In early April, Yulia Shkodina went to a dental clinic in Tbilisi to apply for a job as a dental assistant. She wasn’t exactly the ideal candidate: She is a midwife, with no experience in dentistry. But the job listing also specified that the clinic wanted to hire a Ukrainian and so Shkodina, who had fled her home in Kharkiv, tried her luck.
She got the job. “I just wanted to help at least one Ukrainian in need,” said Nana Kinsturashvili, the clinic’s owner and chief dentist.
Kinsturashvili has some understanding of Shkodina’s plight: she, too, was a refugee. She was forced out of her home in Abkhazia in the war of the early 1990s, when most of the territory’s ethnic Georgian population was expelled, scattered to different parts of Georgia and around the world. Kinsturashvili moved to Ukraine, eventually opening a dental clinic in Luhansk.
“I know what it is like to lose everything overnight, to be left without a home and a country. I’ve been there,” she said.
“Ukrainians were incredibly kind to me then, when I was a scared young girl with nowhere to go,” Kinsturashvili told Eurasianet. “I hope I can do a tiny bit to help alleviate the suffering of at least one Ukrainian today. This is not charity. I’m returning a debt.”
More than 22,000 Ukrainians are now in Georgia, the majority refugees from the war that Russia launched at the end of February. That makes the number of Ukrainian refugees in Georgia today already greater than the Georgians displaced in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
“And their numbers are growing every day,” Andrii Kasianov, Ukraine’s chargé d’affaires in Georgia, told Eurasianet.
Georgia’s government is helping in a variety of ways. Tbilisi’s municipal government, for one, accommodated upwards of 1,500 Ukrainians in hotels around the city and is paying for their meals. Fees for the city’s public transportation, kindergartens and schools have been waved for all Ukrainians.
But there is a limit to how much the authorities can do in a low-income country like Georgia, where a massive number of citizens displaced by several of the country’s own conflicts still rely on government aid. Caring for the 1,500 refugees in Tbilisi totals than $21,000 a day, Kasianov said.
“Given the growing number of arrivals, this is a lot of money for a country like Georgia,” he said.
To help fill the gap, Georgian individuals and businesses have taken it upon themselves to host and employ Ukrainian refugees.
Since the war began, a number of groups have popped up in Georgia with the mission to help Ukrainians. Spend All Seasons in Georgia, social media-based platform created to promote tourism in Georgia in the wake of Russia’s 2019 ban on direct flights to the country, has now pivoted almost entirely to helping Ukrainian refugees.
Virtually every day, someone posts on the group’s Facebook page requesting help for an arrival from Ukraine. They invariably get scores of people in the comments jumping in to offer homes, clothes, cash, advice and rides from the airport into the city.
Georgians are also actively sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. “Every time I walk my dogs in a park, random people come up to me and offer donations,” said Kasianov, who is recognizable from his regular appearances on Georgian television these days. Individual Georgians have donated amounts ranging from five lari [about $1.50] to $30,000 dollars to a humanitarian aid fund set up by the embassy, he said.
Pages like Spend All Seasons in Georgia have also become instrumental in helping Ukrainians make their way to Georgia. When Shkodina was seeking to come to Georgia – via a circuitous route that took her by land to Moldova and Romania, then to Greece (where she had family) – she posted on the Facebook page looking for help.
Through that post she met Salome Patsatsia, in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi. Patsatsia, another displaced Georgian from Abkhazia, runs a charity group and through it collected food and clothes for Shkodina and her 13-year-old daughter. She also secured a supply of insulin for Shkodina’s diabetic husband. Patsatsia’s friend then found a free place for the family to live in Tbilisi, where the daughter now attends a new Ukrainian school.
“In Zugdidi, so far we have helped 15 Ukrainian families,” Patsatsia said. “They mostly needed accommodation, clothes and food, but there were also a few people with chronic diseases and special needs.” Most donations for Ukrainians came from ordinary people, but she also received assistance from businesses and government agencies, she said.
But Shkodina didn’t want to depend on aid for too long, so after moving to Tbilisi she and her husband began following a Telegram channel that lists job opportunities for Ukrainians. That’s where she came across the opening at Global Dent Art.
When she walked into Kinsturashvili’s office, the two women first embraced, and only then began to talk about the job. “I felt like I had come to visit a relative or family friend,” Shkodina said.
She started the next day. “Everyone at the clinic was patiently teaching me what to do and how,” Shkodina said. “They all were speaking Russian so I could understand what they were saying.”
She now watches from afar as Kharkiv is being methodically destroyed. Her parents are still there, having refused to abandon their home and fearing that they could have been a burden during Shkodina’s escape. “Ukraine is now full of elderly people who pushed their children and grandchildren to leave, but stayed behind themselves,” Shkodina said.
Her new job, though, helps her take her mind off the tragedy that has befallen her country.
In the reception room at the clinic, upbeat Ukrainian folk tunes play. A karaoke enthusiast, Kinsturashvili sings Ukrainian songs to her patients to alleviate the discomfort of a dental procedure. Shkodina sometimes chimes in to harmonize. In breaks between patients, the clinic’s all-female staff drinks prodigious amounts of coffee, exchanges jokes – in Russian for Shkodina’s sake – and fills Shkodina in on the hot gossip of Tbilisi.
Like many Georgians, the war in Ukraine feels personal for Kinsturashvili: Russia backs both self-proclaimed governments in Abkhazia and in Luhansk. “I call a place a home and then Russia comes to take it away from me,” she said with a bitter smile.
And she says she sees a bit of her younger self in her new assistant.
“I pride myself as a self-made woman, who started out as a young girl without a home, living in a foreign country and eventually ended up setting up my own business,” Kinsturashvili said. “But none of it would have happened if it were not for a few kind people who gave me a leg up in Ukraine.”