Georgian Refugees: Living in Fear and in Limbo

Sent by JDC's Steve Schwager on Sept. 4, 2008

Savoring the last moments of summer on Labor Day and watching school busses line the streets during this week, I could not help but think of the thousands of uprooted Georgian children who will not return to their schools this year, the families that have been torn apart, and the livelihoods that have been destroyed.  The future of many Georgians affected by the Russia-Georgia conflict which erupted nearly a month ago remains unknown. But JDC’s commitment to helping them is steadfast.

Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, has become a central hub for thousands of refugees, many of whom have poured into JDC's Jewish Home, a center which houses a Jewish Community Center (JCC) and a Hesed that ordinarily provides welfare assistance.  Here, refugees and victims of the conflict receive humanitarian aid and counseling.

JDC continues its efforts to enlist volunteers to locate Jews and provide them with immediate, vital relief.  But as the dust settles, some roads begin to open, and Georgians now contemplate their future, JDC will continue to assess the needs of the community—whether it be to provide food and blankets, psychological support for those traumatized by the sound of planes overhead, or cash assistance to help them rebuild.  In true JDC form, JDC will help Georgians get back on their feet.

The Krikheli family: (from left) Ilana, mother Manana, Eka, Grandmother Lili and Hannah, with whom they have been staying in Tbilisi.

Eighteen-year-old Eka Krikheli was ready to begin her studies at the University in Georgia this fall; her thirteen-year-old sister, Ilana, was looking forward to seeing her friends again after the summer. But that was before the Russia-Georgia conflict erupted on August 7.

For these girls, and hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been uprooted from their homes in the war-torn regions of Georgia, their plans—and lives—have been forever altered.

When bombing started in Gori, a city besieged under the attacks, the Krikheli family fled, taking only the clothes on their backs.  Piling into a car, they traveled to Tbilisi, where JDC has been helping absorb Jewish refugees while also providing food, medicines and cash assistance.

For days, Eka, Ilana, and sixteen other people crowded into a relative’s two-room flat, all the while wondering what their future would be.  Some family members, who had long thought of going to Israel, opted to leave.  The Krikhelis, though, wanted to return to Gori and to what remains of their home.

Unfortunately, for many refugees, home may no longer exist.

The roads to Gori are beginning to open and Temuri, Manana's husband, returned to his hometown, where he found that his house had suffered only minor damage.  Thankfully, it had not been looted. However, their small family business—their livelihood—had been completely ransacked. 

This August was not the first time the elder Krikhelis were forced to adjust to life as refugees.  They had come from Abkhazia in the early 1990’s during the Georgian civil war.  But now the next generation is confronting similar challenges to cope with the realities of living as a refugee.   JDC-supported Hillel programs, which provide services for youth and families, have provided Eka with trauma counseling and respite with other young people at a local water park.

Today, the family is afraid to return to Gori until the Russians—only 8km away—leave the Georgian territory.  Reports of kidnapping of young girls in Gori have instilled fear in the family and the teenage girls.

In spite of such difficulties, the Krikheli family will try once again to rebuild their lives. Eka will attempt to register for classes at the University in Tbilisi, where she hopes to major in business. Hopefully, Ilana, will be able to start school in Tbilisi— if a place can be found for her.  But the family’s long-term hardships and trauma will continue.  And JDC will be there to ensure that their needs are met.

Mari Biniashvili (at left) and daughter Lima. Lima and her family fled Gori in the first days of bombing.

Lima, an expectant mother, was nearby in Gori’s central market when the bombs first hit the town.  The terrified mother-to-be ran towards shelter to survive the bombs, but the impact of their fall had just begun.  Faced with a difficult decision, Lima fled to Tbilisi with other family members, where she would stay with her mother. JDC immediately sent food packages and hygienic products to help her adjust.

While Lima escaped to Tbilisi, her husband stayed in his hometown of Gori with his elderly parents who are too frail to relocate.

Torn from her family and knowing that the attacks continued in Gori, Lima went days without knowing the fate of her husband.  She later discovered that he had spent days hiding with his elderly parents in their cellar.  Lima also learned that JDC staff, using JDC’s SOS van—which has been used to help evacuate Jews from affected regions and bring humanitarian aid to those who are trapped—brought Lima’s family much-needed relief packages, including water, food, and medicine.

Today, Lima remains terrified at the very sound of a plane flying overhead. Lima, and many like her, has not only been forced to leave her home and loved ones behind, but her sense of security has been destroyed.  Thankfully, JDC has been and will be there to help provide relief—be it basic material support, psychological counseling, or long-term assistance.

JDC’s Steadfast Commitment

JDC staff will continue to assess the various needs of the victims of the Russia-Georgia conflict.  While the crisis in Georgia may be in flux, JDC’s commitment to helping those in need remains constant.

Thank you for your continued support of our efforts in the region and around the world. Please visit www.jdc.org for updates.