Displaced Families in Georgia Are Falling Ill

Laura Sheahen, a regional information officer with CRS, is on the ground in Georgia and reports on the plight of those displaced by the fighting. She can be reached at lsheahen@eme.crs.org or

It’s the end of Week 2 of the Georgia crisis, and tens of thousands of displaced people are getting food. Many no longer have to fear hunger, at least for the short term. But a new enemy is moving in: sickness.

I spoke with one of two nurses working at School #39, where 300 people who fled their homes are now staying. “The conditions aren’t hygienic,” she says. Sharing the school’s showerless bathrooms, sleeping on the floor, and unable to wash properly, the shelter residents are succumbing to diarrhea and vomiting.

A boy sits in a shelter for Georgians who fled their homes amid bombs and shelling. Psychologists are worried about the long-term impact of the violence on children. Photo: Laura Sheahen/CRS

Catholic Relief Services is funding hygiene kits with basic, but crucial items like soap, laundry detergent, towels and toothpaste. At School #39, a small army of Caritas volunteers passes out diapers, toothbrushes, and more.

Local Georgians are aware of the health issue. A woman from the neighborhood of #39 stops by to tell the nurses that her daughter is a gynecologist, and is willing to visit the three pregnant women at the shelter.

Hygiene supplies and medicine will help improve people’s physical health. Healing emotional wounds, of course, isn’t as straightforward.

A woman in her 40s shows me her deep lower-abdominal scar, a sign of her battle with cancer. She weeps for her home and farm, nine miles outside of the disputed city of Tskhinvali. The house was burned, and because of the political situation, her family can probably never go back to the land. “People need to work, but what work can we do now? Our place is gone,” she says.

So the nurses at #39 don’t just listen to people describe symptoms of illness; they also listen to their stories. “Their relatives have been killed, their houses burned or looted,” says one nurse. “We sit and cry with them.”

Nearby, at a psychological care center in Tbilisi, a room of 15 people—Caritas volunteers and others—take notes as they’re trained in basic support to displaced people. Janna Javakhishvili, a psychologist there, tells me some of the stories she’s been hearing. A 24-year-old woman was grabbed and nearly abducted by another ethnic group in her hometown. She begged them to let her go, telling them she had a baby to care for. They didn’t kidnap her, but now she has flashbacks and nightmares about their attempt. Another man saw family members killed, and he buried their bodies before fleeing himself.

Dr. Jan Vorisek of the psych center says it’s important to help severely traumatized people quickly. If they don’t get help, their symptoms can morph into full-fledged post-traumatic stress disorder. “Most people are resilient,” he says. “But PTSD can become chronic—and can incapacitate people from functioning normally for a long time to come.”

After the training, the volunteers will go into 14 shelters and help traumatized people help themselves. The volunteers lead problem-solving groups that encourage displaced people to work together to improve shelter conditions. In one case, a group of residents figured out a way to wire their shelter for electricity. “Before they had no sense of control. Now they have a sense of self-sufficiency,” Dr. Javakhishvili says.

The volunteers will also work with children, encouraging them to be physically active, and to draw and role-play with toys. “If you ask them what happened to them during the conflict, they won’t be able to say anything,” says Dr. Vorisek. “But they will tell you what happened to the toy.”

Sharing sorrow is also important. The mental health staff say that simply showing support can be a great comfort to people who have lost everything. “When we talk to people in the shelters, we often hear the same thing,” says Dr. Javakhishvili. “They say, ‘If you cry with us, we feel better.'”

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One Response to “Displaced Families in Georgia Are Falling Ill”

  1. A Week in Georgia: Commonweal Magazine Features Journal of CRS Response | Catholic Relief Services Blog Says:

    […] Displaced Families in Georgia are Falling Ill […]

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