Dozens of Ukrainian refugees live in dire conditions in small, hardscrabble Georgian towns and have little access to aid.
A mother of six and grandmother of five, Valya Bondarenko is not keen to receive visitors in a tiny old flat in the small Georgian town of Kaspi. "All sorts of people come and ask us questions, but nobody has given us any help," scoffs the 50-year-old.
Wearing a tired gray tracksuit with pink streaks, Bondarenko is upset to see what her life has come to. Living in a poor Georgian family's home, she and her two youngest children are taking up precious space and she can't even pay her share of the utility bills.
Unlike in bigger cities, authorities in Kaspi offer no financial assistance to Ukrainian refugees who wound up in the struggling little town some 60 miles from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. There are no humanitarian aid distribution points here and the town barely has any jobs to spare.
"Half of Kaspi works for the cement factory, the other works in the market," said Badri Alimbegashvili, who took Bondarenko into his home. "Otherwise, there is nothing going on here. It's still bright outside, but as you can see there is not a soul in the streets already."
On a winter day, washing lines bring the only specks of color to the evenly spaced gray housing projects and two-story private homes that make up Kaspi. Seven Ukrainian refugee families that live in and around the town rely on help from locals.
Teachers at the school in Kaspi raised a little cash to help Bondarenko's children buy winter coats and school supplies. "At the stores and markets, people often give us fruit and vegetables for free, but people are very poor here and have their own families to sustain," Bondarenko said.
Bondarenko fled to Georgia with her two youngest children when Russian troops advanced toward her farmhouse in Donetsk Oblast. "They were closing in fast, so we dropped everything and went with the evacuation team," she said. "I barely managed to open the barn doors and let out all the animals – cows, calves, chicken – to give them a chance to survive."
Georgia has become a key layover point for tens of thousands of Ukrainians, especially those who fled from the eastern, Russian-occupied part of their country. Of nearly 224,000 entries by Ukrainian citizens into Georgia last year (numbers are based on Border Police data, which might include multiple entries by single citizens), the majority proceeded to other destinations, mainly in the European Union. But an estimated 25,000 chose to stay, partly because they could get by with the Russian language here and because Georgia, being a fellow ex-Soviet state, offers familiarity.
"There is still quite a lot of mobility with Ukrainians both coming to and leaving Georgia, but I'd say a significant majority [of the 25,000] feel the need to stay here and build new lives, at least for the foreseeable future, a year or two, maybe more," said Kemlin Furley, the UNHCR representative in Georgia.
"Ukrainians report that there are also many enquiries from others in other European countries, who think Georgia would be a better option than, say, the Netherlands or Germany, where the culture and language feel more alien. Georgia offers familiarity as well as solidarity."
A lot of Ukrainians also chose Georgia because they had personal connections here. Bondarenko and her twins, a 15-year-old boy and girl, traveled to Kaspi because they had acquaintances there. Her oldest sons joined the Ukrainian army and her oldest daughters fled to Poland.
"Ukrainians that you meet in small towns like Kaspi or Gori have some family or friends there. They came because they knew they could at least have a temporary roof over their heads," said Tsiala Darakhvelidze, a researcher with Betlemi, a non-profit that tracks down Ukrainians living in Georgia's central region of Shida Kartli and studies their needs. "But, unlike those in Tbilisi, they ended up isolated and far away from everything, including aid options," Darakhvelidze told Eurasianet.
The same appears to be true for Ukrainians who wound up in other regions of Georgia, such as Kakheti, in the east, and Samegrelo, in the west.
The cement factory, Kaspi's single biggest employer, paid Bondarenko's rent for three months. Then she moved in with Alimbegashvili as a caretaker for his ailing aunt. The aunt soon passed away, but Alimbegashvili let Bondarenko and her kids stay at his flat. "Yes, we don't have much space, but they have nowhere to go," he said.
Bondarenko briefly got a job at the local food cannery, earning the equivalent of $7 a day, but when the winter frost hit she got a bad cold and could not continue working in the unheated facility. "So here we are. Living in someone's home and burdening this kind man and his family," Bondarenko said with a shrug. "In Ukraine I had a job, a farm and an allowance as a mother of many children, here I live off crumbs."
A poor nation with a large displaced population of its own, Georgia does not offer a single, across-the-board regular allowance to Ukrainian refugees like many European Union states do. Instead there are short-term, municipal-level assistance programs that selectively reach some.
The Tbilisi Mayor's Office, for instance, sponsored meals and hotel accommodation for several thousand refugees up until August last year. Then the city authorities switched to handing out a monthly allowance of 300 lari (about $113) per household, plus 45 lari ($17) per person. But Ukrainians who did not stay in hotels in Tbilisi at the expense of the Mayor's Office don't get this allowance.
In the city of Gori, some 24 miles east of Kaspi, municipal authorities pick up the tab for rent (up to $150) for Ukrainian families, but beyond that these families (about 10 of them) have to fend for themselves.
"I was lucky that my daughter was already here when I arrived and I have a place to stay," said Vita Tereshko, a midwife from Mykolaiv. "We are certainly doing better than others who live here, but it is difficult for us too."
Tereshko's daughter, Svetlana, married a Georgian and moved to Gori, the stubbornly proud birthplace of Joseph Stalin, the architect of one of the darkest chapters in Ukraine's history, the 1930s famine known as the Holodomor. The couple began expanding and renovating their house – a few blocks away from Stalin Avenue – to make space for Svetlana's two children from her first marriage. The children, Kira (12) and Nazarik (9), had been living with their grandparents back in Ukraine.
But the war turned their plans upside down. When a powerful explosion blew out all the doors and windows of her farmhouse, Vita Tereshko knew that it was time to leave. Using back roads and hiding under highway bridges during airstrikes, they managed to escape from the Mykolaiv area and, after a long and circuitous journey, reached Poland. Svetlana left her third, newborn child in Gori and traveled to Poland to pick up her family.
"We were doing all right financially before that, but my savings quickly ran out as I had to pay for everyone's flights and for the hotel I got in Poland while we were getting everyone's travel papers in order," Svetlana said. "Fortunately, my in-laws stepped in and paid for the renovations, otherwise we would be living in a construction site now."
Svetlana and her husband also took other Ukrainian refugees into their Gori home: a mother and daughter from Dnipro. "We did receive little bits of aid here and there, gift cards from drug stores and school suppliers," Svetlana said. "Generally, people try to help us when they find out that we are Ukrainians."
"What Ukrainians need here first and foremost is cash assistance for rent and sustenance," said Tetiana Chernyshenko. Herself an escapee from Ukraine, she works as the Ukrainian community outreach officer at the Tbilisi office of World Vision, a humanitarian aid and development group. Her job is to help consult fellow Ukrainians about assistance options in Georgia.
Several international organizations present in Georgia, like UNHCR, World Vision, Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund and Care Caucasus, run cash assistance programs targeting the most vulnerable families. Between that and the government aid, many Ukrainians manage to piece together enough to sustain themselves, but some are not even aware of aid options available to them.
"We found out that Ukrainians in this region live in an information vacuum," Darakhvelidze, the researcher, said. "They don't even meet one another to learn about the resources that are available to them."
The cost of healthcare is the second biggest problem for the Ukrainian refugees, Chernyshenko told Eurasianet. "Select healthcare services are available for free for the Ukrainians who came here after February 24 last year, but many Ukrainians and even some healthcare providers don't know about that, and the mechanics of it can be complicated," she said. "So we are explaining to Ukrainians what steps they need to take to access healthcare services and we are also talking to the clinics and hospitals."
Finally, Ukrainians need jobs, but there are not too many openings in Georgia to begin with, and there are even fewer options for those who don't speak Georgian. "It is really hard to get decently paying jobs unless you happen to be an IT expert able to work remotely," UNHCR's Furley said. "The Russian language is very helpful to navigate with on an everyday basis, but for working, you need Georgian."
Some Ukrainians moved to Batumi, Georgia's main beach destination, hoping for employment in tourism, Furley said. However, in Batumi and Tbilisi Ukrainians found themselves competing with Russians for jobs and apartments. Russians dodging the draft or evading financial sanctions or state persecution flocked to Georgia in the tens of thousands last year. Far outnumbering the Ukrainians, the Russians priced many Ukrainians and even Georgians out of rental homes. Many Ukrainians moved to the outskirts of bigger cities or even further afield in search of affordable housing.
Ukrainian children living in small towns attend Georgian language schools, where they don't understand much. The Georgian government made public schools free for Ukrainian children and sponsored the opening of two Ukrainian-language schools in the biggest cities, Tbilisi and Batumi, but Kaspi and Gori don't even have Russian language schools, let alone a Ukrainian one.
In Kaspi, schoolteachers volunteer to stay extra hours and help Bondarenko's children with translation and homework. "They have learned to count in Georgian and they understand bits of conversation, but still it is very hard for them at school," Bondarenko said.
Svetlana says she was lucky to have found a Russian-speaking private tutor who agreed to help her daughter Kira with homework and Georgian language for a small fee. "Thanks to her, Kira picked up some Georgian," Svetlana said. "She even brought six children from her school to her 12th birthday. Only one of them spoke some Russian, but they used translation apps on their phones and still somehow managed to have a great time."
Kira proudly presented a notebook with her handwriting in Georgian. "When I grow up I will become a flight attendant so I obviously need to speak many languages," she said.
As the war in Ukraine enters its second year and with no end in sight, Furley hopes that the Georgian authorities will come up with more comprehensive solutions for Ukrainians in Georgia, improving access to education and, especially, healthcare. "We understand there are heavy budgetary implications and this is not easy," Furley said. "But longer-term stays in this country for 25,000 or so [...] will be very difficult without this."