A Survivor Speaks

Caritas Georgia’s Harmony Center offers refuge to a survivor of neglect, war and famine

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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Ivlita Kuchaidze survived famine, World War II, the Cold War, the Georgian civil war and the country’s turbulent early years of independence. But, at 93, she may be facing her hardest challenge yet: Along with an estimated 400,000 other Georgian citizens, Ms. Kuchaidze endures a life of abject poverty.

After decades spent caring for others, Ms. Kuchaidze has become one of the thousands of pensioners who must depend on charity to survive.

“How do I live right now? In the cold. Hungry. Everything has gotten so expensive,” she says.

“I am used to it,” Ms. Kuchaidze adds. “I grew up half hungry. It is harder for people who used to live well.”

A tiny, neatly dressed woman with snow-white hair, Ms. Kuchaidze is a quiet soul, quick with a smile. Known as a keen and attentive listener, she inspires others to confide and seek advice, and has come to be regarded by many as a “second mother” at the Caritas Georgia Harmony Day Center, where she is the eldest beneficiary. There, she spends her weekday afternoons with 35 other senior citizens who also live below the poverty line in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

At the center, Ms. Kuchaidze receives a free daily meal, which she saves to eat at home with her daughter. She also enjoys tea and a snack, as well as the chance to pass the day in a heated room, visiting with friends.

Ms. Kuchaidze spends her time reading, soaking up the warmth.

These pleasures, however simple, are a luxury for her. At home, she and her daughter, Meriko, struggle to buy groceries. On her pension, a pittance of $83 monthly, they cannot afford to turn on their electric heater.

Squirreling away the provisions from the Harmony Center, Ms. Kuchaidze even saves her second cookie at teatime to share with Meriko later.

They survive the cold weather, she says, by “bundling up like cabbage” — putting on as many layers of clothing as possible and then jumping into bed, under the covers.

But even layers of clothing do not help when the time comes to wash clothes and bedding — by hand in water they cannot afford to heat — or when they bathe, a thrice-monthly chore that requires a trip to a local bathhouse, where the water is warm but the rooms are cold.

“I live in the 17th century. I just don’t have a kerosene lamp,” she says, laughing.

“I have a bedroom and bathroom and the living room — all in one room. We don’t live; we just survive. So I don’t have such an interest in life.” Her friends, she adds, do not come around very much anymore.

As with most of the Harmony Day Center’s regulars, Ms. Kuchaidze worked hard to create a good life. She overcame a difficult childhood and practical abandonment and put herself through technical school. As an adult, she mended wounds and bolstered spirits on the front, raised a family and built a career.

“I will be 94 and so far, thank God, my sight is good,” she says, chuckling, “and my brain still works.”

“Sometimes I think about everything I have lived through and I wonder how I have survived until this year,” she says. “To live until one’s 90’s is not a short life.”

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