31 March 2016
Sister Monica, a native of Poland who staffs the Harmony Day Center, checks Ivlita Kuchaidze’s blood pressure. (photo: Molly Corso)
In the Spring 2016 edition of ONE, photojournalist Molly Corso profiled a World War II survivor now spending her days at a Tbilisi facility for the elderly. Here, she introduces us to some others at the facility.
I was raised in a close-knit Italian family, where the median age skewed closer to 60 than 16, so walking into Caritas Georgia’s Harmony Center always feels a bit like going home.
Women like Ivlita Kuchaidze, with her quick wit and self-deprecating humor, remind me of my grandma and her sisters.
But there, really, the comparison ends. My grandma and her sisters, after years of hard work, enjoyed a quiet and secure retirement. Ivlita, and the 35 other senior citizens who spend their days at the Harmony Center, have not been so lucky.
Whole generations of Georgians were robbed of the peaceful old age they had planned when the savings they worked for their entire lives evaporated, along with the Soviet Union, 25 years ago.
Now, in their 80s and 90s, they lack the means to heat the rooms they live in and to purchase the medication they need. Instead, they depend on a mixture of charity and their small government pensions (about $66 a month) to survive.
They dress in the clothes that are donated to Caritas Harmony Center, eat the meals provided at Caritas’ soup kitchen, depend on the warm showers and free medication they can receive at the day center.
In a word, their lives are difficult — a far cry from the old age they planned when they were working as doctors, architects, scientists, nurses, and cultural attaches.
An example: Azmat, a 90-year-old regular at the center, rides the bus to the center, using her cane to navigate the broken pavement.
A former chemist and inventor, she helped create clothing and shoe factories and traveled extensively during her career at a ministry in the former Soviet Union.
Now, she applies her inventor’s mind to survive the challenges of poverty: when she found she needed a cane — expensive at $12 — she redesigned a plastic broom handle to make a walking stick.
Or Ivlita, a former surgical nurse, who lost the little government assistance she used to receive because she was given an electric heater. She lives, with her daughter, in a single room without any heat. To stay warm, she said, she dresses like a “cabbage”: layers and layers of clothing, even in bed.
But instead of complaining about their fate, Azmat, Ivlita and the other guests at Caritas Harmony Center seem determined to get the most out of every afternoon.
On holidays, they play the piano, read their own poetry and dance.
On slow days, they gossip over their tea and cookies, comparing strategies for dealing with the complicated bureaucracy that doles out the little assistance they receive from the government.
They devour magazines and solve crossword puzzles in the library, play chess in the sitting room.
To pass the hours, they share stories from their past — and trade advice on how to stay warm after the center closes for the day.
A favorite tip is to drink one’s tea while still bundled up in coat and hat, so all that captured warmth stays with them for a little bit longer.
Read more about Georgia’s elderly in A Survivor Speaks in ONE magazine. In the brief video below, Molly Corso narrates a look at life at the Harmony Center.
20 February 2015
Cloisonneé originated in the eastern Mediterranean region and developed in the Byzantine Empire — and, some scholars argue, Georgia, where it is known as minankari. (photo: Molly Corso)
In the Winter edition of ONE, photojournalist Molly Corso explores how an ancient art is getting a new life in Georgia. She explains her own experience with this art below.
When I first came to Georgia, everyone wore black.
In 2001, in Tbilisi, in the winter, when the skies were gray and the electricity was usually off, life was a monochrome of black figures moving in a mass of grayness.
But every once in a while, usually pinned to the jacket of a woman of a certain age, there would be a stab of red and a cool pool of blues and greens caught up in a delicate swirl of silver.
The deep, rich colors evoked a sense of distant, exotic places — like India or the Middle East — some place far from the drabness of post-Soviet anything, some place where the spices were more vibrant than any painter’s palate.
In short, someplace very different than Georgia in the waning days of the Shevardnadze government.
The small brushes of brilliant hues that broke through the black were actually quintessentially Georgian, however — a form of ornament-making the Georgian artisans perfected centuries ago.
But back then enamel jewelry — like so many of Georgia’s ancient arts — was not popular. The extreme poverty that blanketed the country at the time forced valuable metals to the forefront; a good gift was anything with a smidgen of gold, not some ornamental throwback to Georgia’s past.
Those who were actively working to rekindle, revive, restore Georgia’s great artistic traditions were a minority in a country where the majority were just focused on getting by.
So, as it was with so many things of that time, it fell to the Georgian Orthodox Church to task artists, like Davit Kakabadze, to relearn the art of enamel — and to restore it to its original purpose, which was to give an image to the haunting history and traditions of the Church.
And now slowly, over the past ten years or so, enamel jewelry and enamel icons have been making a measured comeback. Today, they are everywhere, for sale for as little as a few dollars in downtown shops or for thousands in galleries and gala charity auctions.
The intricate designs can be traditional swirls of color or modern takes; shops sell them in all shapes and styles, even pendants made up to look like sunflowers or popular cartoon characters.
They are still as breathtaking as when I first noticed them — rich, vibrant colors caught up in a pattern of swirls or a delicate mosaic. Women wear them in oversized rings, necklaces, brooches and beautiful little crosses.
The bright bits of enamel are now known to be a pleasing, unique gift for birthdays or baptisms, according to Yulia Abranova at the Chaldean Church.
They are also — at the Chaldean Church and at Caritas Georgia — known to be a deceptively powerful way to help troubled youth inch out of poverty.
Five days a week, teenage boys and girls hunch over tiny bits of silver, making beautiful jewelry using the method and skills their ancestors developed thousands of years ago.
They design icons, pendants and rings; select colors and patterns; and spend hours painstakingly honing their craft — developing a skill they can use to earn a living long after they leave.
The art form they are learning, not long ago dismissed as a simple ornament that was less valuable than Russian or Armenian gold, is now appreciated as a priceless part of Georgian culture and folk art. And, a valuable commodity in the growing souvenir trade.
I received my first piece of Georgian enamel jewelry several years ago — a beautiful blue, green and gold cross that was technically a gift for my infant daughter on her baptism day. An American friend gave it to her, and when my husband saw it, he was shocked — stunned, really — that a foreigner had actually paid money for something Georgians thought so little of.
My reaction to it must have struck a chord: he gave me a piece of enamel jewelry that year on my birthday. The tiny splashes of bright colors lying in my jewelry box, shining against the dark velvet, never cease to captivate my daughter.
She loves to take them out, feel the cool surface with her fingers, run a nail around the swirling patterns.
Read more and see more pictures in “Crafting a Future” in the Winter edition of ONE.
25 August 2014
Five days a week, 40 senior citizens come to the Harmony Center to eat, browse and socialize in warmth and safety. (photo: Molly Corso)
Reporter and photographer Molly Corso chronicles the life of Georgia’s New Orphans in the Summer edition of ONE. Below, she offers some insight into the people she met.
Georgians love love, and the beginning and the end of love are tied up in the family. From a very young age, Georgians are taught by their own relations — as well as songs and movies — that first allegiances lie with the family, and a family takes care of its own.
For the 40 elderly clients of Caritas Georgia’s Harmony Center — and hundreds in Tbilisi who still need assistance — those expectations of love, respect and life long care, however, have fallen flat.
For many, there is no one at home waiting for them: sons, daughters, grandchildren are either dead, abroad or too tied up with their own problems to help.
The poverty they face — the effort to eke out an existence with less than $80 a month to buy food and pay for heat, not to mention fend off the terrifying list of doctors, medication and treatment they need — is just part of the battle.
In the hours I spent with the men and women who have found a haven at the Harmony Center, it is clear that, as much as they need medication and doctors, they desperately require a safe place to make friends, to be respected. They need someone to care.
And for many of these people, there is no one, except for Caritas. It is only at the Caritas Georgia day center someone cares, only there that someone takes the time to listen to their stories. And what a history they have to tell.
Behind every pair of glasses, donated sweater and free meal, there beats the heart of a man or woman who lived a full life, experienced the Soviet Union for all its brutality and benefit, saw war, lived through revolution and emerged as part of a free and sovereign Georgia — alive, but also alone.
There is Jenya, age 90. An architect who taught at the university, she still dresses to the nines and, in her carefully selected handbag, carries a portable CD player and earphones so she can listen to music after lunch.
And Leli, who will turn 92 this year. As nurse on the front lines during World War II, she saw the worst, and the best, of humanity in the fighting in Ukraine and Poland. Last year she was invited by a group of veterans from the war to travel to Ukraine and be honored for her role saving soldiers. She went, even though it meant flying on a plane. She was given a hero’s welcome.
There are scores of others: doctors, academics, housewives, all the people who helped build an empire. Their lives are a reflection of all the turmoil created by the Soviet Union — a childhood overshadowed by the war and the cult of Stalin, their youth spent working in good faith, and now, in what should be the twilight of their old age, the poverty and destitution that have become the hallmarks of transition countries such as Georgia.
Caritas Georgia’s day center provides them with a safe place to stay warm and get something to eat — a vitally important service for people who have nowhere else to turn and no one else to help them. But more than just providing heat and food when pensions are not enough to do either, Caritas Georgia also provides nourishment for their soul: the Harmony Center has created a community where these 40 people, cut off from the support their society should provide, make friends and feel important.
Once inside the center, for a few hours a day they are not defined by their poverty and isolation. They are no longer just one more poor, needy pensioner on the bus. Through Caritas, they have created a family of their own, a family where they are known and cherished for themselves, remembered for their accomplishments and honored for their efforts to help others.
As they say in Georgia, family is everything.
Read more about Caring for Georgia’s New Orphans in the Summer edition of ONE. And to support the needy elderly of Eastern Europe, visit our giving page.
14 May 2014
Tags: Georgia Eastern Europe Economic hardships Caring for the Elderly Pensioners
A new generation takes root in the Armenian Catholic congregation. (photo: Molly Corso)
Writer and photographer Molly Corso explores the faith of Armenian Catholics in the current edition of ONE magazine, and offers some additional reflections here.
One of the first things that struck me as I started to work on this story was that Armenian Catholics are a minority, within a minority. Ethnically, they are a minority — albeit Georgia’s largest minority — in the country. And, religiously, they are a minority within their ethnicity, as well as within the predominately Orthodox Christian country.
Despite being prejudged, first as Armenians and then as non-Orthodox, many of those living in Georgian urban communities outside of the tightly knit Armenian villages of Samtskhe Javakheti have only a tenuous tie to their Armenian roots. They speak Russian and Georgian, most of the youth go to Georgian schools, and by far not all have traveled to Armenia.
They are, in a word, similar to Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans in the United States: culturally, symbolically somehow tied to the old country by their last names, a different faith, or a penchant for a certain type offood. But otherwise fairly integrated in the country they call home.
But while being an Italian-American or an Irish-American is now something to be proud of in the states, in Georgia — after two difficult decades of conflict, poverty, and ethnic strife — it can be very difficult to show one’s pride for non-Georgian roots.
Georgia and Armenia share an ancient history and Tbilisi, the country’s capital, has boasted more Armenian citizens than even Yerevan.
But the 1990s were overshadowed by battles over territory as Georgia lost control of large chunks of the small country; attempts, however feeble, by Armenian nationals to cut off Samtskhe Javakheti, a southern region of the country that borders Armenia and has the largest concentration of Georgian-Armenians, were not encouraged.
To this day, some of the more national-leaning television stations are still prone to refer to ethnic Armenians living in the country in that context when there is any conflict in the region: would-be separatists looking for a way to break away.
Even among their own kind, Armenian Catholics are viewed as ‘others,’ as Armenians who have strayed from their apostolic flock. The pitched fight over church property seized by the Communists after Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1921 is largely played out between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, with little effort to include smaller faiths.
During the Armenian Catholic Center’s Saturday school in Tbilisi, however, Georgian-Armenians are given the opportunity to explore their cultural heritage without concern that they will be deemed less Georgian-or less Armenian- for doing so. In a delectable mix of Armenian, Georgian and Russian, children struggle over Armenian vocabulary, learn Armenian Catholic hymns, and dance Armenian folkdances.
I was struck by how seamlessly the children were able to go from one language to another, discussing art projects, language assignments, and dance moves in all of those languages without a break for translation — proof that, especially among the minority of a minority, there is a synergy between the traditions of their ancestors and their identity as modern Georgians.
Read more about the Armenian Catholics in A Firm Faith in the spring 2014 edition of ONE.
25 October 2013
The demands of life in the village of Ujmana include fetching water by hand. (photo: Molly Corso)
Photojournalist Molly Corso lives and works in Tbilisi, Georgia, and wrote about one community of Georgians in the Autumn edition of ONE. Here, she offers some personal insight into what it was like covering the story.
In my very blessed life as a foreign correspondent based in Georgia, I travel to a lot of villages. Georgian villages, Armenian villages, Azeri villages. Villages high in the mountains, villages built too low to survive flooding. I see villages that were once prosperous and villages that have been abandoned. But, regardless of where I am traveling there is one constant: villages in Georgia are heart stopping, spirit crushingly poor.
So, heading out to two Catholic Armenian villages in the southern region of Samtskhe Javakheti very early one morning in August, I had two expectations: the villages would be poor and the roads would be bad. I was not, however, prepared for the beauty of the region or the breathtaking generosity of the locals.
The road, once we turned off the main highway that connects the region with the capital (and the rest of the country), was little more than a stony country path. It was so bad, in fact, that some smart local had created an alternative route off to the side because driving through the field was smoother than trying to circumvent the potholes on the road.
Driving aside, the countryside was intensely beautiful, a scrub hard valley tucked in between sloping rock hills. There were neat stone farmhouses – very different from traditional Georgian homes – lining golden fields. The pungent odor of farm life was everywhere, following us as we skirted a pretty stream and crossed old stone bridges.
Once we turned off the main highway, very few people spoke Georgian although most – but not all – spoke Russian, so we could communicate even without known Armenian. But communication was not always easy, all parties trying to speak through an obviously foreign tongue. That was especially true of our first encounter with the locals. We pulled up beside a group of two men and a woman with a child to ask directions. The men spoke a smattering of Russian, enough to tell us we were on the right path to the village – and to ask us to take the woman and child with us. They clamored into the car and away we went. Very soon, however, it became clear they only spoke Armenian.
The lack of language, however, did not stop Peghekya, the woman, from inviting us for coffee and “some bread.”
“Some bread” ended up being an entire meal and the experience was repeated at nearly every home we visited the entire day. One of the poorest families we visited, two pensioners left to live out their old age alone in a crumbling farmhouse, wouldn’t let us leave without taking some homemade cheese (delicious!) and were deeply offended we would not stay for some homemade brandy.
Generosity is an important trait in the Caucasus — a part of the regional culture and a source of pride. But never, in a decade of living and traveling in Georgia, have I met people as gracious and rich of spirit as the Armenian Catholics in these villages. At our last stop, at a house in Ujmana, we asked one gentleman where this fountain of generosity comes from and he answered with a shrug, "It has always been like that here. Samtskhe Javakheti is a very kind place."
Truer words were never spoken.
You can read more on Armenian Catholics in Staying Power in the Autumn edition of ONE.
25 April 2012
Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Village life Georgia Armenian Catholic Church
Artur Chibotar cradles his son Giorgi at the Mkurnali Association’s shelter
for homeless youth and children in Tbilisi. (photo: Molly Corso)
Georgians love to love, and they especially love children.
As a mother of a preschooler, I am constantly being stopped by strangers eager to catch her smile, give her a piece of candy or make her laugh. Even passing acquaintances always seem to remember her name, and if I let it slip that she is sick — well, I am overcome with a flood of advice, home remedies, doctor recommendations and well wishes.
Georgia’s fantastic attitude toward children is one of the reasons I love living here, this paradise for kids.
So when I started reporting on the life of social orphans, children who are abandoned by their parents — left to either fend for themselves, or be raised by an institution — I was shaken by the cruel reality of life in Georgia outside the safe, nurturing embrace of family ties and relations.
It would be unfair and untrue to say that there are more children abandoned in Georgia than elsewhere. There are no real reliable statistics, but the accepted estimate puts roughly 1200 children in the state system. The number of children living on the street without status, however, is unknown.
I have lived in Russia, been to other places in the region, but was shocked to learn that this happened here, in the children’s paradise, too.
And I was curious, what happened to Georgian families — which typically extend to third and fourth cousins, and can encompass the distant relatives of in-laws and even their in-laws — that something as precious as a child would be allowed to waste away in an institution?
It would also be unfair to blame something particularly Georgian for the children who have fallen outside the traditional safety net of family, friends and relations — an intricate weave of blood and alliance that cushions the life and fate of most Georgians.
And the answer is simple: poverty. Poverty, and all its usual attendant ills, from alcoholism to prison, mental illness and abuse.
Poverty is the main cause for abandonment — a process that used to be as easy as dropping a child off at the door. Parents retained their rights, the child was never in danger of (or entitled to) an adoption, and the state provided some semblance of basic care: a bed to sleep in, food to eat and a school in which to study.
But in reality, the institutions were a non-solution, an empty space for children to tread time while they slowly became adults, before being spit back into the world, unprepared for anything more than another round in a cycle of poverty, neglect and want.
The new reforms for child welfare embrace an equally simple solution: instead of pushing new generations into poverty, the government is trying to pull parents and guardians back into society. Training programs, stipends and counseling are at the core of a new strategy to end a legacy that allowed material need to erode family ties.
Progress is slow, and there are many gaps to be filled. But for now, there are at least more options for children left outside of Georgia’s rich and nurturing network of family, friends and relations. Small group homes, foster care programs and, in rare cases, even adoption, are putting the emphasis on a child’s right to be wanted and to be nurtured into a member of society, prepared to shower down love on the next generation.
To read more about the challenges facing Georgia's street children and ongoing efforts to remedy this situation, see A Child's Rights Restored in the March 2012 issue of ONE.
20 April 2012
Tags: Poor/Poverty Georgia Orphans/Orphanages Eastern Europe
Girls practice English at a Caritas day care center in Tbilisi. (photo: Molly Corso)
Photojournalist Molly Corso lives and works in Tbilisi.
Regardless of whom I spoke with during my reporting on vulnerable children in Georgia, the refrain was always the same: charity is moving from food to skills, from heat to culture.
A not-so-subtle shift is underway in Tbilisi and other cities throughout the country, and charities — accustomed to being forced to fill in the gaps where government resources have fell short — are pushing it forward.
With the government footing the bill for better buildings, warmer rooms and more nutritious meals, charities and non-government organizations are refocusing from struggling to provide bread for hungry children to nurturing minds thirsty for new information.
The change — from substance and survival to skills and development — has not happened overnight. But it is happening, and it is opening a new opportunity for a very small country to reclaim its poorest, most disfranchised citizens.
For nearly two decades, Georgia was unable to take care of her own, unable to pass even the basic test of providing food and warmth to the youngest and weakest of the population. But as the state has built the roads, fixed the lights and turned on the heat, the government has also started looking in. The hesitant trickle of money and resources that once went to social programs like orphanages has turned into a stream of new programs, projects and initiatives.
So from the Georgian Orthodox Church to the Catholic Church, the youth houses to the day centers, children who were left with nothing are receiving more than just hot soup and a serving of vegetables. They are learning to use the computer, speak English and master marketable skills like carpentry, folk arts and plumbing.
Today there is a glimmer of hope.
There are art therapy programs to help unravel the web of abuse and neglect that had trapped young lives. And there are psychology courses to address addiction.
But even more than that, there is an effort to help children discover talents and passions that can aid them in their struggle to crack the cage of poverty that has stopped their parents and other family members from moving forward.
A giggle in the dance class. A frown of concentration in the computer clinic. A proud glance at a newly woven carpet. A thousand small, silent signals that Georgians — even the most vulnerable among them — are starting to move up.
You can read more about church-run programs helping the children of Georgia in the March issue of ONE.
Tags: Georgia Orphans/Orphanages