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From ashes to ashes

At first we’re not sure if this is the right place. The building we are standing in front of appears to be derelict. Most of the windows are without glass, the elevator is boarded up and the staircase leading up through all nine floors is cracked and broken. Nearby some young boys, no more than 14, sit on a bench smoking cigarettes and ask us who we are looking for. When we tell them, they respond that we are in the right place, this is the home of Badri Iosebashvili

After climbing what seems like more than a hundred uneven steps up to the top floor and walking through an unlit hallway, Iosebashvili, 23, greets us in front of a peeling wooden door with a shy smile and shows us into his humble abode.

“Humble” is probably an exaggeration here. The apartment is spacious by Georgian standards, but the big, single-pane windows and lack of central heating mean that the family, which consists of Iosebashvili, his mother, wife and 19-month-old son Merab, can only really live comfortably in one room. The rest of the apartment is colder than it is outside and we can see our breath evaporate into the air.

We file into the cramped living room, which doubles as a bedroom, dining room, and even a kitchen, and find places to sit, trying to avoid the couple’s bed. There is a strong smell of gasoline from the small heating element, mixed with severe rising damp seeping down from the blackened ceiling. In the corner a small, old-fashioned TV set gives off blurred images. Maka, Iosebashvili’s young wife, holds the baby tightly.
“He has a slight fever,” she sighs as if to apologize for his somber mood. “He usually has more life than this.”

Iosebashvili, whose father was Jewish, takes over the interview, explaining that “this is the only room in the apartment we can use. We only have one heater and it’s too cold everywhere else.”

Later he shows me another room that could possibly be a bedroom if only the family had enough money to heat or furnish it.

Iosebashvili, who has lived in this apartment his entire life, inherited it when his father died, but the fact that he does not have to pay rent does not make life in Gori – a town of some 50,000 residents located roughly 30 minutes’ drive north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, any easier.

“Things were getting better before the war,” laments Iosebashvili, who worked part-time doing odd jobs before the brewing conflict between Georgia and Russia reached a head in August. “I did have some work before then, but now no one has any money to hire me. I’ve been looking but there’s nothing.”

During the conflict, the town, which happens to be the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, came under heavy bombardment from Russian air strikes. Many families, Iosebashvili’s included, were forced to flee their homes and took refuge in Tbilisi. The Russian army took over the area with ease.

The war, which lasted from August 7-12 and was fought in the border areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a short distance north of Gori, has left an uneasy peace across the region and caused a serious deterioration in living conditions, with hunger and atrocious accommodation topping the list.

However, for many of the country’s 15,000 Jews, Georgia is still the only home they have known, and the efforts of the last 20 years to rebuild the community really shone through during the conflict, with many people committed to making it even stronger.

The truth is that those who wanted to emigrate to Israel have already done so – some 147 Georgian Jews made aliya in an effort to escape the escalating conflict with Russia – and for the rest, the reasons not to leave might vary slightly according to age but the final proclamation is usually the same: This is our home and we want to make life better here.

“I have many relatives in Israel,” says Diana, 19, who grew up in Gori but is now studying medicine in Tbilisi. “I was there over the summer when the war broke out here, but for the moment I like being here. My family is here and I am in the middle of my studies. For me to go now and learn a new language would not be practical.”

This sentiment is echoed by students active in Tbilisi’s Hillel organization. While most say they have been to Israel – either by way of the week-long experiential birthright program or privately to visit family – they feel that their future is to stay in Georgia and help reestablish the Jewish community.

“The economy in Georgia was progressing until the war broke out,” claims Vito, 18, an economics major at one of the local colleges. “The war was a stupid thing to have happened, but I think that I can help my people if I stay here.”

Another student, who is studying architecture and is part of Hillel’s Young Leadership program, chimes in: “When I finish studying, I want to help rebuild my community.”

“I see my future here,” says another of the students. “My country is developing and I am going to stay.”

“I can’t say that things are perfect here but at least I know where I am, I can speak the language and my friends and family are nearby,” says Ecka, a pharmacology student who also assists with the programming at Hillel.

WHILE the Hillel students find it difficult to express why they feel so connected to Israel or committed to being Jewish in Georgia, when asked about their experiences during the recent war, the descriptions of their actions speak louder than the words.

Their young eyes light up as they each delight in describing how they took turns to help out at Tbilisi’s Jewish community center, tracking down Jews from Gori, helping them find accommodation and driving round the city to provide them with food and healthcare packages.

“I worked with the children that came here from Gori,” says one of the female students. “We ran a summer camp for them and took them to places that would cheer them up. It was a very stressful situation for them. We had to build them a special program.”

Another describes how his family took in at least 25 close and distant relatives.

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