Always a reason to smile

T-K-E-S-H-E-L-A-S-H-V-I-L-I.

Sounds like an extinct dinosaur but it’s actually my last name! By the time you’ve gotten to this post, I’m sure that you’re already going to be familiar with my full name. When I say familiar with, I don’t expect you to know how to spell it or pronounce it correctly. I only know of 4 people that can successfully do so with my name, 2 of them are my parents, 1 is my little sister and the other is my roommate at my old boarding school of 2 years. I mention 2 years because that’s how long it took him to be able to pronounce it. Oh, and now there’s also Hunter who can throw a half-decent attempt at it.

Although originally from The Republic of Georgia, I moved to the state of Georgia about 3.5 years ago (Ironic! Isn’t it?). Let me just mention that it’s very bizarre explaining to people that there’s a country called Georgia.

“I’m from Georgia and I speak Georgian!”
“You mean English? Because you do know that Georgia is part of the United States and they speak English there”

“No, listen….”

“Ok…you’re not very smart, are you?”

That’s a conversation I have quite often.

The Republic of Georgia is a failing nation – a country full of all sorts of turmoil and poverty, is still my home. There are many people in various regions of Georgia who, to this day, don’t have direct access to simple, but critical, things such as clean water, electricity, and healthcare. Not to mention a lack of education. But my experiences with moving and displacement are for the next Dooley Special, for now, is one part of my life that truly shaped me.

Being a native of the Republic of Georgia has had a significant effect on my life. Then there’s the whole aspect of me being from a generation of war.

Growing up I shared an apartment with my parents, uncle, aunt, cousin, and grandparents in a large complex on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital city. To do the math, there were 8 of us in a 3-bedroom apartment. My grandparents had actually gotten the apartment in a soviet lottery, that’s how things worked back then. If you didn’t have money to bribe officials you would have to be placed on a very long waitlist to get a half-decent 2-bedroom apartment. But that’s a whole different story. I remember I would run down in the huge yard that used to surround our apartment building and meet my friends to start playing football(soccer) or rugby on the football field.

I remember almost every other day, I would decide that I either wanted ice-cream or some sort of candy from the local supermarket 1 block away. I’d run to back to my apartment, the 2 windows of my room would be facing me, and start screaming “Bebooo… Baabbuu” (translated to grandma and grandpa in English) to ask them for what is the equivalent of 0.80 cents in US dollars. Most of the times I would get the requested amount, sometimes, however, they wouldn’t have that much to give me for my silly candies. I was raised to be very humble in general, so I would never complain or ask again for the next 2 days because looking over at my friends, I knew that they wouldn’t get those 0.80 cents thrown down to them for weeks because of the financial difficulties their families were going through.

I remember one day seeing someone buy this big robotic dinosaur at the store, and asking my mom if I could have one too, her looking back at me and shaking her head implying that we didn’t really have enough at the time. We just had enough for the products that we were there to buy. I would smile back at her so as to not make her sad, but from her voice tone and every now and then teary eyes, I would know that my smile wasn’t always enough.

After those stories, you must be ironically thinking to yourself “One big happy family, eh?” The truth is, we were. There was nothing but laughter radiating from our windows, from early morning to late nights.

That laughter was completely silenced in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, yeah, I know this sounds like the whole but “But everything changed when the fire nation attacked” from the Avatar: The Last Airbender, but truthfully it was far from it. I remember my mother hurrying me over to a friend’s house and sitting together awaiting the moment when it would be officially announced that we were under siege.

My dad called us from a village called Gori that was currently being bombed and where Russian soldiers would strip Georgian soldiers naked to string them up on light poles as a form of embarrassment. He said that he was there with the President and Minister of Defense and that combined they had enough army and security resources to make it out fine, but that the tanks were slowly approaching the capital city, Tbilisi. However, a few days after international leaders intervened in what was going to be a countrywide occupation, I remember standing hand-in-hand with my parents and endless others to form a human circle of strength around Tbilisi, a chain that extended over 60 miles.

Post-war there were multitudes of Georgians who had been forced out of the occupied regions. Many displaced families sought refuge in camps neighbouring our home in the city. Most mothers from Tbilisi volunteered to take care of the refugee children, many of whom had been orphaned. It took days of convincing, but my mother eventually agreed it was okay for me to take my soccer ball to the camp where she was serving. That summer, on the ill-maintained playgrounds of Tbilisi, I made many new friends, found some “rivals” – and I met Gocha.

Russian soldiers and their heavy artillery tore apart Gocha’s family, but they did not take away his playfulness. Perhaps we were both too young at the time – Gocha, a year older than me – to truly understand the torments of becoming an orphaned child. I could barely picture how lonely he must have felt because he never shared his sadness.

Gocha and I were a lot alike. Both quick to raise our hands when it was time to volunteer to be captains for a soccer game. Both bent on picking the best players for our teams. A week in, we had all become ferociously competitive, and fights were common – especially when we could not agree on whether a goal had been scored. Stones and rocks, piled up to make goalposts, got the job done, but not very well.

One such fight became unnecessarily ugly. Gocha pushed me, and I tugged at him, tearing apart what I later learned was his only shirt. At the end of the game, my teammates pressured me to apologize to my shirtless opponent. I talked myself into walking up to him – rather begrudgingly and uncomfortably. Gocha looked over at me as I rehearsed under my breath what I was going to say and, as I was about to start, he shamelessly broke into a fit of giggles. I smiled back, more confused than guilty. I realize that despite everything that had happened to him, he could still find it in him to laugh, or at least smile.

The next day I brought him some of my shirts as an apology. All of them fit, and a loyal bond was sealed. I even remember him laughing at one of the shirts because it had a pony, drawn on it by me.

At this point, I know I will spend a lifetime spelling my name and clarifying its pronunciation. I know my country will find it difficult to survive – the population of the Republic of Georgia steadily decreasing to the point where a century from now the number of citizens is predicted to drop from 3.4 million to one million. Despite all of that, I know, because I was there, that aggression does not overpower compassion.  War is devastating. But does it mean we stop looking for joy and happiness? That we can no longer smile? That we turn our backs on acts of kindness? That we subdue our natural personalities? No. As I have learned, sometimes all it takes is a soccer ball and 8 new shirts.

 

 

 

 

 

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