Resorting to separation, emigration and theft to survive
In the mysterious country of Georgia, poverty has dug deep down, between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea. Georgia is a country that plays tricks on its visitors. In the center of the capital, Tbilisi, the atmosphere seems lively, colorful and alluring. But driving just 20 minutes outside of the center will change your view. And driving two hours outside the city will make you feel as though you have time-traveled, to a grimmer black and white world.
The peach farming Davitadze family has coped with many kinds of storms, dealt by weather, the economy and trade policy.
“We never know how good or bad the year will be; we just hope that we make enough to feed everyone, and keep the heat on in the winter,” said a family member I’ll call Levan Davitadze, 23, who has worked on farms since he was eight years old.
His name, and the names of several others in this story, has been changed, at their request.
Hail and severe storms often endanger family farms like theirs. Very few are lucky enough to have their farms insured; most must deal with the damages on their own.
“I have to help my family survive,” Davitadze said.
The six-member Davitadze family believed their hard work would always bring a reward, even if it was a small one. Unfortunately, that belief has betrayed them.
In 2017, Georgia suddenly closed off its foreign market, leaving the Davitadzes and hundreds of others in the area with no way to sell their crops, and no options for generating income. The families watched most of their peaches rot on the trees that year, as harvesting them was more costly than selling them.
Levan Davitadze recalls his grandmother crying as she watched the peaches fall from the trees.
That year passed slowly. For months, most of the family’s meals consisted of their own frozen peaches. Once their supply ran low, they asked friends and neighbors for any help they could give. They bundled up in old duvets, to keep warm during the harsh winter weather. And when spring finally arrived, it was time to start over.
“We pray every day that a year like that never comes again,” said Levan Davitadze, knowing that the risks are very high due to the ever growing corruption and instability of Georgia.
More than 46 percent of Georgians lived in poverty in 2020, according to World Bank statistics. After a period of improvement, things seem to be taking a turn for the worse. Over the past decade, poverty had been declining, to 32 percent in 2014. The poverty rate then began to rebound, and had risen to 42 percent by 2019.
Nearly half the population works in agriculture, which only generates about 10 percent of national GDP. Instead, real estate and banking generates much of the country’s income growth – and not much of that money makes its way to the agricultural population, which struggles to afford education and health care, according to a study by the Borgen Project.
A 25-year-old single mother of two I’ll call Lela Tevzadze faces a different problem. Her husband was killed in a work accident three years ago, when he was just 30 years old.
“The only reasons keeping me alive are my girls,” said Tevzadze, who has been raising her two daughters in a small village, with the help of a friend.
When her husband died, Tevzadze lost her house. She had no job, no family and nowhere to stay.
“I begged my friend to take care of my daughters for a few months – until I got back on my feet,” she said.
Tevzadze decided to cross the border to Turkey, to buy low-priced products in bulk — mostly shirts — and sell them back in Georgia. A group of women would help her sneak the products in, so they could avoid paying taxes.
“It is a very stressful situation every time, but I don’t have another choice,” Tevzadze said, pointing out that most jobs in Georgia do not pay enough to support a family. In 2020, the average monthly income of a Georgian household was $368, according to the National Statistics Office. It has decreased since.
Tevzadze now travels to Turkey multiple times each year, while her children continue to live with their “auntie.” Leaving her daughters behind is the last thing she wants to do, but she believes it’s the only way they’ll have a chance to have a future.
Many families are trying to climb out of the poverty hole. Some are forced to take even more extreme measures.
Every few months, Shalva Kupradze – a pseudonym — goes abroad to Europe, on a mission to steal. While abroad, Kupradze, 27, steals from stores, homes, or people’s wrists.
“It’s not something I’m proud of, but I have to feed my family somehow,” he said, adding that he regretted the harm he has caused others.
Kupradze has a regular job at home, at a lumber manufacturing factory, but says the pay doesn’t cover even half of his family’s needs. With a newborn at home, Kupradze wants to improve his living conditions. He wants to move out of his dilapidated apartment in the city, and create a happy and safe childhood for his daughter. He believes that theft is the only avenue to that goal.
When he collects a few luxury items, he sells them to pawn shops in the cities he visits.
“I know it’s risky, I could be arrested any day. But if this will let me provide for my family, I will take the risk,” said Kupradze, as he prepared for another trip abroad.
The Kupradze family hopes to save enough money to emigrate out of Georgia.
“My wife and I see absolutely no future here,” he insisted. “We don’t want our daughter growing up in a country that won’t support her.”
As corruption deepens, poverty follows. Some families lucky enough to scrape together enough money do eventually make it out of the country, and sometimes out of poverty. Every year, more than 100,000 citizens emigrate from Georgia, escaping to any other country in the world. But most are not so lucky.
A Georgian Orthodox Church priest, Father Giorgi Batiashvili, often finds children and elderly people begging outside of his church.
“We are supposed to serve the people, offer help to those who need it, but we can’t,” said Father Batiashvili, who is heartbroken over the state of his country.
The church survives on donations. In a country with such high poverty rates, though, many cannot donate.
“I get compensated 200 lari a month,” (just under $65, and an unlivable wage). Father Batiashvili has dedicated his life to the church, and does not use any money for himself. He tries to do what he can, to help those who need it most.
“Many people, entire families, have come to the church asking for housing,” which is rarely available, Father Batiashvili explained. The church can sometimes offer shelter to a few individuals, but hardly ever to families.
Father Batiashvili prays for these families every day.
“All I can do is offer faith and prayer, ask God to look over these struggling Georgian families,” he said. “No one else can help them.”