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Jewish Program Helps Put Georgia Refugees to Work

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Nino Dvali projects optimism and confidence, and her almond eyes sparkle when she talks about her lifelong dream: owning her own clothing boutique.

When the 24-year-old Georgia native proudly unfolds the elegant, handmade black dress she designed, which looks like something Audrey Hepburn would be proud to wear, it serves as a potent reminder of how far a little help can go in Tbilisi.

Dvali is a graduate of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s vocational training program in Tbilisi, an eight-month pilot program in dressmaking and design for low-income Georgians and the capital’s sizable population of internally displaced refugees from the country’s war-torn separatist regions.

Funded under the auspices of the JDC’s nonsectarian International Development Program, the vocational program has proven tremendously successful. So far it has a 100 percent job placement success rate, with graduates going on to work at a local trade union.

Originally designed to help low-income Georgians living in Tbilisi, the vocational program is being expanded to include Jews.

Jews are not usually included in the International Development Program, but in the reconfigured vocational program they will fill half the slots.

Erica Lessem, the JDC’s Jewish Service Corps volunteer in TbIlisi, says she hopes the expansion will help improve relations between Georgia’s Jews and non-Jews while achieving the development program’s main goal of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

“Seeing them with their finished products and seeing their pride is what made me realize that it’s so much more than a means to an end for them,” Lessem said. “We’re giving them an outlet for their creative talent, not just a 9-to-5 job.”

Many of Georgia’s internally displaced refugees have been living for nearly two decades in squalid collective housing with the hope of returning to their homelands.

Georgia’s Ministry of Refugees provides the JDC with names from a waiting list of those in dire conditions seeking employment opportunities, Lessem said, and Jews are recruited to the program by JDC community workers.

The graduates receive an average monthly salary of $280 from their factory jobs — slightly less than the average monthly salary in this former Soviet republic — but they can make considerably more with overtime.

Many of the participants share their incomes with their families, significantly boosting the quality of life in a country with high unemployment and where many elderly eke by on pensions of less than $100 per month.

After independence in 1991, Georgia, a tiny country nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, underwent the kind of economic challenges typical to many former Soviet republics. Plagued by corruption, with little precious natural resources and struggling with two breakaway republics, most of Georgia remains mired in post-Soviet decay.

Much of the Georgian population is euphemistically characterized as “underemployed:” They either live on subsistence farming or do odd jobs to make ends meet. Many young people cannot afford to attend college and live with their parents because they cannot afford to live alone.

In the capital of Tbilisi, however, a surprising economic recovery is taking place, spurred by the Western-friendly government of President Mikheil Saakashvili and foreign investors’ interest in getting in on one of the region’s only liberal and relatively unexploited markets.

But Saakashvili’s plan to transform Georgia into a technology- and tourism-based economy, following the model of other successful post-Soviet states like Estonia and Latvia, requires a trained work-force — something Georgia desperately lacks.

Enter the JDC’s vocational training program, founded in 2006 by Alexis Frankel, the organization’s 2006-07 Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Communal Service.

In the clothing design program, experts put the students through rigorous hands-on training with modern industrial sewing equipment and design theory. Such education is a luxury few in Tbilisi enjoy.

The JDC’s new expanded program will focus not only on dressmaking but on marketing as well, in partnership with a local advertising firm. The JDC is also building partnerships with local businesses to find jobs for graduates.

Madonna Gulordava, 22, a graduate of the JDC program who did not attend college and who lives with her grandmother, two sisters and her father, talked about how much her income has helped her struggling family.

“The only person who works in my family is my father,” she said at first, then corrected herself and smiled. “Now I’ve started working and supporting the family.”

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