavel now teaches as well, leading the enamel and jewelry workshops at the Mkurnali Association.

Typical of many youths who attend the Mkurnali Association’s workshops, the Nefedovs have stayed close to the organization. The organization’s strong family atmosphere is one of its greatest assets. This is due in part to Chubabria and Father Giorgi, who serve as parental figures for many of the children. But the children and young adults take the lead in helping each other as well, creating a strong community of peer leadership. Many of the young artists continue to work with street children long after they realize success as artists. Mirza Beruashvili, another successful young artist who studied with Gurgenidze, now teaches workshops for disadvantaged youth at Caritas International and works as a social worker for Save the Children. In addition to teaching, Pavel and Mirza are working to found a new young artists’ cooperative to help as many children find success as artists as possible.

More than just solving an immediate economic problem, the enamel arts provide much needed therapy for children who have had tragic experience and circumstances in their lives. Learning a traditional Georgian folk art and being empowered with a skill to make their own living gives many children the confidence they need to participate in society. A recent holiday show and sale at the US Embassy in Tbilisi for the Mkurnali Association’s young artists proved to be unforgettable experience for many children. More than the excitement over the success of the show, the children were most moved by the interest and respect they were given as artists by the embassy staff.

A group of American and Georgian volunteers recently founded a partner nonprofit to the Mkurnali Association in Colorado, Georgian Youth Rescue (GYR). GYR plans to offer a “Sponsor a Street Child” program by connecting donors to needy children waiting to attend vocational training. GYR is also soliciting donations for equipment to start an enamel jewelry making workshop at the Avchala juvenile prison, and is supporting the formation of Georgia’s first enamel artists’ cooperative.

When asked in what direction he would like to take his career as an artist, Pavel declines to answer. The most important thing, he tells us, is to help as many children as possible find a new life as artists, far away from the streets.

For more information about the Mkurnali Association’s programs for vulnerable youth, please contact Nino Chubabria at (+995 99) 18 17 08 or Tawnya Ferbiak at tawnya.ferbiak@gmail.com


Protection of Georgian children promoted in trainings

28 Jan 2008 05:43:27 GMT

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Street children celebrate New Year and new winter clothes

14 Jan 2008 07:10:02 GMT

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Street and at risk children celebrating New Year at entertainment centre
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Street and at risk children celebrating New Year at entertainment centre
World Vision MEERO, http://meero.worldvision.org

Some 40 street children and at-risk children celebrated New Year with entertainment, reception of new winter clothing and a nutritious meal at the Basti-Bubu entertainment centre in the Georgian capital Tbilisi recently.

The children, aged from 5 up to 15 years of age from the World Vision Learning the principles of First Emergency Care Project and the ‘Sparrows’ day and night shelter run by the Child and Environment NGO, were able to enjoy a one day celebration away from a life of hardship and constant struggle.

‘I am very happy that I am attending this event. At first I did not think it would be so much fun , but now I am having great time here.’ said 12 year old Tamar.

The children chosen for the celebrations reflected the diverse ethnic mix of children to be found living on the streets of the Georgian capital – Roma, Azerbaijani, Georgian and Russian children all celebrated together.

‘We were fortunate enough to receive an appropriate budget from the OSCE in order to purchase winter jackets and hats for all of the children. Given the harsh winter that we all face, this event was a lucky chance to facilitate the provision of appropriate clothing for these children and decrease the health risks they face from sleeping in the streets. ‘ said Brenda Bogaert, ‘Learning the principles of First Emergency Care’ Project Manager.

‘As a result of the event, trust between the mobile team and these children was increased, which is important for future identification and assistance provision to street children through WV projects.’ added Bogaert.

The project aims at facilitating the increase of capacity of street and at-risk children to avoid the risks and dangers regarding their health and life. The project increases public awareness concerning first emergency aid through trainings, information campaigns and media.

Surviving Transitions

Surviving Transitions
From: wvmeero
Added: 08 January 2008
Street children are too often seen as the problem, rather than one of its symptoms. Children don’t take to the streets because they want to beg, sniff glue and pursue a life of crime. They are fleeing poverty and broken families, alcoholism and abuse. They do not immediately realize they have leapt from the frying pan into the fire.


A Day on the Streets

A Day on the Streets
From: wvmeero
Added: 08 January 2008
You’ve got to be tough to live on the streets. Even more, you must be smart.
“I found my mother but she told me I was not her son. Sometimes I think my life would be different if she had not left us. My father began drinking then. Now he doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t care about anything.” 13-year-old street boy


Georgian street children to find life safety and opportunity

By Ana Chkhaidze
GEORGIA – Street children in Georgia will find safe shelter and the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential as a result of a recently launched World Vision project. The Laboratories of Learning (LOL) project will improve understanding of the issues surrounding Georgia’s street children, resulting in the design of more effective prevention and care models.
At present, reliable statistics on street children are hard to come by, as research of the phenomenon is limited. There are some 1,500 children living on the streets of Georgia and thousands of Georgian youth are at risk of becoming street kids, according to World Vision and other NGO reports.

The lack of dependable data on the number of at risk youth and on the existing services for street children heightens the urgency of the issue, though there are several NGOs working with these children.

The LOL project is addressing this problem by conducting comprehensive research of street children in Georgia. However, researching the topic is not a goal in itself. Its findings will inform the project design and implementation phase, which will take place in the second and third years of the project respectively.

The three-year project is in the first of three yearlong phases. The initial assessment phase aims to describe the phenomenon through the acquisition of relevant statistical data. The assessment phase involves interviewing street children in order to understand how they ended up on the street, what their lives are like, and how World Vision can help them find suitable shelter and brighter futures.

“The participation of street children in the assessment, design and intervention process is very important for us. We hope to create effective services by considering children’s interests first and foremost,” said Irina Javakhadze, LOL project manager.

World Vision is the first organization to conduct this kind of analysis in western Georgia; eastern Georgia has been studied by the NGO “Save the Children”. Working in western Georgia is critical, as previous World Vision projects revealed that most of the street children in Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi come from rural areas, particularly poor families in western Georgia.

World Vision is implementing the LOL project in partnership with John Hopkins and Tulane Universities, based on the Universities’ methodology.

Cuttino’s Georgian Life: Placement time

Cuttino’s Georgian Life: Placement time

(blog entry)
"I will be placed in a non-profit called “Biliki” (Georgian for “path”). It runs a shelter for street children, refugees and disabled kids [in Gori]. I got to spend the past three days at their office and was very impressed. They have a newly-renovated building with all the perks of a Western office. There are 23 employees, including two psychologists, a social worker, a nurse, teachers, and an IT technician. Biliki is currently serving about 150 children in the Gori area. My job will be to help them improve their organization and expand their services. Check out the Biliki website. Keep in mind that the English site is a work in progress—one of my tasks will be to fix that—but at least the picture gallery is nice."

Just Like Sparrows – street children in Georgia

Just Like Sparrows – street children in Georgia

© UNICEF/GEO – 2006
14 years old Lika Martynova paints in the art-therapy class at the Sparrow Shelter. Tbilisi, May, 2006

“I don’t want to live at home, I was so unhappy there, no one hurts me here” said Lika Martynova, 14 years old.

Lika is one of the 50 children living in the Sparrow Home for street children where they can spend their days learning, dancing, performing, and drawing. The Centre provides warm housing, food, clothing, education, healthcare, and psychological rehabilitation to its young residents.

The Director of the Sparrow Home, Nana Robakidze, who has run the shelter since it opened in 2000 said, “The children come here for various reasons. There are a lot of children who find themselves in this position in Georgia today, maybe up to six thousand of them. We are providing them the emotional support they need and a place where they feel safe and can build their self esteem.” The run down building which houses the Home is in the old part of Tbilisi, and has been provided by the Government free of charge for the time being. The Home can accommodate 50 children and up to 30 children stay there overnight. 

The building is old, but what you soon notice is the singing and the happy noise of children playing in the yard. Thirteen year old Natia  Beriashvili comes to us, eager to talk. She was brought to the Home from an institution. She says “I didn’t like it there, they never let us go out into the yard but here I can do anything I want, I can play and sing and I love computers”

The first children who lived in the centre thought up its name. They named it “Sparrow.”  “Why?” we asked, “because we feel like sparrows” said Natia.  The children had even written a song about the home which they sang for us.

© UNICEF/GEO – 2006
13 years old Natia Beriashvili from the Sparrow Shelter. Tbilisi, May 2006

“There is a bird called Sparrow, they don’t have roof over their heads, But they survive because there are kind people to provide them with food in hard times. But Sparrows never lose hope because they are free to come and go and no one can put them into cage.

 Despite the sounds of happiness, there is still genuine trauma, this is why the children are here. When asked about her dreams for the future, Lika found it very hard to answer, “No one would be able to make my dream come true,” she says, and just holding in her emotions added, “…maybe…if my sister could join me here.”

UNICEF has supported the centre for three years, especially the home’s education programme to ensure the children receive their basic education. Currently it is partnering with World Vision and Street Kids International to conduct peer education training on life skills for the Sparrow children. UNICEF is also working with the Government to elaborate child welfare reform policies to provide necessary protection to the most vulnerable children including street children.

Street Children – Our Concern

Street Children – Our Concern

The problem of street children is still unsolved in Georgia. Nobody cares about them, and, their numbers are not known. Many street children are drug addicts and have trouble communicating.  Instead of helping them, police only sets “rates” for them to beg in certain areas. Why isn’t the Georgian government trying to help them? They are human beings, and part of our society.

Everyday, the number of street children in Georgia grows larger. Most have no documents proving their identities, meaning that officially, the person does not exist. If something happens to them, the state will be unable to help. If murder is committed, the general prosecution office cannot investigate if the victim has not been officially registered.

Many street children work in markets and in other busy areas. Some are employed in small enterprises. Saying the children are “employed” is perhaps misleading. They do not sign any type of work agreement, so employers can treat them as they see fit. Many of these children are homeless and addicted to drugs. They spend nights in underground stations, which costs them some money, often 5 GEL or more. To whom do they pay? To the police and to the underground administration. The daily income of street children is estimated to be, on average, at 10-15 GEL. Police salaries are also very small, but this does not justify their actions. District inspectors often force street children to share their income. If a child refuses to share their income with the inspector, he is often detained, and must bribe his way out of custody.

Such situations place enormous stress upon these children. They often become sexually active at an early age. Eventually, they may look 40 while still in their mid-20’s. Many children we met in the street have parents, and used to go to school. What is the main reason for the problem that children do not go to school and rush to the street?

David Tsikarishvili, head of legal services for the Trade Union “Ertoba” commented, “The best way to help children avoid exploitation is to improve the educational system. In a class consisting of 45 pupils, a child is unable to distinguish himself. A teacher can’t work with a child individually. Education is only compulsory until the 6th form, and at the age of 12, many children leave school. Since a person may only legally begin to work at age 15, what do children do from ages 12 to 15? Frequently, these children go into the street. Legislation should not allow for such a gap.”

Tsikqarishvili continues, “Street children frequently become criminals. Many become drug addicts and become uncommunicative. By this, I mean that they won’t develop social habits or practice communicating with average citizens in society.  In some ways, the law protects children from their parents, but it doesn’t force parents to make sure their children receive a proper education. Unfortunately, the state also fails to ensure that children are properly educated.”
A child’s future often depends on the mood of their parents, which can lead to deplorable results. After work, parents are often too tired to help children do homework, or to listen to their problems. Children raised without adequate parental care often try to satisfy these needs in the street.

It’s necessary to take action as soon as possible. Otherwise, our streets will be full of children in no time.

by Tskriala Shermadini and Nana Naskidashvili