DISHING OUT FOOD AND HOPE TO GEORGIA’S STREET CHILDREN
Tblisi, Feb 6 2004- Zaza was 13 when his mother left him and his four siblings to defend for themselves on the streets of the Georgian capital Tblisi. The police put the children into an orphanage, but Zaza ran away.
Three years later, Maia Lashkarashvili, a psychologist, found Zaza roaming the streets and took him to Child and Environment, a local non-government organisation set up to feed and educate Georgia’s growing population of street children.
WFP gives invaluable support to the project by providing food so that each child can count on at least one hot meal a day.
LIFE IN THE FRIDGE
"There are 1,500 street children in Georgia, most of them in the capital, who sleep in parks, abandoned cars and the railway station. Some even go home to rundown refrigerated warehouses, earning themselves the nickname ‘Fridge Children’
"We could never have imagined this during Soviet times," explains Nana Iashvili, a co-founder of Child and Environment. "The tragedy is that their numbers are growing," she adds.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia lost its main export market and saw its local economy go into deep recession. Inflation further eroded the population’s income. Natural disasters, including periodic droughts and floods and a devastating earthquake in 2002 added to the economic crisis.
As poverty came back on the Georgia map, abandoned children appeared on the streets.
Iashvili, a secondary-school teacher, first noticed these children in 1995. "You would find them sleeping in the entranceways of buildings," she recalls.
Today, they sleep all over the city: in parks, abandoned cars and the railway station.
FOOD AND SCHOOL
Eka, 8, is a Fridge Child. She shares a windowless metal container with her mother, who ekes out a living selling sundries in the railway station. Her father is in jail for possession of narcotics.
Every afternoon Eka goes by herself to the Child and Environment centre set up in Tblisi’s central marketplace. There she eats and studies with other street children.
In 1998 WFP began contributing food to the project. In addition, a mobile unit combs the city’s streets looking for children. Equipped with a makeshift classroom, it provides a rudimentary education and WFP-donated food.
WFP food helps the street children to survive their once unimaginable existence. Many are from impoverished homes they were forced to abandon. They carry the scars of physical abuse and drug addiction.
Some spend their days begging, stealing, or if possible, selling small items in the market or at metro stops. They are often the sole bread-winners of the family.
But locating them is not so easy. Every day Lashkarashivili and co-worker Besik Mchedlishvili go out in a rundown mini-van to establish contact. Building trust is crucial.
"We go to the same place at the same time. If no kids show up, we still wait. They have to know we are consistent and that we will be there," says Mchedlishvili, a sculptor who gives the children art lessons.
"Their attention span is not long, so we have to be creative with the time they agree to spend with us" he says.
Dressed in black and smoking a cigarette, Zaza sits down at the portable table set up by the unit in a nearby park and begins to draw. He is focused for a half an hour. He finishes a drawing of ducks lining up to drink from a leaking faucet, hungrily devours the food offered and disappears into the urban landscape.
The age when a child is found is crucial for insuring a better future. Children under 14 years old have a better chance of coming off the streets. Those older could very easily end up in jail.
With help, many of Georgia’s street children can come off the streets, insists Iashvili. "Some become criminals, but others are finding happiness. They get training, go back to their families and start anew."