Issue 5, 2015. October-November



A small cafe near the Tbilisi Funicular at the foot of Mtatsminda Mountain in Tbilisi, Rhea's Squirrels, is breaking new ground by tackling stereotypes and hiring employees with disabilities.

Tatjana Montik

For years, adults and young people with social disabilities have faced stigma in Georgia. They, and their families, suffer from a lack of access to facilities and opportunities for education and employment.

But today, organizations like Rhea Union's Integration Center, as well as other non-government programs and international donor projects, are working to create an inclusive society for all Georgians.

"Creating Opportunities Ourselves"

Four staff members working at Rhea's Squirrels are women with mental disabilities. A charming middle-aged waitress named Khatuna invited us to have a seat, and handed us a menu. She described the dishes of the day and recommended cabbage salad and mushroom soup. At first sight, you wouldn't know Khatuna is autistic—she is sociable and independent. She serves our food and helps clean up, and works in the kitchen, too. She and 20 other people with mental disabilities participate in the Rhea Union's Integration Center nearby, where young people with different disabilities gather five days a week and take courses to develop their skills.

Some skills include crafts such as pottery, painting and weaving. There are also training courses on how to serve and work in public businesses like Rhea's Squirrels.

Lela Berikashvili is the mother of 22-year-old Giorgi who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age four. Lela tearfully remembers the depression she suffered when she had to leave her prestigious job in the government to take care of her son's health around the clock. Her whole purpose of living was for her son to get well, and she took him to many medical professionals and even to resorts in Crimea. Still, her son could not use his arms and legs. He could only communicate through his eyes. No one gave Lela any diagnosis, and they were unable to help her son.

"When Giorgi was 14 years old, my financial and moral resources came to an end, and I surrendered. I stayed at home with my depression, crying all day - until Eliso came to my house - and we joined her integration project. Soon, this became our life!" Giorgi has become a student at the Integration Center, and Lela began teaching there.

Eliso Rekhviashvili, an Arab language specialist, is the founder of "Rhea." Eliso prefers to act rather than talk about her accomplishments. But the impact of her pioneering work is clear. For six years she and her colleagues worked as volunteers to help children with mental disabilities integrate into society. They have been supported since 2006 by the German organization Bread for the World or "Brotfür die Welt," by the Austrian organization Diakonia and the Austrian Development Cooperation office. Today "Rhea" runs four integration centers in Georgia.

"The Café Gallery Rhea's Squirrels was the logical continuation of our integration centers," says Eliso. "We started helping our youth develop their social skills; then, professional training was added later. We saw them making progress, but given the situation on the job market, we did not want to wait for opportunities for our students to get an occupation somewhere in private business; so we decided to create opportunities for them ourselves."

Khatuna and Lela (Photo by Tatjana Montik)

Special People

"We have watched how our students have opened up to the world and to life," explains Tamriko Kvachava, PR officer at Rhea Union's Integration Center. "In the beginning, many of our students—who could hardly communicate, even with their family members - developed their talents in painting and pottery, and some make beautiful tapestries. We don't call them disabled. We prefer another term -'people with special developmental needs,' or just 'special people.'"

One of the keys to helping people with disabilities is making sure their voices are heard, noted Helena Sancho, the First Secretary of Development Cooperation at the Swedish Embassy in Georiga.

"A key problem is stigma and hiding. People with disabilities are often not taken into consideration; they are often treated as invisible. Persons with disabilities are therefore often very limited in what they can do. They cannot move freely. And this leads to discrimination and to limitation in their possibilities in exercising their basic human rights such as access to education, the possibility to vote in some instances, [and] access to general healthcare," she said.

Through its aid organization, SIDA, the Swedish government is financing a number of projects for Georgians with disabilities. In particular, SIDA has been working with the Eurasian Partnership Fund to help people with everything from access to public buildings and tourism sites to legal assistance and employment.

"We have noticed that when working with people with disabilities, you tend not just to improve their situation, but actually to improve the situation of other parts of society as well. Once we focus on a certain group, it helps to make the situation for the whole society better," Sancho said.

Rhea Union's Integration Center is also committed to making sure its clients' voices are heard - and their talents are appreciated - in the community.

Several times a year, usually at Christmas and Easter, Kvachava helps organize integration trade fairs, where beautiful products from the integration centers can be bought.

Unsurprisingly, Rhea's Squirrels has many visitors who stop in for its unique dishes, like Dirk van der Eede, who loves sitting outside with his dog to work at his computer and have lunch.

"I think this is the only place in Tbilisi that people with disabilities are regularly serving and included in the workforce of a public restaurant. When I came to Georgia one and a half years ago, I rarely saw people with disabilities in the streets, and asked my Georgian friends about it. They said that disabled persons are often kept inside, within the family, and that they don't have a real social life outside. Then I discovered that here, in this café, that isn't true. It is great that they have a role in the society, and I guess it is something which is exemplary here in Tbilisi, as here I see them in daily life, and they are all very nice," van der Eede remarked.