A silent cry - Senaki Institution for disabled children in Georgia
By Maya Kurtsikidze
February, 2007, Senaki, Georgia.
Two men with rifles on their shoulders meet us on the doorstep of the institution for disabled children in Senaki, small town in the west of Georgia. And the first question that makes us a bit anxious is – are we really in children’s institution? Yes, we are, the two men with rifles have just confirmed this and we appear in front of a big soviet-type gloomy building which looks like a prison more. A few big dilapidated blocks of the building look as a reminiscence of the past. Frightening darkness looks like black holes through the broken windows of the building. Nothing so far makes us think that we will meet children soon.
We are recalling what we already know about Senaki institution. There are 90 children of age 4-18. Most of the children are abandoned and never visited by their parents. Children there are completely isolated from the rest of the world. The placement of children in institution has mainly been based on unscientific diagnoses and without a genuine assessment of the level of support which kids require. Most of them are simply labeled as “mentally retarded” without the proper IQ and functional behavior assessments required by internationally accepted standards.
A few boys of age 14 meet us when we enter the building. They are a bit nervous as they are going to the concert soon. Their friends and inmates are going to sing at the charity concert, organized by the institution.
“I am a Director here”, says one of them “what do you want?” and he leads us to the cabinet of the director of the institution. “She is my Deputy”, says the boy.
We are invited to the big cabinet of the soviet set up and soon a young woman with a smile on her face meets us. Nino Mgaloblishvili is the Director of the Senaki Children’s Institution for the recent four months. She is well aware that a lot should be changed here and invites us to make a tour around the institution. We take our breath and get prepared as we know that our feelings will become more depressing.
First we see small children of age 5-10 who are confined to bed. Rooms where the kids stay are shabby with broken floor and faded ugly walls. “Hello”, we try to make efforts to smile while greeting small kids with physical or mental disability of different type. “Hello, we are well taken care of here and we love our teachers and our director”, some of the kids reply to our greeting. We are shocked and cannot say a word. We have not asked them about it. This well reflects the real situation in this little world which is too far from us but at the same time is well familiar considering our recent past.
Tamriko is 8 years old and she is always in bed. “I cannot get up as everything aches”, she says, “I cannot go to the concert with my friends. But I can tell you the poem” and she starts: “Sun rise, rise, and do not hide behind the mountain. Poor man killed by the cold is lying here”.
The building does not have a central heating but old fashioned wooden stoves make some efforts to warm the rooms. The wooden stove has a specific smell and the room is not ventilated. Electricity is fine now, better that it was before. The kids have a small TV and they like to watch concerts. They like to sing songs they hear from TV.
Lali, 7, is lying in a bed next to Tamriko but she is not talking. She is just smiling at us and trying to say something with her big eyes. Petre is 6 years old and his biggest dream is to go to school. He cannot add anything. We are surrounded by the kids who can walk and who are in a wheelchair. They are so glad to see somebody visiting them. George, 5, in his wheelchair is sitting next to the door, firmly holding our hands. He does not want to let us go.
We move to the rooms for older children. Girls and boys are held separately here. There are classrooms for children to learn something. Most of the equipment in the classrooms is old and shabby. There are not enough school supplies as well. Indeed, the kids here have a very limited opportunity to have a proper education. What surprises us most is the fact that children with severe and mild, mental and physical disability are kept together and have joint classes. Teachers and caregivers are old women with black dressing and inadequate skills which make the whole environment even more gloomy and depressing.
Nino knocks on the door and an old lady with a big stick in her hand opens the room where the boys of age 14-18 are staying. Some of them are running here and there and are trying to show us around. Some boys with severe disability are sitting in their wheelchairs or are lying on the floor next to the wooden stove. Sulkhan, 15, is dressed like a policeman and is walking in the corridor. He is saying goodbye while we leave the boys’ room. We turn our eyes back; Sulkhan is now behind the gate waving his hand to us. There is a similar gate between us and these children. We have to try to remove these barriers and to get our worlds closer.
We observe that there are no classes of vocational training here. Children have limited opportunities to learn life skills for their further integration.
We are now in girls’ room. One of the girls is approaching me whispering, “I have not eaten anything today. I am sick.” She is saying the same to Nino who seems to be seriously concerned about the case. Other girls like boys stay together in one room. Some of them are staring at us without emotions. Some of them are smiling and greeting us from their remote world which we cannot fully understand.
Nino is leading us to other parts of the building. Here is the kitchen and the laundry is the next door. Everything seems so run down and crumbling here. But this is what we can see and what is visible. Most tragic thing is, of course, the shattered lives of abandoned children with disabilities whose yell is not often reaching us.
Our partners from the NGO Children in Georgia told us this story: One young girl in Senaki institution asked if she had a mother, the answer was “yes”. Then she asked if they had seen her mother, the answer was “yes”. The young girl then said, “I have a mother, but I have never seen her. I would just like to see her once before I die, even if it is just for a minute”.