Lali Khandolishvil, 51, Sighnaghi

I remember the feeling I used to have while returning home at dawn from the morning liturgy at the Sighnaghi temple. I used to be proud and smug – while the village was asleep, I had toiled, labored, prayed for others…

I led an ordinary life until I founded a union of people with intellectual disabilities in Qedeli, a suburb of Sighnaghi.

Before that I’d been religious but I had not really held the “Christian conviction”. I had thought I was doing the right thing while I was just stroking my ego.
In the 90s, a youth with intellectual disability living in our neighborhood was suddenly orphaned and left all alone. All of us pitied this youth but he/she was still a stranger to us – the stranger that is undesirable, filthy, the one you should not touch and be only sorry from afar. I had a large house but it never occurred to me to let him/her live together with my children. How would I let him/her into my house?! Yet, I diligently mentioned him/her in my prayers.

I wondered about the fate of such people after the death of their parents. I found out that throughout the country there was no place they could go and live with human dignity. I am talking about the years of 1998-1999. While searching, I discovered a day care center in Tbilisi with completely different relationships and attitudes. They did not pray but God was dwelling there anyway. I was fascinated by the environment and I decided to spend more time with them.

I clearly remember the feeling I had when we first sat down to have a meal, held one another’s hands and recited the prayer “God, bless the food and drink” together. When complete “strangers” to my left and right touched my hands, I was very upset, there was a lump in my throat and I almost choked. I did not want to give this feeling a name, but it was definitely disgust. The feeling I had back then, was not appropriate for a religious person. I was worried.
I realized that God is here, among us and becomes tangible when you see people as your equals, instead of looking down on them…

In Qedeli, a suburb of Sighnaghi, my husband and I had an inherited house. We moved there, took our children with us and opened the doors to our first resident – orphaned Mishiko with Down syndrome from Tskaltubo… Then we took children from the Children’s Home in Kaspi and we are living now together as one large family. Our family consists of 23 members. I put my profession to use and we have formed a choir Qedeli. If you visit us, we will give you a concert.
Qedeli is modeled after the Camphill Movement started in the 50s of the last century, based on Anthroposophy – spiritual science about the human being.
Of course, we adapted it to the Georgian traditions and roots.

In 2000, I spent three months in such a community in Belgium where they shared their experience with me. I held a concert and with the earning, 500 euros, I bought a cow for Qedeli. When the guests from Belgium visited us, they gave us additional 1000 euros and we bought three more cows. This is how we expanded. Each of us has their chores, we bustle about, enjoy every moment of it and live in harmony. We learn something new from each other every single day.
An acquaintance of mine once told me bluntly, as befits a true Kakhetian, that I did not look like a Christian any longer, as I neither went to church nor fasted. Qedeli is the embodiment of the spiritual world and a good deed done with our own hands. These people have let me discover my own abilities and have turned me into a happy person.

Qedeli was a tiny seed of my new life. Before my eyes, the seed started to bloom and I was as if reborn. These people taught me what kindness is, taught me that we are not numbers to be more or less than one another. We are all equal. They have taught me humility.

The doors of Qedeli are open for everyone, every volunteer. Qedeli is the name of the village and we like to say that it is a mountain ridge (“qedi” means a ridge) which is waiting… (“eli” means waiting).. waiting for a new, rejuvenated life.

(Author: Maia Chitaia)