Blog: Shelter City Tbilisi’s first year

Shelter City Tbilisi is the first international Shelter City hub to support human rights defenders outside of the Netherlands. Read about the first hand experiences of the Shelter City in it’s first year in the blog post below!

“Almost immediately I started crying the moment I got to Tbilisi. I found so much love inside myself that I had no other way to let it out. I wanted to cry, to hug old buildings with rotten wooden balconies, to stroke the millions of cats lazily laying around in sunlit old Tbilisi streets. I wanted to talk to strangers and I remember so many people looking at me and smiling. At last I felt free and safe.”

Feelings like these are so simple, yet they are so valuable. All the more so for people who live for decades on end in stress and under constant pressure.

Tbilisi Shelter City was founded by a group of Georgian and Ukrainian human rights defenders in 2016. It probably took living through the stress of armed conflicts ourselves to understand what burnout means and to know that it is no laughing matter. Having faced our own issues alone, we realised it was time to make provisions for human rights defenders’ safety in the region and to find a way of helping this community take care of its own. Most countries in our region are regarded as authoritarian. There is no shortage of places where defenders are persecuted, jailed, or tortured, where they can disappear, or be killed. We knew about Dutch shelter cities and thought: wait, that’s so far away and there is not even a single similar initiative in our region, outside of the EU. Georgia was the obvious place for such initiative – situated right in the middle, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe, it offers a wonderful climate, a rich culture and year-round holiday atmosphere. We also realised that many of the defenders have only limited experience of living abroad and we wanted to make it possible for them to stay in an environment similar to their home cultural context. This, we felt, would be beneficial for their healing process.

The shelter started as an experiment. We looked primarily to the experience of our Dutch colleagues and tried to identify lessons that were applicable to our region. Resources were scarce, to the point where we had to refurbish with our own hands the house that has become the shelter.

It is hard to believe now that in the first year alone, we have hosted 32 defenders from all over the region: from Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Crimea. They all had one thing in common: being exhausted and stressed. But they all had very different stories to tell and came from different cultures and had very different characters. At first we wanted to offer them as much as possible – packing the schedule with courses, classes, treatment and group exercises. Now we know better: more than anything people just need their own space and time. After decades of not allowing themselves any rest, after decades spent taking urgent calls over weekends, waiting for an unannounced visit from state security services and sudden arrest, our guests finally had time to unwind. For these defenders, the greatest luxury was having a safe space, quiet time and freedom. We soon adjusted the programme to make sure we provide our guests with this service.

Photo: Official signing of Shelter City Tbilisi (Floor Nuiten-Elzinga, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Georgia shaking hands with Ryan Koenig Political Officer, U.S. Embassy Tbilisi).

The other lesson we learned is that people often do not know what they need. In our region, mental health issues like depression are stigmatised. People are expected to cope with their problems themselves, perhaps by sharing with friends or family, but they are never expected to seek professional assistance. Psychologists are often regarded as charlatans, or as doctors who will dispatch you to an insane asylum. Maybe this is why we encounter so much skepticism and denial when we offer defenders therapy sessions. But we stand our ground. We try to convince and persuade. We ask our guests to try visiting a  psychologist just once, simply to get them to try it out. And at the end we get the most positive feedback and gratitude. Sessions with a psychologist are most frequently mentioned as the most valuable service by our guests in their exit feedback forms.

It has been more than a year but we think we are only at the beginning of the learning curve. Each new cohort of guests is different and everyone brings with them so much new knowledge. We learn to listen, to hear and to adjust. We work for outstanding people and we are happy to walk along with them for at least a tiny part of their lives.