International Rescue CommitteeBehind the Scenes: Georgia's Tina Shalamberidze
If you've ever been to VB Madison Avenue, you may have met assistant store manager, Tina Shalamberidze. And if you have, you'll know she's warm, friendly and always ready to help with a smile. What you may not know is her unexpected and inspiring life journey—and its connection to the International Rescue Committee, our #VBGIVESBACK partner this quarter.
Shalamberidze is an ex-pat of Georgia, on the Eastern coast of the Black Sea, which was invaded and annexed by Russia two decades ago. It's a story not unlike those you're hearing from Ukraine right now. Shalamberidze knows bombings. She knows devastation. She knows the vise-like grip of anxiety when you worry about family and friends in the midst of war.
Shalamberidze also knows the great impact—and necessity—of an organization such as the IRC, which responds to the world's worst humanitarian crises, helping people to survive and rebuild their lives. After Georgia lost Abkhazia, a region in the north, to the Russians in the late Nineties, the nonprofit arrived to help local communities. Shalamberidze started out as a recipient of its aid, then became a volunteer and, eventually, a full-time employee.
"What the IRC does is so important," says Shalamberidze, who was on staff from 1999 to 2004. "Most people think it's just giving food or living essentials, here and there. What it's giving is so much more. IRC stays in the countries and helps long-term." By employing Georgians like Shalamberidze, for example, the organization is able to boost the country's economy while simultaneously having a large team to make real impact—from medical assistance to helping small businesses to giving much-needed support to orphaned children and struggling families.
“It’s amazing what hope can give to people and the way it can change their lives," she continues, "It does change lives. I’ve seen it.”
Here, Shalamberidze shares an insider view of the IRC and its good works.
It was amazing in many ways. Not only did it create organizations that would help the community, but it also gave so many jobs to people. My town, Kutaisi, is small so every other family there had someone who worked for the IRC—as project managers, monitoring managers, drivers, etc. It was good because the salaries were much higher than what Georgian jobs were offering. So that helped the economy, too.
What your role there?
I worked at a sub-organization within the IRC called the Vocational Training and Job Center, which was based in my town. When the IRC goes into a country, the first stage is humanitarian aid—that’s first-response help—but then they stay and help people get back on their feet. That’s what we did at the VTJC—we trained people in different fields. We had courses in business administration, business management, computer science, English, German, French—everything. Then, after training, we would help people get jobs. We also had programs to help farmers and small businesses. We would give them the funding they needed and monitor them throughout the years.
What the IRC does is so important. Most people think it's just giving food or living essentials, here and there. What it's giving is so much more. IRC stays in the countries and helps long-term, all the way through, every step of the process.
What was your most memorable moment there?
Visiting the orphanages. I would go to different remote villages that were really, really struggling—they didn’t even have electricity or hot water. We would meet with the children, help them paint their walls in colorful colors and things like that. These are experiences I will never forget in my life. The faces of the people you’re helping, even if you’re just bringing them a little food—that was the most touching for me.
We also went to a center for troubled teenagers. After you meet them, you realize that these are just children—whatever petty crimes they did, they were just a product of their lives. Their hearts were so pure; these kids just needed love. We would buy their lunch, sit with them and eat together, or paint their rooms and renovate their spaces. I would spend days talking to them and translating for them. We also had IRC volunteers from America, who would open up and share their lives with them. These kids became so hopeful by that—they struggle every day and it’s hard for them to give each other hope because they’re already in a pattern of everyday frustration. But when outsiders come in and give them hope, that makes a difference.
In fact, one of the boys who was at that center ended up going to university in my town! He visited me when he came and, later, when he wanted to come to America, I helped him fill out papers and everything. You can only give so much money, so many clothes, but once you talk to people and give them hope, that impacts their future actions.
I remember a doctor visited from Kentucky, and I was his interpreter. And, oh my God, the way people would look at him… Even if he was just talking to them, they looked at him as if he could cure cancer. Honestly, that helped them, at least psychologically—he was giving them hope. It’s amazing what hope can give to people and the way it can change their lives. It does change lives. I’ve seen it.
What were some of the challenges of the job?
Even though it gave me so much joy to help people, it could also be very dark. It’s not easy because you realize you can’t help with everything. At the orphanages, I always wanted to do more. You want to help these kids on a daily basis, but that’s humanly impossible unless you adopt them. So, it’s hard in that way.
You see a lot of bad things, too. You see sick people and sick children. Their struggles are heavier because they don’t have a home or access to hot water or have financial issues.
How did you get through those difficult moments?
My family helped a lot. I learned to appreciate what I have and not take anything for granted—and remind myself to do what I can. I can’t say I was always successful at handling it; I cried a lot. But I also knew that I could continue to provide support. I stayed friends with a lot of the people we worked with. When I visit, I bring them clothes. I send money to my dad, who’s still in Georgia, and he helps some of the families who are still struggling.
What brought you to the U.S.?
When I came here in 2004, I was still working for the IRC. I planned on just staying a year; the IRC told me they would take me back when I returned. But then so many things were changing, politically, in Georgia. My dad lost his job and my mom was working. So I decided to stay longer and support them back home. To this day, I still send money to my family there and, after eight years apart, I was able to bring my son to the U.S.
It was terrible. In 2008, Putin bombed one of the biggest cities in Georgia, Gori. I was already here, but my son and parents were in Georgia. It was one of the hardest times I've ever been through. My dad was preparing the basement in our house, just in case, because there was a bombing two, three hours away from my town. They were constantly not sleeping, getting ready to go to the basement or figuring out a back-up plan to go somewhere else. I know what that must have been like. I remember when I was little and we lost Abkhazia. My dad bought guns, my parents were packing and asking, “Where shall we go? Where shall we go?”
What has it been like watching the Ukrainian crisis unfold?
You know, I’ve lived in this country for 17 years and know how it is—we’re all comfortable living our normal lives and these wars can seem so far away. But having experienced something like it… this is devastating. The Ukrainian crisis is so near to my heart because of that. Geographically, Georgia is very close to Ukraine—our nations are very mixed. Every other family has someone either mixed in or knows someone who is. A lot of Ukrainians live in Georgia, and a lot of Georgians live in Ukraine. My son's great-grandfather and grandmother are Ukrainian. The same thing with Russians. We have many Russian relatives, too. This war is not amongst the people; it’s the government. The people love each other.
How can we help?
Spread awareness about what the IRC is doing. And volunteer—it’s so important. Everyone should do it at least once in their life. You don't have to go outside of the country. There are so many things you can volunteer for in this country. We can be so caught up in our day-to-day lives—it’s nothing compared to people who are really struggling.
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