A glimmer of hope and support for a better life in a war-scarred city - Ochamchire’s rehabilitation centre for children with disabilities
By Sarah Marcus for UNICEF GeorgiaLong tree-lined streets stretch down to the glimmering sea, children walk home from school past houses set back from the road in their own gardens. It could be any seaside town, but look more closely and you’ll see that many of the houses are burnt-out shells and that the children walking home are scarce.
Ochamchire, in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, is a town which still bore the brunt of the war of 1992-1993. The scars of war are visible in this town, but there is something else visible too – a sign of hope and planning for the future of the children of Ochamchire and its surrounding area.
This sign of hope is located in an old building in the town. A chilly stone staircase leads to a set of brightly-lit, well-equipped therapy and learning rooms where well-trained and determined staff work to improve the lot of children with disabilities.
This special rehabilitation centre was established as part of the UNICEF and World Vision partnership to provide medical services, psychosocial support and rehabilitative services for children with disabilities.
The pilot project to provide a rehabilitative centre for these children started for a six-month period in May 2009 and was successful enough to continue operating after the pilot period ended.
The now-departed United Nations Organisation Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) refurbished the centre in central Ochamchire and UNICEF provided it with special equipment to aid the rehabilitation of children with physical disabilities. UNICEF also refurbished a massage room, a computer room and provided two computers.
UNICEF also ran training for psychologists and physiotherapists as well as computer training. In addition, UNICEF gave the centre a grant with which it rented a vehicle to transport children to the centre for the six months of the pilot period.
About 80 people under the age of 25 from the Ochamchire region – where there are about 230 people with disabilities in total - attend the centre, and its efforts to support those with disabilities are enhanced by the possession of quality data – during the pilot period the centre ran an assessment to find out exactly who needed its services and where young people with disabilities in the region were located.
UNICEF supported the centre in compiling this assessment by providing database software as well as a specialist who could build the database and show centre staff how to run it.
The centre is part of the bigger EU supported project which aims at strengthening the community support to children and youth in conflict-affected areas of Abkhazia, including social inclusion, physical rehabilitation and psycho-social support to disabled children and their families.
Visiting the centre on a sunny winter’s day, there are plenty of people about to recount just what a positive difference it has made in their lives.
In the computer room Flora Tskvitishvili helps Nona Bulia to write and draw on the computer. Tskvitishvili has a disability herself and was trained to teach others how to use computers.
Both teacher and pupil seem engaged and involved in their work and proud to talk about it to visitors.
‘When I show others how to draw and write on the computer, or how to count, I see that they are interested. Also, children who cannot go to school can come to our centre and learn computers here – they have the opportunity to learn something and that is positive for them,’ said Tskvitishvili.
‘I think computers help in life, learning to use them is interesting and when we get the internet we will be able to see lots of what goes on in the world,’ said 23-year-old Bulia, smiling. Her interest in engaging with the outside world is an example of how attending the centre, getting out and meeting other people, can make young people with disabilities feel more positive and confident about life and the world they live in.
Before the centre opened there was nowhere in the Ochamchire region where children with disabilities could receive quality therapy and feel accepted in society, said Nadia Ilyasova.
Ilyasova’s nine-year-old nephew David has cerebral palsy. He weighs only 15 kilograms and has little power in his muscles. Before he started attending the centre he couldn’t speak at all.
Now he smiles brightly and having attended speech therapy at the centre, he is able to tell us his name and that he likes coming to the centre.
‘Walk, don’t run! Look straight ahead, look in the mirror! Stand up straight!’ calls out his aunt, who says that David, whose mother is in prison, is like a son for her.
David is exercising on one of the UNICEF-provided specialist machines. He also receives physiotherapy and his aunt, like other carers and parents of children attending the centre, is being taught massage techniques to use at home by the physiotherapist.
‘We really needed somewhere like this and since he’s been coming here we notice so many improvements,’ said Ilyasova.
‘He can speak now and we are even thinking of sending him to school,’ she added.
It is not only the children and their carers who appreciate the establishment of the centre. Those who have received specialist training are also full of praise for what they have learnt.
‘This was the first time we had something like this,’ said massage therapist Irina Svizhba.
‘Having special training really helped us. We learned a lot and now we see the results of this training. We really like it and so do the children,’ she concluded.
The pilot project which established the centre may be over but the staff and the director of the centre are determined to continue its work. It is planned to open two similar centres in other towns of Abkhazia.
Such a plan can only be a good thing for children with disabilities all over Abkhazia. In Ochamchire, it’s clear that their lot has been immeasurably improved and they have gone from having no social support to having a centre designed specially for them and run by well-trained, dedicated staff. Such a centre also helps the parents of children with disabilities and a parents’ support group has been formed at the Ochamchire centre.
‘We are so happy with the centre. Here he is supported properly and so are we. Here the children like him and understand him and he is making friends,’ said nine-year-old David’s aunt, in words which sum up just what a big difference the centre has made.