#WeAreSakartvelo: Standing Up for the Rights of Others

Speeches Shim

Friday, February 4, 2022

“If you do not fight for your rights, the environment you live in will not change. The more active you are, the more free and just will be the society you live in” – says civic activist Samira Bayramova. Many Georgians agree with Samira and prove her words through their actions.  As part of USAID’s #WeAreSakartvelo campaign - an activity to raise awareness about the importance of civic integration to Georgia’s development - we are telling the stories of activists from different regions, ethnicities, and religious communities who are helping build a more resilient, democratic, and prosperous society. 

As part of the campaign, Vardi Papikyan, Kamran Mammadli, Samira Bayramova, and Tigran Tarzyan told us how they have used civic activism to improve conditions in their communities and advance the integration of Georgia’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. Despite their youth, they have fought not only for their rights but for ours as well. They have already achieved impressive results and are tirelessly continuing their efforts.  

Vardi Papikyan, 18 years old, student at Tbilisi State Medical University 

My official name is Varditeria, but everyone calls me Vardi. I was born in 2003 in Poka, Ninotsminda Municipality. I graduated from secondary school with honors. I enjoyed studying all subjects, but natural sciences in particular. 

I have been socially active since my school years, participating in various school activities. I remember that if there was an environmental or cleaning-related activity planned in our region, I always got actively involved along with my classmates and our teacher.

I knew from childhood that I would become a doctor. I speak five languages; I also enjoyed philology and studied all subjects very well. However, natural sciences are a different universe for me. When I passed the entrance exams this year, I was accepted to two universities with a full scholarship for a preparatory year designed for ethnic minority students within the frames of the 1 + 4 program. However, with my knowledge, I also passed the regular entrance exam and became a first-year medical student. I received normal scores, but could not obtain a scholarship so I opted for a preparatory year. I did not have tutors at school. I studied chemistry, physics, and biology in Armenian very well and I also learned the Georgian language. I had one book, an encyclopedia, which provided an explanation of terms in Georgian. 

A few years ago, I asked myself the following question: 

“Vardi, if you want to be an active citizen, are you a full-fledged citizen yourself? You just go to school and then come back home. Is this life interesting for you? You do not speak Georgian very well; you do not have Georgian friends.”

I started from this point. First, I learned the Georgian language. This is important, as communication is a very important thing for me. When I learned Georgian, I then found out that I could participate in training and other activities. Now, I have Georgian and Azerbaijani friends. I live here and my future is here. Why shouldn’t I live like an ordinary Georgian?  I told myself that I should apply my utmost efforts to becoming a full-fledged citizen. 

Since 2020, I have been an active member and speaker in the Ninotsminda Hub. I participate in training activities, camps, and competitions. I was a Young European Ambassador in 2020. Within this framework, I underwent training, learned public speaking, and then led training exercises about Georgia’s NATO integration in various villages. My target audience was 10-12th graders.  

One year ago, Mrs. Tsira, founder of the Tolerance Association Samtskhe-Javakheti, told us that they needed active young people. We thought that our class was the most active one. First, we participated in training activities around topics such as advocacy and COVID-19-related issues. Then we established our own organization, Level Up.

We thought about pressing problems in the community that we could address, such as river pollution. In my view, the problem is that we do not have a laboratory at school. I, as an active pupil, was very fond of physics and chemistry, but it was very difficult for me to imagine a [chemical] reaction. We want to establish a physics and chemistry laboratory. This is our first project. However, we are waiting until all members of our organization turn 18 years old before we formally establish the project and start raising funds. Now, only me and one girl are over 18. But we know that there are relevant donors and we hope that we can realize this goal. Five of us founded Level Up -  four students:  Lamara Phnjoyan; Grisha Markosyan; Alvard Mkrtchyan; and myself, along with our Georgian language teacher, Salome Lomidze. 

Why do we need a laboratory in Poka? You know there are good children living in Poka, but they do not have the motivation to study at a high level.  I want them to be more active than they are now and to participate in social activities. 

I can share my experiences with them and encourage them to learn Georgian and get involved in various activities. For this reason, I thought that the target group for our project should be youth. I would also like to give advice to the children of Ninotsminda: we live in Georgia and we should learn the language if we want to have an interesting life. 

Kamran Mammadli, 31 years old,  civil rights activist and researcher

I am Kamran Mammadli, formally “Mamedov.” It is unfortunate that today I don’t have the right to have a full-fledged identity. “Ov” is an ending derived from Russian surnames. It was created for us, the Azerbaijani  ethnic group.

As a researcher, I work on issues involving Georgia’s non-majority ethnic groups, myself being a citizen of Georgia and a representative of one of these groups. I work full-time for the Social Justice Center, a non-governmental organization. I study the rights of ethnic groups, including social and political issues. 

In 2019, we established Platform Salam. I am one of the co-founders. In addition to being engaged in research work, we wanted to be more active in the community. The establishment of Platform Salam coincided with the onset of the pandemic. We started by disseminating fact-based information about the pandemic to ethnic Azerbaijanis. This was followed by a project with a very small budget but that benefited about 500 people. 

After the start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister of Georgia issued an order to provide financial compensation for self-employed people unable to work during the pandemic. People who didn’t speak Georgian could not benefit from this policy, however, since applications had to be filled out only in Georgian language.

We registered roughly 500 people in 25 villages in Marneuli, Bolnisi, and Gardabani municipalities who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to receive this compensation. I recall an elderly man, a taxi driver, in the village of Kesalo in Gardabani making fun of me. He said: “Son, I’ve never received a benefit from this country, would I get compensation now due to the pandemic?!” We made a bet. When he received the amount, he called me with great content to say that I had helped him regain faith in this country. This meant a lot to me. 

I also work on the needs of people living in villages. We advocate for these issues with city halls and councils. Last year, due to our advocacy, local officials built a road in the village of Khutor-Lezhbadin. The village hasn’t had water for 100 years. There’s only one spring for the entire village. This year, the local municipality issued a tender for water-supply projects and we hope to see the results soon.  

I was born in the village of Tsikhisdziri in Mtskheta Municipality. I went to a Georgian school. It was often said that if minorities learned Georgian language well, their integration problems would be solved. But we come across another issue, too. For example, I cannot fully think in my native Azerbaijani language. I cannot use it for work. Currently, in addition to my knowledge of Georgian, I’m thinking of learning to speak Azerbaijani fluently. 

After secondary school, I entered Tbilisi State University’s faculty of international relations. At the time, I could not even imagine being able to continue my studies in Tbilisi. After the educational reforms implemented in 2005, I became more hopeful. I decided to start learning English well and take an exam. From our class, ten students took the exam and I was the only ethnic Azerbaijani. We had “star students,” but I was not among them. However, I passed the exam. 

One lecturer at Tbilisi State University told me: “What a lovely and hard-working boy you are and it is such a pity that you are not an Orthodox Georgian.” Studying and learning in Georgia, and making new friends, came with learning new details about society.   

In 2013 and 2014 I studied in Romania under the Erasmus Program. From 2017-2019, within the framework of the Fulbright Exchange Program, I pursued a Master’s Degree in the United States at Eastern Mennonite University’s conflict transformation program. My lecturers included John Paul Lederach, one of the founding fathers of conflict transformation, and Howard Zehr, who is considered to be an ideological and philosophical pioneer in the field of restorative justice. 

Initially, I imagined my future in Georgia as a civil servant. Some years ago, I even did an internship at the Parliament of Georgia. Later, I applied for different positions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Environmental Protection, and Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation. I would reach the final stage of candidacy and they would tell me that I was a brilliant candidate, but in the end they hired another candidate. Or, they would tell me it would be better for me to apply somewhere else. At one Ministry, I was told that my place was at the Ministry of Agriculture. After this, I realized that it was necessary to fight to change the current situation. 

Salam is an organization made up of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia which helps communities organize and advocate for their needs. When we go somewhere where there is a problem, we do not say “we will help you.” Instead, we say “we should work together to change the existing reality.” 

I am also involved in the Solidarity Platform at the Social Justice Platform. Its members include people from various ethnic and religious groups in Georgia, including ethnic Georgians of course. We try to cultivate solidarity. Why is this important? Various ethnic or other groups are isolated today; we do not know each other well. Through these platforms and processes we are changing reality.  The platform assists in expressing and sharing needs. It is also interesting to learn from other groups. For example, it is interesting how we learned the stories and the problems facing Georgian Muslims living in Adjara. Representatives of various sectors, including “young greens” and other Georgian organizations, are also members of this platform.  

Tigran Tarzyan, 27 years old, civil rights activist

I am Tigran Tarzyan from the village of Uchmana in Ninotsminda Municipality. My professional area is political science. I work for the Social Justice Center as a representative in Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda and I am involved in various projects. A year ago, some of my colleagues established Youth for Democratic Changes, a youth organization in Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki. 

In our view, activism and the third sector is quite passive in this region. No voices have been heard from Javakheti. Mobilizing youth still remains a challenge there, but we managed to implement several projects, including activities to counter disinformation, advance human rights, and most notably to raise awareness about women’s rights and advocacy. 

Raising awareness about women’s rights is an important project which we implement not only for women, but for everyone regardless of age and gender. We decided to launch the project not only by addressing legal aspects and jurisdiction, but with specific manuals where people could read in simple language, practice case studies, and learn about protecting rights. I learned about such methods at a training conducted by the Council of Europe, and we followed the same techniques. So far, 22 young people have already joined the youth hub of Ninotsminda and it raised so much interest that we added a new training course.  

It is important to speak about fundamental rights, including in Javakheti, and not to leave this region as an example of a “language barrier” as if there were no other problems or need for different types of education. People should know that they have a right to be provided with such needs, for instance a kindergarten, which either does not exist here or, if there is one, it has no proper conditions, hygiene, or standards. 

My civic activism started in my fourth year of university studies at Ilia State University, where a lecturer gave me the opportunity to write a blog.  Decentralization was a very relevant topic in 2019, discussed in the Parliament of Georgia. In my blog, I wrote that decentralization is not separatism, and I also reviewed local self-governance problems in Ninotsminda.  I also expressed interest in the third sector. Before that, I worked in the private sector. 

I had a good salary and lived in Tbilisi, but I realized it wasn’t for me. I left my job and returned to my native Ninotsminda, where I familiarized myself with the problems faced by the community and got to work. I didn’t know how, but I knew that I could be of some help to my region. For example, I could meet with international and non-governmental organizations and tell them about our issues. There’s not a single branch or office of an international organization in Ninotsminda. We need to raise these issues in order to develop civil society, which is essential for a free and democratic society. 

My village Uchmana is located in the municipality of Ninotsminda. The village used to be home to about 130 families, whereas now there are only 40 or 45. There are mainly ruins left over from the old Soviet infrastructure. We want to launch a project to rebuild the library. We want to ask the municipality to do the repair work and we will take care of the books and computers. 

I love everything about Ninotsminda. My friends say that because there are no trees, there’s a lack of air. In reality, the air is best here. There are many lakes in Ninotsminda with great potential for development. I compare Georgia to Switzerland, but it needs development. It is important that the region’s local government representatives promote the capabilities of Ninotsminda, in order for the country to start taking care of infrastructure.

I don’t like the words “ethnic minority.” I think that this established term has to change if we want integration. In itself it [the term] still embodies division. Integration is not unilateral. When we talk about diversity, it means that Georgian society should be benevolent toward members of different religious and ethnic groups, which will be able to embrace their cultural particularities and share them with others.

The homeland for me is where I was born and where I live; the country where I spend time with my family. Through my work, I want to support the development and progress of my country. My greatest desire is to create a better future for my two children in this country, so that the problems we speak of today no longer exist, where they would live in a better homeland. 

Samira Bayramova, 33 years old, human rights activist

Now I work for an international organization, although my civic participation has never been work-related. Civic activism is a responsibility, which I consider an obligation – to help my society and to be active in it. 

Initially, I wanted to demonstrate that if you want the development of society, and to be active, it is not necessary to found an organization and to become its chairperson. The status of a civic activist is enough to change a lot of things. 

I have been working in this field since 2009. First, my work was with teenage girls and the protection of women’s rights. In particular, I was working to combat early marriage and domestic violence. Before, these things were perceived in the region as tradition, but after 10 years of work, locals started to recognize that these things were problems. I think that this is a great change and success. 

I am also involved in the protection of minorities in Kvemo Kartli. I worked as a coordinator of several projects on women’s rights, ethnic minority issues, and the promotion of civic activism. During the last few years, I have been mostly involved in preparing initiatives about legislative amendments in order to claim our rights at the highest level. I have been involved in campaigns to make Novruz a public holiday, to remember Anvar Humbatov, a hero of the Abkhazian war, to promote education, including Georgian language education, and a campaign to promote people-centered budgeting.

Why is activism so important? Initially, the female factor served as a motivation for me. Society deemed that there was a place only for men and that women should not be involved in social or political issues. I wanted to prove the contrary. When I reached one goal, new objectives arose. I have witnessed the violation of the human rights of people living around me, and of worsening social welfare. I was motivated to become more active. If you do not fight for your rights, the environment you live in will not change. The more active you are, the more free and just will be the society you live in.

Another factor which motivated my activism was the feeling of being a “foreigner.” I wanted to contribute to building a fair, democratic, and tolerant state. As for being a citizen of Georgia, this is my constitutional right and I want to use this right and contribute to the country’s development. 

For example, for years we lobbied the local City Hall to provide our village with public transport. Eventually, they satisfied our request. Then, the local government started more actively considering the opinions of citizens.

Last year, although we formally appealed to the government, our request was not met: to allow us to celebrate Novruz without curfew, even though this exception was applied for others [members of other religious groups]. A lot of people joined me, including many of my Georgian friends who came from Tbilisi, Rustavi, Kutaisi, to support my protest in Marneuli. This was an important day when we demonstrated to the state that when you set double standards we will break it and the citizens will support each other in this process. 

The most important thing for me is that we enable each other to live in an equal, fair society. I do not want anyone to be treated as “accepted” or “unaccepted.” This attitude needs to be changed. Until the language of hate is changed, we will not be a strong society. There will always be an internal crisis. For example, ethnic minorities always have to prove that they love Georgia, while ethnic Georgians are never asked such questions. 

I love my motherland, I was born here, I want to invest my resources here, and do not want to be obliged to leave.  

Last updated: February 04, 2022

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