Building bridges between cultures: pre-school education for minorities in Georgia
By UNICEF Georgia
High on a bleak, snow-covered plateau in Georgia’s remote south-western region – near the borders with Armenia and Turkey – the village of Gorelovka appears at first sight like a relic of a bygone era. With its low, thatched-roof buildings – once housing people but now only cattle – and its intricately designed Russian-style houses, Gorelovka is at both the crossroads and the dead-end of different cultures.
The village has a sleepy air, blanketed in snow, with wood-smoke curling out of chimneys. Yet in a once-grand government-owned building in the village centre, there is a sudden flurry of activity. A group of some 20 villagers have gathered to hear about plans to set up a pre-school in the building – a first for Gorelovka. Fathers of young children for the most part (with mothers busy at home), they listen attentively as Aleksander Kalandadze of the Georgian NGO Civitas, UNICEF’s local partner, explains how the new project will work.
“This is not simply a solution for ‘child-sitting’,” emphasises Aleksander, “but something that is essential for children’s development.” He explains that, unlike traditional kindergartens, children aged 3-6 would be mixed in one group, interacting through guided play and activities, and would attend for no more than five hours a day. Classes would not exceed 20 children, allowing for individualized attention. A teacher would be trained in a specially designed methodology. The project would also provide furniture, toys and educational resources. And – crucially – parents had to be committed to make the project work, both in helping with necessary repairs and refurbishment, and in volunteering to assist the teacher. This would help to keep costs down – which would eventually be assumed by the local authorities – and help to ensure the project’s sustainability.
The first priority, says Aleksander, is to fix the building’s toilets and the heating. As they stamp their feet up and down, their breath crystallising in the bitter cold, the villagers agree enthusiastically.
They see various benefits coming out of a pre-school in their village – not least as a way to help build relations between Gorelovka’s three main ethnic groups: Armenian, Georgian and Dukhobor Russian.
A two-year project on providing access to quality early education for disadvantaged children in Georgia started in September 2011, with financial support from IKEA and the participation of two local NGOs, Civitas Georgia and the Centre for Educational Initiative. The project envisages the establishment of 40 alternative pre-school centres in remote rural areas of Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli and Shida Kartli, where presently there are no pre-schools. The centres will be established in existing municipal or school buildings, then refurbished and equipped, and staff recruited and trained. Local municipalities will take over the centres once the project is completed.
Tsira Khitarishvili, who will be trained as the teacher of the new school, is unequivocal on this point. “Of course pre-school will be important for individual children’s development, but here it will also help build relations between the different ethnic groups. Right now the cross-over between different ethnicities here is limited, mostly because of the language factor, but also for cultural reasons.” Tsira is quite exceptional in that she speaks Georgian, Russian and Armenian. Few of the ethnic Russians and Armenians in the village speak Georgian, but this will be the predominant language at pre-school. “Learning the language at this young age will definitely be a big advantage to the children later on,” says Tsira, who is the mother of teenaged boys. “Otherwise their opportunities for further study or employment will be even more limited.”
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorelovka village was predominantly Dukhobor – a minority sect exiled from Russia in the 19th century, with links to Tolstoy (he provided money to build the Russian school in the village). After two successive waves of emigration to Russia in the 1990s, and for many eventually to Canada, the number of Dukhobors dwindled drastically, and now only about 40 families remain. While unemployment is endemic in the area, with most people trying to scratch a living from cattle and potatoes in the face of winters up to nine months long, the economic and social conditions of the Dukhobors are particularly difficult. The language barrier increases their sense of isolation, further limiting their job opportunities. Alcohol abuse is rife and the suicide rate amongst young men worryingly high.
Ethnic Armenians are now in the majority in Gorelovka – at around 120 families – followed by some 70 Georgian families, mostly economic migrants from the mountainous areas of the nearby Adjara region bordering Turkey. There are currently three schools in the village, one for each ethnic group, with three different main languages of instruction.
Nazi Devadze is just one villager who hopes that one day this situation will change, and that schools will become fully bilingual. She claims to be unique in being the only person in Gorelovka in a mixed marriage. While she is Georgian, her husband Oleg Zubkov is Dukhobor. They have two teenaged children who speak both languages fluently, and a seven month-old baby. “We will definitely be sending our youngest to pre-school,” says Natzi. “It will be great for interaction with other children and to help them develop. And it’s really important for all the children here to learn Georgian at an early age, since when they’re older it’s the only way to be able to get a proper job.” Although Nazi and her family had previously lived in Moscow, they returned to Gorelovka because her husband’s relations were determined to stay. “Life is hard here, but the family is most important,” Nazi insists.
The Armenian community in Gorelovka is also enthusiastic about the potential benefits of a pre-school. Varsenik Kiuregyan is a primary school teacher in the local Armenian school, as is her daughter. “It is absolutely necessary to have a pre-school,” says Varsenik, “otherwise, when kids start school it’s as if they’ve grown up on the street. They have no skills, no sense of structure, and don’t know how to socialise with other children.”
A private initiative to set up a small pre-school in someone’s home in the village last year failed because of lack of resources.
A pre-school would bring other benefits too, according to Varsenik. “Many kids here don’t have much in the way of toys at home, or stimulating activities, so the pre-school would provide that, and in a safe, good environment. Another important result would be children learning Georgian at a young age. The methodology now is much better than before, when I was trying to learn. Now my six year-old grandson is teaching me some Georgian!” she laughs.
Olga Muskhelishvili, a teacher trainer working for Civitas, says “Just one outcome of this UNICEF project will be minority children having the chance to learn Georgian, and in this way helping to better integrate the different ethnic groups into society. The apparent enthusiasm and commitment of the community here will definitely help to make this a reality.”