Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Gypsies Still on the Margins in Georgia
Many gypsy children do not go to school at all. (Photo: Shorena Latatia)
Darina Seitova supports her family by begging. (Photo: Shorena Latatia)
A gypsy girl in Tbilisi. (Photo: Shorena Latatia)
The education ministry says it is making determined efforts to get gypsy children to attend school. (Photo: Shorena Latatia)
Children in a gypsy neighbourhood of Tbilisi. (Photo: Shorena Latatia)
Despite efforts to improve the gypsy community’s image in Georgia, including a music and dance festival held this summer, most people know next to nothing about them.
When I attended the festival, I realised that although gypsies can regularly be seen begging or trading on the streets of the capital Tbilisi, I had never actually spoken to one.
That thought prompted me to take a taxi to Tbilisi’s Navtughli neighbouhood, home to 17 gypsy families.
When I got out of the car, two children stopped playing and looked at me with broad smiles.
“Is that a camera, auntie? Are you going to photograph me? Go on, take my picture,” said one of them, striking a comic pose.
Three others came up, attracted by the commotion, among them Khade, a little girl. She was fascinated by my ring and bracelet and wanted to have them, despite my insistence that they would be too big for her.
Eventually, I gave in and took off the ring for her, but told her I was keeping the bracelet. That was enough for her, and we all sat down and started talking.
“I’ve been going to school for three years, but I don’t have exercise books or textbooks yet,” said one of the boys, Khvicha Alimov.
It was the day before the start of the school year, but Khvicha turned out to be the only one in the group who would be going. The rest would be out selling things on the street or begging.
One of their fathers told me he saw no need for his children to get an education.
Ensuring that gypsy children attend school is a key recommendation in a report written by the Georgian state ombudsman’s office.
Judging from the children I met, the education ministry faces an uphill task.
A representative of the ministry, Lela Tskitishvili, said the authorities were doing their best to ensure gypsies were integrated.
“As usual, there are several reasons why gypsies don’t go to school. namely poverty, the lack of identification papers, and the language barrier. We are trying to help them solve those problems,” she said. “In the Kakheti region [eastern Georgia], we discovered that the gypsies lived a long way away from the school…. So we laid on free buses, and now they go to school.”
I walked on, with Khade running behind me. She invited me into her home, a two-storey brick house with buckets full of washing in the front garden.
In one room, her 30-year-old father Jamal Ahmedov was lying in bed with liver disease.
He told me his story, “We moved to Georgia from Azerbaijan 11 or so years ago. I supported my family from what I earn trading at the market. But for the last month I’ve been stuck in bed. At the hospital, once they hear I have no documents and no money, they refuse to treat me.”
The whole family now relies on Ahmedov’s mother, who works as a market trader as well.
Ahmedov has five children including Khade, aged from five months to 13 years old. None of them has identity cards, and he said he was unaware of social support programmes, benefits or medical insurance.
Outside the Ahmedovs’ house, I met Elvira Mamedova, who showed me photos of her two children and begged me to help her.
“My husband is in prison. These are my two children, a boy and a girl. The girl was picked up by the police 20 days ago and sent to a children’s home. I went to the home but they wouldn’t give me my child. They told me I’d have to bring a birth certificate. But I don’t have one, and I don’t even know how to get one,” she said.
Mamedova’s story reflects a common experience pf exclusion from the mainstream state systems.
During the summer festival, organised by the European Centre for Minority Issues to raise awareness about gypsies, a few individuals were given identity cards, but they are exceptions. Most gypsies have no legal identity, making them one of the most marginalised ethnic groups in the country.
A spokesman for Georgia’s justice ministry said the authorities were keen to bring gypsies into the system.
“The civil registry helps everyone who needs any kind of identification document,” he said. “ID cards are very important for gypsies, because they need to become fully-entitled citizens of Georgia. We would urge all gypsies to obtain ID cards and become Georgian citizens.”
The ombudsman’s office says the government needs to work harder to issue identity papers to gypsies, get their children into the school system, and improve conditions in the areas where they live.
For the moment, gypsies will continue making a living as best they can.
“I support my family by begging,” said Darina Seitova, whom I met during my visit. “Kind people do help me.”
Shorena Latatia is a freelance journalist in Georgia.
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