Behind the Georgian aid effort


TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) – Some ran Friday when the bombs fell on Tskhinvali, some on Saturday when they fell on Gori and some on Sunday when the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia proper.

The Jews of Georgia scattered, disappeared and resurfaced in refugee camps, relatives’ homes or at the doors of the synagogue.

As Russia occupied Georgia, pushing ever closer to the capital Tbilisi and bisecting the country, the relief effort for nearly two weeks has had only one prime directive: Find every Jew.

The most recent parallel to the Georgian relief effort, spearheaded by the Jewish communities of Tbilisi and Gori alongside the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, would be the 1999 Kosovo conflict, when Jewish groups sought out and provided aid to fewer than 100 Jews in the war-torn area.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, which provides significant funding for both the JDC and Jewish Agency, has launched an emergency appeal to supplement the annual campaign funding being used to help the Jews in the region. It has raised $17,000, according to UJC officials.

The current conflict has displaced more than 200 families – some 300 individuals – and stranded dozens behind the Russian lines, where transit is nearly impossible and communication lines have fallen apart.

The displaced have made their way to Tbilisi.

After a first wave of frantic immigration to Israel – three El Al flights in the first week evacuated scores of Israeli citizens and dozens of Georgian immigrants – the relief agencies and local Jews are now picking up the pieces and trying to put the rest of the community back together.

In Tbilisi, the first stop for refugees has been the JDC-funded community center in an Armenian district near the city center built in 2003.

For two days, more than 200 families lined up at the window holding stacks of receipts. At the window, Rafael Mesingisen waited to take the receipts and trade them for black bags of food and other necessities.

Mesingisen, 66, is the chairman of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Georgia, which pulls together community leaders from eight Georgian cities with Jewish populations.

Those cities are now rent apart, effectively isolated by the Russian army, which patrols Georgia’s main east-west highway with impunity.

All day Monday and Tuesday, Mesingisen passed the black bags through the window to family after family, most of whom are from Gori. He smiled to everyone from beneath his black kipah as a photo of the Lubavitcher rebbe looked on.

Some of those that made their way to Tbilisi were easy to find, but some had no idea that Jewish organizations were looking for them and wanted to help.

More than 50,000 refugees are scattered across Tbilisi and its environs. Those without family in the capital or special organizations to help them are living in makeshift shelters without beds that smell of days-old perspiration. Or they may be staying in tent camps on the city outskirts.

In this regard, at least, the Georgian Jewish refugees are lucky.

“What do you think? Are you glad to be a Jew today?” Mesingisen asks the refugees at his window. “We’re not happy today, but we’re glad that we were born Jews.”

When the conflict began, Mesingisen got on his phone and started the search, using what is referred to here as “Jewish radio” to mine the social connections of the close-knit communities and bring them back into the fold.

Some Jews fell through the cracks, and JDC officials visited the refugee camps over the weekend looking for stragglers.

Among others, they found the Yosefbashvilis. The five-member family fled Gori on Sunday as the Russian troops crossed into the city. Once in Tbilisi, they registered with the government’s refugee office and were sent to a school, where they stayed two nights with no beds and dozens more refugees.

Two of the three teenagers in Tomas Yosefbashvili’s family study at university in Tbilisi, but they didn’t have anywhere to turn in the capital. Now they have two rooms in a hotel 20 yards from the Jewish community center.

On Tuesday they picked up their food and aid. Before that, they only had their documents and the clothes they were wearing.

“I already knew that the Jewish people were good people, but now I can put a stamp on it,” Yosefbashvili said, referring to the official stamp needed to accomplish anything in former Soviet countries.

Most of the refugees have found shelter with Jewish families in Tbilisi who have opened their homes to their fellow Jews. One family alone is hosting 22 refugees, JDC officials said.

From her office in the corner of the community center, Elen Berkovich has managed another piece of the aid puzzle. As a representative of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, she has parsed out thousands of dollars in cash handouts to refugees, ranging from $200 to $500 per family, depending on need.

The funds come from the congress, headed by Kazakh oligarch Alexander Machkevich, but the cash flowed under the urging of Josef Zissels, the congress’ representative in Ukraine – another country eyeing Russia’s actions in Georgia with trepidation.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday that Georgian troops would begin to pull out, but they appear only to have dug deeper into the vital arteries of this mountainous republic.

Relief agencies are preparing for a protracted effort to maintain the well-being of Georgia’s Jews before they can move on with the work of rehabilitation, said Amir Ben Zvi, a Ukraine-based staff member of the JDC’s Georgia operation.

The situation is even more desperate for those on the other side of Russian lines – in Gori and other cities. The road to Gori is lined with Russian snipers, checkpoints and tree-camouflaged tanks.

No Western reporters have been allowed to enter the city through the main road for days and relief workers have been let through sparingly. On Tuesday, Sergey Vlasov made the trip as head of the JDC’s Tbilisi office and a Georgian citizen.

The JDC had a list there of 27 Jews remaining in the city. Vlasov and his driver found all of them, including three Israelis.

After a brief skirmish with Ossetian militia, Vlasov was able to make the trip back to Tbilisi and report to the families of the Gori Jews with whom he spoke. Those still there have no desire to leave, say JDC and Jewish Agency officials, mostly concerned that their property will be looted.

Concerned that their efforts might be stymied, the JDC has signed a mutual cooperation agreement with the Georgian Red Cross to assure continued assistance to the Jews still in need.

The JDC, meanwhile, says the number of Jews in Tbilisi is 4,000 to 4,500, well below the 10,000 estimated by Jewish groups when their latest efforts began.

The Jewish Agency is preparing to send some 50 teenagers from the local communities, at an estimated cost of $1,500 to $1,700 per child, to Israel for a 10-day camp experience. The program, slated for early September, is to provide a respite for 13- to 16-year-olds caught in the conflict.

For certain, the hardest-hit city in the conflict has been the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russian and Georgian forces leveled the city in fierce fighting as the war broke out.

The city’s two dozen Jews fled north to Russia, but rumors persisted that one Jew – an old woman – had stayed behind.

On Monday, JDC workers in Tbilisi were jubilant: They had found Rivka Rosa Jinjikhashvili, 71, in the middle of the war zone, and someone would be visiting her home to cook a hot meal later that day.

But Jinjikhashvili’s home is in ruins. She has moved to a summer annex nearby, and no one knows when her city will come back to life again around her.

(JTA senior editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.)

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