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EAT, PRAY AND BEG TOGETHER…

Ruzan Gishyan

Ayvanis, 15, begs money with two brothers and doesn’t go home without 10 lari. Though Ayvanis has never attended school, she knows five languages and begs or asks for cigarettes in Kurdish, Azerbajanian, Georgian, Russian, and sometimes in English. She misses her parents who live and work in Azerbaijan.

"My mother told me to go and work, to ask people to give me money,” Ayvanis said. “She is ill and my parents went there because she needs an operation, but I know they will return. When they return, I want to say to my mom that I don’t want to be a begger any more and I will ask her to find some job for me."

According to various studies, there are up to 1,500 children living and working on the streets in Georgia. A new project for street children was launched in February. The initiative is being rolled out in Tbilisi during the first year and the activities will cover Batumi or Kutaisi in the second year.

The initiative is led by the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs and is being implemented in partnership with UNICEF and with the financial support of the EU.

"We are planning to set up four mobile teams consisting of social workers, psychologists, teachers and peer educators, and assess every child who is living or working on the streets in Tbilisi and the regions. Obtaining the trust of these children is crucial for mobile teams during the assessment process. The assessment also includes whether there are adequate services that consider the needs of these children and their families," said Maya Kurtsikidze, communication officer for UNICEF Georgia.

She said four daycare centers would be renovated and fully equipped. These centers offer specific services, including support in developing life skills, psychological support, medical support, informal education and entertainment-education. The centers are run and operated by NGOs. The operating costs for these services are financed by the state.

"After being moved off the streets and having received interim rehabilitation and education opportunities, children will find safe and caring family environments, or alternative services that meet their rights to education, health and protection," said Kurtsikidze.

One of these centers is the charitable foundation "Noah’s Ark". It is sponsored by the Georgian church.

After earning some money on the streets in the morning children gather together at 39 Tabukashvili to have lunch and lessons in Georgian and Kurdish language and bibliography. There are always very noisy in the small room where 20-25 get together. All walls are covered with colorful paintings of funny girls, boys and animals. Alyona Nozace teaches children how to draw and how to mix colors. But children can’t spend the whole day here, because they have to go to the street and earn money.

"These children don’t have a dream to ask for money in any weather and to be hit,” Nozace said. “They aren’t so aggressive and wild as people think, but they have to survive. They want what most children want -- home food, toys ... and someone to love them, to take care of them."

The funding provides lunch and some lessons, but doesn’t take care of what they are doing beyond these walls, how they earn money and to whom they give this money.

"They haven’t citizenship or any rights. I think that the government should do more for these children. Most of them have parents, but they are sitting at home and waiting for the money that children will bring," said Nozace.

She says that they can’t do anything about such parents if children don’t complain. Four-year-old Anke cannot complain or even speak, but with other children she is on Rustaveli Street until midnight. Fourteen-year-old Edo sometimes comes to Noah’s Ark to meet this little girl and his old friends. He has found a job repairing cars and doesn’t need to earn money by begging. 

"I wake up at 9, drink a cup of milk and run to my workplace where I repair cars,” Edo said. “But at 1 o’clock I am here to have some lunch and to meet my sister. Most of all I want to have good family and good children. And I don’t want to work on cars, but to be the president of Georgia."

Zeytun wants to find work like Edo. She thinks that one day she can work at a pharmacy and give medicine to people. But she has another big dream.

"Most of all I love God. He is protecting us, and I beg him to return my father to me. He is in prison now and will be released after four years," she said.

After the rehabilitation centers close for the day, the beggar children can go anywhere. The doors at 39 Tabukashvili close at 4 o’clock and children go out, whether they want to or not.