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Georgian Refugees Seek Return to Normalcy

For Jews near the border with South Ossetia, only the smallest gap exists between normalcy and hardship.

The unemployment rate in the area has always been high, hovering at about 60 percent, and there is a disproportionate amount of at-risk Jews, elderly and young.

As Russian tanks and soldiers poured through the capital of Ossetia and onward into Gori in northern Georgia in August, the Jews dislodged from their homes and forced to flee were pushed over the edge.

Now, with a helping hand from the West, it seems that many of those displaced in Georgia have traveled the short distance back — to their homes and to some semblance of normalcy.

“People are living the usual life,” said Vissarion Manasherov, a leader in the local Jewish community, from his home in Gori. “It seems that little has changed except the bit of fear that follows people around.”

Of the 65,000 people displaced by the conflict in Georgia, some 400 were Jews. But while many Georgians spent weeks in refugee camps, and some still live there, the country’s Jews had one of the strongest support networks behind them. They were divvied up among relatives, placed in hotel rooms or given apartments. The vast majority of Georgia’s estimated 12,000 Jews live in the capital of Tbilisi, and the war did not force them to flee.

Most of the displaced came from Gori — some 200 to 300 — but others fled the port town of Poti and villages along the main highway taken by the Russians during the conflict. While a handful fled to Israel, Manasherov said that nearly everyone from Gori has returned to the city.

On the Ossetian side, fewer than two dozen Jews lived in the disputed capital of Tskhinvali before the war; now there are almost none. Aid workers scouring Tskhinvali found only one elderly woman, and those who have visited the bombed-out Jewish quarter since say that Jewish life there may now be over.

In Georgia, Manasherov spent the early days of the conflict frantically trying to extract his community members from the path of war that trailed directly through the central square of his city. Then his voice was tense.

Now he speaks calmly as he describes the new blocks of government housing and small cottages that have sprung up along the edges of the city. For those who could not return to their bombed-out homes, the Georgian government has been racing to build temporary housing.

“The Jews that live in Tbilisi and in Gori are the poorest that I saw, in really poor condition, the worst I’ve seen,” said Amir Ben Zvi, a member of the crisis team for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that was flown in immediately after the conflict began. “It was easy for them to lose everything, and we had to make an effort to put them back on the standing where they were before.”

In the weeks after the conflict, local JDC workers shifted their focus from rescue to rehabilitation. They created a bevy of new programs targeted at the most at-risk populations.

The amount spent per child doubled under a children’s initiative, funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The JDC also hired a psychologist to help the community and the children deal with the emotional fallout and feelings of insecurity spurred by the conflict.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the fellowship president, told JTA that he gave the funding and asked JDC workers on the ground to find the best ways to spend it.

“We had to open an alternative framework for these children,” Ben Zvi said. “Their parents and the public schools were not ready.”

Georgian public schools have struggled to operate normally because many kindergartens were converted into refugee shelters.

Ben Zvi said the JDC has committed some resources to furnishing and rebuilding homes that were bombed during the conflict. It also has provided workspace at home for those studying under the children’s initiative.

Both during the conflict and in the months after, both the victims and aid workers have said that the support structure provided by Jewish organizations has made the difference for this small community.

Visiting the rundown homes in Gori can be a humbling experience that drives home the connection between Jews around the world, says William Bernstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. The Florida federation sent a delegation last month to visit the Jewish communities of both Tblisi and Gori. Its fact-finding mission sought to determine the needs and the opportunities for aid from the federation.

“We spent time with people whose apartments were destroyed during the conflict,” Bernstein told JTA. “They lost everything — their papers, their personal artifacts, their legal documents.”

Along with the loss came a new sense of community, as displaced Jews from Gori steeled themselves against the conflict and worked with the community in Tbilisi.

“I was also very impressed by conversations I had with young people, both in high school and college, who are committed to maintaining a Jewish identity and the extent to which they could build a community for themselves there,” Bernstein said.

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