Irina Tsereteli, 40 years old, Tbilisi

When I was 19 years old, studying at the Theological Academy, I wanted to help other people and in summer I went to the homeless children’ house in Dzegvi Monastery for a short time. I was young then and just curious about what was happening there. But that ”short time” turned out to be two and a half years – there I became a teacher and a student at the same time, attending my lectures from there. It was called a ”children’s house” before, then it turned into a shelter since in Georgia the term “children’s house” is no longer used. After that, I studied at Athens University for three years and upon returning to Georgia I undertook training in this same field because it was exactly what I wanted to do; here I found myself. I was 19 years old the first time I went to Dzegvi, now I’m 40 and if you’d ask me what I can do, my only answer would be skills from this field of work. I speak the specific language that the work with these children requires. Not everyone can do that, although this experience definitely comes with practice. When I worked, and lived in the children’s house, this shelter was something of a trend – everybody knew about the place, we had many visitors. There were many children living there, but it was not possible to take in every single one that wanted in. Some came and stayed, stayed forever; some were “kicked out”. Kids always know who they should keep – they’re the smartest in this regard. In a word, I got “addicted” to this place, I found myself there, and I think if I was given a chance to start again, I’d do the same all over again.

 I’m currently a social worker – to be exact, the head of mobile working groups of homeless children. This project was created several years ago by the Ministry of Healthcare and it also gets a lot of support from charity funds. My office resides in the Georgian ”Caritas” building. I’m a civil worker, an employee of Social Service Agency of the Ministry of Healthcare.

This space is intended for children participating in the state welfare program and at this stage, they’re living here. I’m their legal representative. It works like this: When a kid turns up here, the parents’ rights are temporarily suspended to protect the child’s rights from being violated – should it be taking them to school or kindergarten, providing necessary institutional medical assistance and so on. That’s our job as the state social workers – to avoid interference in the child’s development or education. In addition, at least eight children occupy this space on a regular basis. There’s also a day center where at the moment around 30 children are enrolled. 

Due to the fact that we see a lot of homeless children in the streets – some of them working, some begging for the money, some spending the whole day outside with a parent or supervisor – we bring children here to avoid exactly this and instead rehabilitate them in a family-like setting. I can provide you with a simple example of the work we do. We have a mobile group of 5 members. In addition to me, there’s a psychologist, an equal opportunity educator, and a driver. Equal opportunity educator is a very interesting position to be in – this teacher went through the same childhood problems that the children under our supervision are grappling with. They’re often young, but of course, there are also teenagers – 18-20 years old. This has a lot of importance – the younger the equal-educator, the easier time they’ll have communicating with the beneficiary. 

When we work on the field we have specific behavioral instructions. Let me give you an example of our job specifics – 4 years ago the mobile group was trying to get in touch with a child, who was growing up in the cartons. Despite his exhausting life and work, he was 7-8 years old, and whenever you’d try to wake him up, he was always sleepy. Presumably, he wasn’t sleeping at night. He was always smiling and wasn’t showing any signs of aggression. We managed to earn this little boy’s trust. Of course, it didn’t happen instantly. At first, the kids are afraid – their relatives make them fear us and disallow any contact with us. Anyways, after some time, the mobile group brought this child to this space. 

When we brought him here and gave a cup of tea to drink, instead of a spoon he used his fingers to put the sugar in it. He didn’t know what a spoon was. When we gave him a bowl of soup, he ate with his hands. Nowadays we’ve achieved a lot – this child has an amazing recipient family together with his brother. His brother had gone through the same road and his dream was to bring his little brother here with him. This was quite unbelievable because the relatives worked really hard to frighten him off even contacting us. It’s hard for me to even believe we managed to do all this. Miracles really do happen. They live in such a great family now. Even my children don’t have such great care as they do. Healthy food, lots of love and care – hopefully, it will help them forget what they suffered in all these years. That’s one of these instances that motivate us to continue our job, to not give up and be ready to work on cases that may take a lot of time and even lose everything we’ve worked for. Unfortunately, we had such situations as well. But we also know that it’s impossible to achieve everything with everyone. It’s physically impossible. 

The most difficult thing when dealing with these children is gaining trust. They often tell their secrets, usually related to their health or their criminal activities. This category of kids commit crimes and have legal problems with the police. According to my profession and the code of ethics, I’m obligated, to tell the truth. But I have to be extremely careful not to lose children’s trust. These children were forced into maturity the day they were born. They’ve gone through such a long hard road, that if they just see someone they can trust, they can’t risk losing it again… Often they lose trust in everything.

Just imagine, I’m a 40-year-old woman and I have to talk to 12 years old child. If I talk to them like an aunt or a strange lady, this child would think I wouldn’t understand him at all. That’s the reason I’m talking in their language. For example, these are the two words used the most – “grinding” (meaning begging for money, living off charity) and “trying things” (robbing and stealing). When the kids sit down with me for the interview, I directly ask them – “where do you grind” and “where do you try things”. When I ask these two questions, they break the wall between us right away and they realize I understand them. I actually know what they are doing, who they are robbing, what are they inhaling, what kind of psychotropic drugs they are taking etc. We’re not even talking about smoking. For example, if you go outside and check the place for smoking, you’ll probably see an 8 years old child smoking a cigarette. And this is normal here. This is not acceptable for the society and of course, it shouldn’t be, but we can’t completely forbid that. However, smoking is regulated and with restrictions – they can smoke only after dinner and after breakfast. A child is not allowed to be outside all day smoking a pack of cigarettes for the whole day. 

I can tell you one story – children here range from 5 to 18 years. There are also younger children – with them and their parents we start working from an earlier age. We have a nighttime duty, usually, for tourist zones, Internet cafes, Turkish bars under Rustaveli metro station – some children are involved in prostitution and so on. One day I got a call from a gypsy girl, who had my number and tells me, teach (they call me “teach”, they don’t have “aunt” or “ma’am”), there’s a 6 years old girl, her stepfather brings her out on the Shardeni street and forces her to beg for money until sunrise. It was a wake-up call that even a child who’s not even 18 years old, herself living on the street, begging for money, selling roses, etc, thinks this other child is in a dire situation. We found that child that night, but it’s not that easy to just go there and take the kid with you. We found out her address and visited her home regularly, but this one time the child wasn’t there anymore. Turned out her stepfather owed some woman money, and since he couldn’t pay back, he loaned her the child so that she could force the child to beg for money. A little six-year-old girl, with health issues, was working nights at Shardeni street. The child survived, she has a phenomenal choreographic talent and is very gifted. She feels great today, lives in a small family type home and has a bright future. 

It would be very banal of me to say I wish I didn’t see children in the streets anymore. But unfortunately, I know, it’s impossible. This field should be developed step-by-step so that when a child with a history of sexual and physical abuse comes to me, I won’t have to search for a specialist to help them. The biggest problem is a lack of services.

I have three children and it’s really hard to work and raise children at the same time. I always feel guilty when I’m at work and not with them. Knowing they’re going to sleep and I’m not with them… but somehow, I’m trying to compensate. For example, if one day I have to stay longer at the office, the next day I’ll go later or leave earlier. I’m always spending my free time with them, especially weekends and holidays. Of course, my family members help me a lot. My husband takes the same care our children and I really do have his support. Before I got married, my husband knew about my profession’s specifics from the very beginning, it was my every day, my schedule and thank god, I didn’t meet any resistance from him. My children – the older one is nine years old and the next one is five – know where I work and know children from there, since I sometimes bring them home, so they really try to be understanding; they try at least. If I didn’t work and didn’t do what I do now, sitting home all the time, I would be a different mother. A mother without professional fulfillment, etc, as it usually happens.

Author: Nino Gamisonia

Photo: Salome Tsopurashvili