The streets of Zugdidi are busy with people hurrying to work, to school, to the market. In summertime, they pass a person begging for a lari or five every few hundered meters. Usually a young woman or a middle-aged man with a child on their lap or in a wheelchair. Most people don´t stop. They turn away their heads and pretend not to notice.
Now, as the weather turns colder, homeless people gather to the bigger towns, where they have more chances to get money and shelter. According to the international humanitarian group World Vision, there could be near 2500 children in the streets of the four biggest towns in Georgia (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi). Nobody knows the real number of homeless children and those forced to work the streets for a living.
And the living they make is well within the average income. According to a study from 2008, beggars daily wages are about 20 to 50 lari a day. Children earn more than adults. People are moved by their sad looks and small trembling hands that hold boxes with pictures of icons.
Most of these children in the big towns come from Georgian families. The rest are minorities, like Romas and Azeri-Kurds. In Zugdidi, the begging families seem to be mostly immigrants. The women wear colorful dresses and scarves on their head to protect them from sun. The children are barefoot and skinny. Rarely have they even a water bottle with them, not to mention any food.
What becomes of these children when they grow up and lose the “cute-factor”? With no formal education, chances of finding a real job are practically nonexistent. If these children don´t find a place at a daycare or transition centre, they will stay on the streets, being often the main source of incomefor their families. And if begging isn´t efficient anymore, girls turn to prostitution and boys to theft. Then they will have children of their own, with no roof over their heads or enough food to stay healty. The circle continues.
Currently, there are only two daycare centers for the street children, both in Tbilisi. There is also a transitional centre, to help these children find a better way of living off the street, and another one in Rustavi, a town half an hour away from the capital.
The children grow up with constant humiliation and abuse, both verbal and physical. Their self-esteem is low and motivation to find a better life grows smaller by day. They adapt. They learn, that the words of random passers-by don´t matter. And hopefully, they will not give up on the kindness and humanity.
Talvike Mändla is an Estonian volunteer currently on a one-year placement in Zugdidi. She recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Special Education. You can read more of here work on her blog.