Study visit to the Caucasus

One week is never enough to understand the complexity of a country and its dynamics, but it is at least a good start to have a general taste and to get to know interesting people with whom establish possible cooperations. This is exactly what happened during the Study – visit “Discover the Caucasus – Volunteering in Georgia”, which took place on 15-22 October 2011 in Georgia, where 32 EVS coordinators and youth workers from EU, neighbouring countries and Caucasus gathered together to explore opportunities and challenges of volunteering in a development and conflict context.

In some cases successful EVS projects lead to follow up projects and activities. Indeed, the study visit, funded by the Youth in Action Programme is one of the many outcomes of a long term cooperation between European Intercultural Forum e. V. (Germany) and Academy for Peace and Development(Georgia). These two co-organisers invited international partners aiming to introduce several civil society initiatives based on volunteering, to stimulate a reflection about methods and ways to improve the quality of future volunteering projects in the frame of the European Voluntary Service and finally to develop common guidelines and recommendations for volunteering projects in peace-building and development contexts.

Tbilisi, and its busy-at-night airport for some of the participants, were the first stages of an itinerant trip, which reached NGOs in Tserovani, Ozurgeti, Zugdidi and Batumi.
In order to facilitate cohesion within the group and to explore a bit the capital city, small teams spent a couple of hours wandering around fulfilling a few tasks, as unusual way to interact with local reality by talking to people: exchange a candy with something bigger; create a voluntary action; find out opinions concerning the conflicts in Georgia; and find out opinions of young people concerning volunteering. Apart from facing language barriers every group managed to presents the outcomes, which showed how people are welcoming towards foreigners, pleased to share their opinions concerning even tough and complex issues, but are not yet really familiar with the meaning of volunteering and its forms.

In the afternoon, as a general preparation for the coming meetings, discussions were led. Civil society is seen as the “body of the action”, while active citizenship, going beyond the simple possession of a passport, is the action itself oriented towards changes and improvements within society. Volunteering glues these concepts together, it connects people, it produces and reproduces forms of participation which build a sense of belonging and consequent engagement.

Before leaving Tbilisi on Monday the 17th, participants had the chance to learn more about EVS projects held in Georgia and a series of training courses run by Academy for Peace and Development, which in both cases aimed at empowering youth, with a special focus on those coming from IDP settlements.

In Rustavi, the third biggest city in the country, the group met some of the active members of the NGO Georgian Youth for Europe, funded by former EVS volunteers with a scouting background, who through the years realised meaningful actions in cooperation with international partners and local institutions.

Two marshrutkas (mini-buses) the most common means of transport, approached in the afternoon Tserovani, the biggest IDP settlement in Georgia, established in 2008 after the war. Here 2000 houses has been built through support of the government and international aids to host families coming mostly from eastern regions. Here participants learned that a few NGOs active in the area organise free time activities and provide educational support free of charge to kids who want to enter university.

Unfortunately unemployment is the biggest problem, and the lack of spaces and facilities is an obstacle to establish volunteering programmes in the settlement to support local community’s actions.

In the coming days the group in several occasions deepened the topic of actual frozen conflicts in the country and in the Caucasus region in general, listening to testimonies, fears and hopes of participants living in these countries. Moreover, such topics were strictly connected to one of the main objectives of the study visit itself, such as tracing guidelines: while discussing about ideal profile of a volunteer coming to Caucasus or actions to be undertaken by sending and hosting organisations when planning-implementing volunteering projects, participants discussed how to turn weaknesses and threats into strengths and opportunities to invest on.

And the trip went on.

In Ozurgeti projects run by of the Student Youth Council were presented. Active since 2001, it aims to empower youth to be active within civil society and to give the youngsters a way to spend their free time meaningfully. Supported and connected with the city council, the NGO is also accredited as hosting organisation and since 2008 host EVS volunteers, whose main commitment goes to implementing activities within the frame of Euro club project, a youth club meant to promote European values among youth.
Jumping again in the marshrutkas, confiding in driving skills of the experienced drivers, overtaking cars, trucks and cows, the group visited the last NGOs in Zugdidi, a city just about a few km far from Abkhazia, the second autonomous region in Georgia together with South Ossetia. Here Atinati runs a multicultural centre open mostly to youth, implementing EVS projects, offering foreign language classes and other educational activities, empowering women in IDP settlements and developing media on a local and trans-regional level by presenting consulting programmes in their radio.

They also partially cooperate with Xenon, an organisation of young psychologists and doctors which offers free of charge support to drug addicted and uses peer to peer education to broaden preventive measures.

In Batumi an official meeting with some volunteers involved in the Teach & Learn with Georgia Programmewas organised. The main goal of this governmental project is to improve English language proficiency and other foreign languages (French, Italian and German) through recruiting native speakers for upcoming years who will be willing to help Georgian schoolchildren learn the English language in public schools across the country.

And a rich supra (feast) with traditional food, drinks and dances closed the day, while the tamada(toastmaster) raised up his glass of wine calling for celebrating friendships, family, home countries, peace among people and good and future memories. Fast tears of emotion slipped away in the dance floor.

Finally settled in Kobuleti, the group spent the last two days of the project summing up findings, discussing, presenting activities and future projects of their NGOs, finalising outcomes and planning possible cooperations. Discover the Balkans – Volunteering in GeorgiaEVSCaucasusVolunteering