Transatlantic Connection: Recent grad shares experience working in the Republic of Georgia

After a brief hiatus from France – just enough time to recuperate from the jet lag and baguettes – I was off to the Republic of Georgia. Even though it may sound slightly idealistic, I felt I needed to make a difference, and I jumped at the opportunity to do humanitarian work in a country still healing from the wounds inflicted by the now-collapsed Soviet Union.

I knew it would be a lot tougher than Paris, and I had no idea where I would be placed, or what I was about to encounter. It was a bit daunting, and arriving in Tbilisi was in and of itself completely different from anything I had ever experienced.

I was caught off guard by the squiggly alphabet, and the fact remained I couldn’t quite recognize if I was still in Europe, or whether I was in the Middle East, or maybe even Russia. It was the crossroads of so many different civilizations with Russia to the north, Azerbaijan and Armenia to the southeast, and Turkey to the west.

Culture shock kicked me in the face while playing soccer with the local kids outside the hotel. With a small patch of grass, we took an old tire lying nearby with an old shoe and made a makeshift goal. However, we quickly had to dodge the stray cow that was roaming the pastures. This was just a taste of things to come.

After a brief orientation at a hotel in Tbilisi, I was sent to an old village about 40 km (24.9 miles) from the Russian border. Kvesheti still has the feel of an old Soviet village. The dilapidated school only reaffirmed the initial impression.

The school is old and in poor condition. The wood-burning stoves with old, rusted ventilation pipes are the only means of heat. There is no indoor plumbing, and very few light fixtures are in the building. For coffee breaks, a small propane tank is lit and coffee is made the old-fashioned way by taking coffee grounds and stirring them in a pot over fire. Some signs in the school still remain from the Soviet era. It truly was like going back in time.

As time progressed and the students and faculty warmed up to me, I truly felt like family and a part of the community. I see the wood-burning stoves as “character” of the building and couldn’t imagine it any other way. The overwhelming shock I had upon first entering the building is no more. I look at the school as I would any other. This is because these children have been so eager to learn and so eager to make me feel welcome.

The children don’t have a lot, but seem to be just as happy as children in any other part of the world. The many experiences I’ve had with the children – who initially would struggle to say one word in English and can now string together an entire sentence – has been a uniquely rewarding travail.

I feel privileged to have contributed to this community and to the country even in a very small way. Georgia recently held its first European-style elections. This is a country blossoming from under the vice grip of the Soviet Union past, and I was here to see the budding stages.

Not only that, I have done things I can’t even describe, such as hiking up a mountain to a secluded church built in the 11th century, or going to random family parties which emerge seemingly for no reason and never end.

It’s been a wild learning experience and one I will remember the rest of my life.

 

SAM DECAPUA

[email protected]