It was an absolute downpour. A candle was lit. So we sat in the dark and discussed...what it was like to have to leave all you once cherished; what it was like to be forced to flee all that was familiar; what it was like to feel like a stranger in your own land; and what it was like to be trapped in a place that would never, ever feel like home...
I traveled to the post-Soviet, Caucasian country of Georgia a few weeks ago to visit our partners and projects. Part of a Church World Service delegation, my colleagues and I were welcomed under a relentless Georgian rain to the Tsilkani Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) settlement in the Mskheta municipality, a mere twenty minutes outside the capital city Tbilisi. Vaja Khachipurica, the elected chairperson of the IDP settlement committee, had been waiting for us for a couple of hours-not that I would have ever known that, as he showed no sign of frustration or impatience-were it not for our colleague Rostom informing us of how late we had arrived. Typical of Georgian hospitality, which in my experience is unrivaled the world over, Vaja welcomed our delegation to his community. A distinguished and handsome older gentleman appearing as the former university professor and scientist he once was, one would never guess he has made his home at the Tsilkani settlement camp for the last five years. The Five-Day War in 2008 led to the further displacement of ethnic Georgians and South Ossetians from the contested region of South Ossetia in northern Georgia.
Vaja lives with 400 other families crammed into the Tsilkani camp. Among those 400 households are 120 children. Each family receives 28 Georgian Lari a month from the national government, which is just under $17 US-hardly enough to cover household costs for even a few days. Eka and Maka, also members of the settlement committee, shared with me how they must rotate the days they can send their children to school. With only one small shuttle bus, there is not enough room for all the children to fit. Thus, they rotate the days they can go to school. In addition to schooling challenges in the camp, the unemployment level is dramatically high. For people who worked as cattle herders in South Ossetia, they find it almost unbearable to live in a place where hardly any cattle-herding or farming is possible.
But even these problems were not considered the worst in Tsilkhani. When I asked Vaja what the primary issues in the camp were, without a beat he said, "Water. Water and sanitation. This has become our inaccessible dream." Without proper sanitation, water-borne diseases have been rampant. The small, cookie-cutter cottages where each family live have no bathrooms. The only toilets the camp has are pit latrines which are outside in the fields. The women seemed especially ashamed to tell me of how they must boil water and go into a pit latrine to take some semblance of a shower or, if the maize is high, into the fields. They find no privacy and little if any dignified manner of washing their bodies.
In spite of these major needs, I was most gratified to visit the Tsilkhani camp along with my newfound friends and colleagues from our primary local partner in Georgia, the Rural Communities Development Agency (RCDA). Rostom Gamisonia, the Director of RCDA and whose brainchild it is, utilized our visit to strategize further with the community as to how many solar collectors, solar water heaters, solar dryers (to dry fruits and vegetables and sell at market), and how many urine-diverting dry toilets (UDDT) they could use. The work that RCDA does among these displaced communities is exemplary. Providing appropriate, renewable, and sustainable sources of energy and income is RCDA's objective. They have also helped the IDP communities build gardens and greenhouses by providing seeds and seedlings. Rostom and Vaja talked long, under candlelight, about what other changes CWS, RCDA, and WoC could help bring to this community. Never intended to be a permanent solution, it became obvious to us all that Tsilkhani would probably not be a temporary solution for its 400 families.
So how do they find hope? "There is no way out. We must come together and do what we can to find that way. If not us, who?" Vaja, Eka, and Maka all told me that their hope is from the mutual support they all receive from one another as a reminder that they are not alone. "Our hope is also in God. If we didn't believe, we couldn't survive," Vaja exclaimed.
As for a durable solution, however, I couldn't help but hope and pray right along with them, as we sat in the dark, talking through the candlelight. Until these beautiful souls are able to go back home, or to find a place where they can feel at home, I am comforted only by knowing that our gifts, partnership, and solidarity sustain them.
No longer sojourners or strangers, in Christ Jesus we are all, indeed, one (Ephesians 2:19). When even one suffers, we all suffer. When one is honored, we are all honored. On this World Refugee Day, I thank you for your compassion for all those who are displaced, unwelcomed, neglected, imprisoned, and exiled. On behalf of Vaja and all those I met in the Tsilkhani camp, I can't help but ask again, "If not us, who? "
For worship and devotional resources on World Refugee Day click here.
This Week's Responses:
Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance:
Missouri, Tornado Damage
Kenya, Refugee Assistance
Illinois, Flood Damage