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5 days with Georgian Friends

As part of EMES’s Visiting Friends programme Marjorie Farquharson of Central Edinburgh meeting, and Michael Eccles from Cotteridge meeting in Birmingham recently visited Friends in Tbilisi. It was a real privilege to be asked to travel in this way, as a pair, in the way that Friends did in the early days.

We hadn’t met before, although we‘re both from Britain Yearly Meeting, so spent much of the flight from London to Tbilisi getting to know each other and thinking about what we might be doing for the next 5 days.

The clerk of Tbilisi Worship Group, met us at the airport in the early hours of Orthodox Christmas Day, the 7th January 2009. We went straight to our hotel to catch up on some much needed sleep. Later in the day we visited Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia, and the site of a beautiful old Georgian Orthodox Church sat in a valley surrounded in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. This gave us a chance to get to know Friends better and to discuss the plans for our visit. That evening we went for a tasty dinner at the home of two Attenders.

Tbilisi Friends have recently registered an organisation called Friends House Georgia (FHG). The registration was started last year and it was timely that approval from the authorities came through just as the violence between Georgia and the Russian Federation flared up. This meant they could legally receive money, and open bank accounts, in order to distribute humanitarian aid to people who had fled the conflict. Over the past few months Tbilisi Friends have worked hard in their spare time delivering food parcels and hygiene packs to hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Thankfully the violence is now over and a significant amount of repair and reconstruction has been done by the Georgian authorities; but there is much more that needs doing.

During the visit we went to several collective centres, mostly in Tbilisi but one was in Gori (Stalin’s home town!) which we visited one day to distribute some hygiene packs. I was very impressed at the way Friends managed the distribution – everything was logged with the centre co-ordinator and she had to sign to say exactly how many items she had received.

The centres are mostly located in schools and kindergartens and in one case a disused hospital wing with a collapsed ceiling. Whole families often have to live in one room and to share toilets with other families. In one centre we visited an old woman who had fled from South Ossetia. She told us that she had hidden in a garage when the Russian troops entered South Ossetia, but what was interesting was that she said that a Russian soldier had helped her get water and she – and others – commented that they felt the Ossetian troops treated them worse than the Russians. We visited another collective centre based in a kindergarten where the manager of the centre had done everything she could to make the refugees living there comfortable. She was appreciative of the support that FHG had given her.

It was a very brief visit but I welcomed the opportunity to get to know Tbilisi Friends. They are extremely grateful for the support that Friends internationally have given FHG since the war. They are developing into a grounded Worship Group and I felt just as at home in meeting for worship in Tbilisi as I do in my home meeting.

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