Looking for local initiatives of young activists in Samstkhe-Javakheti, a visit in Akhalkalaki could not be missed. More specifically, EVS volunteer Jana Kowalova and I wanted to meet the ‘young initiators’ from the organization of the same name in order to find out more about youth work conducted in the region. This post hopes to present the regional context as well as the local activities as they were described to us by the young staff we met at the local community center.
Akhalkalaki, in Samstkhe-Javakheti, is a small town of 8.000 inhabitants which you can reach in 5 hours from Tbilisi. A new road was recently built between the town and the capital of Georgia, but marshrutkas still prefer to take the 3-hour road to Akhaltsikhe, stopping there before going for another 2 hours to reach Akhalkalaki. It is located 2.000 meters high in the mountains, which makes of it the highest town in Georgia – but not the highest village in Georgia, a record kept by Ushguli, a village in the region of Svaneti.
Akhalkalaki also has the specificity to be a former Russian military base, due to its proximity with both the Turkish and the Armenian borders. Up until 2006, 6.000 to 8.000 soldiers were permanently living in the base, which benefited a lot the local economy. The military base would also employ 1.000 local people – those were left without jobs when the Russians eventually left.
If it remains quite a small town, which is only accessible with difficulty especially in the winter, Akhalkalaki boasts a few associations and organizations which try to be as active as possible in their local environment. A community center provides shelter for 3 initiatives: ‘Education center’, ‘House of languages’, and ‘Young Initiators’.
Known and recognized as a meeting point for the locals, it is currently being renovated and has been nicely arranged to offer space for computer, communication, accountancy and English classes. In Javakheti, where Armenians make up 92 % of the population, it is also not surprising that the Center offers Georgian classes.
In Akhalkalaki, it is difficult for local NGOs to conduct their own projects. Usually, they are partners of projects conducted by other, bigger organizations which received funding and are willing to reach target groups in the regions. Once, however, the Young Initiators managed to find support for a successful project promoting dialogue between youth and local authorities.
For the future, the Young Initiators want to provide support to the teachers of region. Indeed, the government of Georgia has recently launched a certification program to ensure that the qualification of Georgian teachers match newly set, basic requirements. Until 2014, all teachers will have to take exams and be assessed on their knowledge, methodology, IT and English skills. According to their results, they will be given the duty to train other teachers, and/or will see their salaries more or less raised. Also, schools will be given stars matching their results.
In Javakheti, there are 75 villages and approximately 68 schools, which means that most villages have their own school. There is also one university, in Akhalkalaki, where students are offered various courses, among which the main ones are Georgian language and literature, business and technical training. Luckily, this university implements the new 4+1 system, a system that enables non-Georgian speaking students to take a foundation year to learn the language and later study in Georgian.
Thanks to this system, the number of local youth going to the local university has tripled, giving them more perspectives for the future in spite of the relatively bad local economic situation.
It is worth highlighting the fact* that Georgia ranks first in the world as for literacy rates. Considering this, there is no doubt that the most important asset of the country is human capital. In other words: people, and especially the new generations, thanks to their civic engagement and local initiatives at the grass-root level, represent the future of Georgia.
* Labour markets and employability – Trends and challenges in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (short version). ETF.
Further information can be found on the ETF website: www.etf.europa.eu
Many thanks to Misha, young director of ‘Young Initiators’, for taking time to receive us in Akhalkalaki; also many thanks to Nino and the staff of the various organizations hosted under the roof of the community center, who were there too to provide us with useful information; thank you to Jana –