Laura Sheahen, a regional information officer with CRS, is on the ground in Georgia and reports on the plight of those displaced by the fighting. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 011.20.16.533.1643.
The young people—most of them around 18 years old—have worked from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. for six days straight. It’s tedious work—unloading trays of bread loaves, sorting them, roaming from floor to floor of a tall, run-down, abandoned hospital building to pass out food to 1,800 frightened, hungry people—and then moving on to the next shelter. Or the teenagers are registering families who fled their homes, or packing hundreds of bags full of soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and other hygiene supplies.
Caritas Georgia volunteers pack soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and other hygiene items funded by Catholic Relief Services. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS
It probably wasn’t the summer fun most teens anticipate. But Caritas volunteers in the war-torn nation of Georgia keep going.
And the staff, which include bakers, cooks, drivers, psychologists, social workers and a doctor, are working around the clock to reach as many displaced people as possible. Estimates now say there are 128,000 people who left their homes are are scattered throughout Georgia, many going to the capital city of Tbilisi. For the tens of thousands without relatives to stay with, government-appointed shelters in old buildings are the only option. “The government left us here, and hasn’t brought us any food. But Caritas came,” said one person at the Isani shelter, a former military hospital without electricity or running water; it’s now home to 1,500 people who left their homes to escape bombings over a week ago.
In Tbilisi and the western city of Kutaisi, Caritas is now feeding 2,660 people a day, up from about 500 the day after the worst violence subsided.
The apostolic nuncio for the region, Monsignor Claudio Gugerotti, is at the Isani shelter too, meeting with the residents and asking them what they need. They’re grateful for the food, but eating bakery items (like bread rolls with bean or kielbasa paste) for a week can be hard on the stomach. Getting the displaced people a greater variety of food is key. Wiring the large building for electricity is happening slowly, floor by floor, but the people still have no water. One man washes his legs with a hose available outside the building.
The nuncio describes how he managed to enter the bombed city of Gori on Monday. So did Father Witold, president of Caritas Georgia, who brought Caritas bread to people unable to flee the shelling 10 days ago. Many people who fled Gori are worried that their homes are being looted by roving gangs, and they’re probably right. “They tried to steal a local priest’s car when we were in Gori,” says the nuncio.
Back in Tbilisi, Caritas volunteers stir enormous pots of macaroni and cheese, load mattresses into vans, and assemble hygiene packs that are funded by Catholic Relief Services. The teenagers put detergent, towels, sheets, soap and more into bags for each shelter resident. The sharp corners of the toothpaste tube cut the plastic bags, so they find an ingenious solution: put the toothpaste inside a toilet paper roll.
While they work, they talk about what they’ve seen in the shelters. Many of the shelter residents are from the country and ran from farms when the bombs started. One woman was milking a cow, and ran with the milk still on her hands. Many displaced people need shoes, underwear and other clothes. “They’re in shock,” says a 23-year-old volunteer named Irma. “Some fled barefoot, in their pajamas.”
The children are frightened, says another volunteer. “They’re afraid to go outside,” says 17-year-old volunteer Albina. “If they hear a loud sound, they’re scared.” Volunteers have gathered not just essential items, but also toys for the shelters. And there is some happy news: a shelter resident just recently went into labor, and was brought to a Tbilisi hospital to give birth. Mother and baby are doing well.
Georgi, 17, loves fishing. Ordinarily in the summer he might be in Georgia’s picturesque mountains, standing near a stream. Instead, he is moving heavy supplies in the hot sun from a cargo container. A few days ago it was mattresses and pillows. Today it’s boxes of shampoo bottles and soap. Caritas has worked here for years, so it knows all the warehouses, how to work out shipping details, and how to get the best discounts on large supplies of humanitarian aid.
The aid workers are weary but aren’t stopping. Rapidly sorting bread loaves, a 21-year-old volunteer named Timuri says the reason is simple. “These are our people.”