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When A Week Turns Into A Year: The Ukrainians Who Have Built New Lives In Georgia


Ukrainian children painting together in Tbilisi during an activity organized by the Unite Together NGO.
Ukrainian children painting together in Tbilisi during an activity organized by the Unite Together NGO.

TBILISI -- Along a busy drag in a leafy Tbilisi suburb, the restaurant Pan Varenki is discreet. Up a few steps, back away from the street, the cafe wears its allegiance on its sleeve: The blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag hang off railings, and stickers with the Ukrainian and Georgian flags can be spotted on tables and walls. Passing the glass-walled kitchen by the entrance, women are busy folding dough and stuffing varenyky -- Ukrainian dumplings with various fillings.

"When there is no more need for our work here in Georgia, and Ukrainians can go back home, then we'll go back too," says 40-year-old Dmytro Korin.

His Unite Together charity has worked with Pan Varenki, which hosted an event for Ukrainian refugee children to make dumplings. Unite Together supports Ukrainians who have resettled in Georgia after fleeing the war since February 2022.

"Georgians have been very welcoming, but I don't think we'll integrate into Georgia permanently," he says. "We will go home when we can."

I love Tbilisi and the fact that people support Ukraine, that there are Ukrainian flags on the buildings. It warms the heart."
-- Anastasia

In February 2022, Korin and his family were on holiday with a group of friends in Gudauri, a popular ski resort in Georgia's mountains, when the war broke out. Though with only one suitcase shared between them, and a few items for their skiing holiday, Korin and his family did not return to their home in Zaporizhzhya, in eastern Ukraine.

Together with other Ukrainian refugee families, they have been living in a hotel in Tbilisi, with Korin running Unite Together, which he co-founded in the wake of the war. The charity raises funds to support Ukrainians in Georgia, helps them to navigate the rental market and schools, as well as providing other community support. The funds raised in Georgia are also partly used for buying and sending essential medicine to towns and cities across Ukraine.

"In those early days, it was clear that there was great support for us from the Georgians," Korin says. "People really tried to help us -- psychologically, financially, etc. We really saw that they really wanted to help us. We thought maybe we'd just be here for one week, but with the network that developed, and the work with Unite Together, we ended up staying."

Korin is one of an estimated 120,000 Ukrainians who have come to Georgia since Russia's invasion of their country. While many have used Georgia as a transit route to other destinations, many have stayed, receiving support at first from the government and later mainly from international organizations like the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, and People In Need, a Czech humanitarian group.

In a country with a sluggish economy, growing unemployment, and already struggling to support the more than 280,000 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- most of whom came from Abkhazia following the war in 1992-93 -- the question of dwindling support for Ukrainian refugees in Georgia is a concern among the community. Like Korin, many of the Ukrainian refugees who arrived in Georgia following Russia's invasion have set up projects and initiatives, many of which are in service of supporting other Ukrainians.

"Everyone in Tbilisi helped us a lot, both at school and with my family," says Olena Kukharevsk.

Ukrainian children play together in Tbilisi at an activity organized by the Unite Together NGO.
Ukrainian children play together in Tbilisi at an activity organized by the Unite Together NGO.

Working in a private school in Ukraine before leaving for Georgia in March last year, Kukharevsk opened the Ukrainian section at Tbilisi's School No. 41 in April, with 120 children enrolling there when it opened.

By the end of the school year, that number had grown to 500. Since September 1, 2022, the number of children has grown to 1,000, with another Ukrainian department opening at another school in Tbilisi. Given the high demand, Kukharevsk, together with her colleagues, opened two Ukrainian departments in Batumi, a city on Georgia's Black Sea coast, with around 1,000 children now studying there.

"The Georgian government gave children laptops and stationery. Businesses and international schools here gave us help. Buses were allocated to bring children to and from school," Kukharevsk says. "There are still problems with Ukrainian textbooks; they're only available in electronic form, and for elementary school, this is very difficult. You can't teach a child to read without a book."

School resources are not the only problem for Ukrainian refugees in Tbilisi. Following the hundreds of thousands of Russians who left Russia in the weeks and months after the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an estimated 140,000 of them entered Georgia, a country which has a visa-free regime for visiting Russians.

Paintings done by Ukrainian children are displayed in Tbilisi.
Paintings done by Ukrainian children are displayed in Tbilisi.

With many of the Russians who settled in Tbilisi belonging to an urban, professional middle class, and with the sudden spike in demand for housing, the rental market experienced a shock, with the price of renting an apartment increasing by an average of over 200 percent. That has priced out many Georgians, and it is making it increasingly difficult for Ukrainian refugees, most of whom left everything behind.

"Ukrainians can find jobs, but salaries do not cover the cost of housing," says Kukharevsk. "There's also a problem with the fact that Ukrainians will have a year in Georgia before having to get some kind of [legal residential] status."

Anastasia, who asked that her last name not be published, left Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine that has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces, shortly after the war began. With her parents staying behind, she first went to the border with Poland before coming to Georgia with her daughter, sister, and niece. Previously working as a translator, she is in the process of setting up a small bakery business in Tbilisi, baking cakes and cinnamon rolls at home to order.

"I love Tbilisi and the fact that people support Ukraine, that there are Ukrainian flags on the buildings. It warms the heart," she says. "I had an idea to go home without my daughter for a couple of days in February, as I miss my family very much. But after the last powerful blow to Dnipro, these plans have so far receded into the background. I want the war to end and to be able to see people I'm close to."

A devastating Russian missile attack on January 14 killed at least 46 people in an apartment block in Dnipro.

Chef Marta Drobina, who lives with a son who has special needs, found a job in a hotel restaurant, cooking pan-European food for tourists and occasionally doing catering jobs.
Chef Marta Drobina, who lives with a son who has special needs, found a job in a hotel restaurant, cooking pan-European food for tourists and occasionally doing catering jobs.

Marta Drobina, a 36-year-old Ukrainian chef who was living in Svalyava, a city in western Ukraine, arrived in Georgia by car from Poland last spring and is renting a small apartment in a Tbilisi suburb.

"There's no heating," she said in an interview at the end of January, when an unseasonably cold few weeks left Tbilisi blanketed in snow.

Drobina, who lives with a son who has special needs, found a job in a hotel restaurant, cooking pan-European food for tourists and occasionally doing catering jobs. She receives a food voucher for 50 laris (around $19) once a month from an NGO.

"The NGO also once gave us a 300 laris voucher for clothes," she says.

With the war in Ukraine about to enter its second year, it remains to be seen whether the support for Ukrainians -- both from the government as well as the populace -- will remain strong. Kukharevsk says that Ukrainians believe they will win the war and return to their native country but that prospects for the fighting to end anytime soon seem unlikely.

"Here in Georgia, there are many Ukrainian families from the occupied territories, families who have lost everything they had: houses, schools, hospitals, even cities," Kukharevsk says.

"These families have nowhere to return and, I think, after the war, many will stay here. I think the Ukrainian school will continue to run after the war. There are so many Ukrainians in Georgia now, and they want to know their language, their history, and their culture."

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    Nadia Beard

    Nadia Beard is a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

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