In Georgia, help for disabled children affected by conflict

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Dorn Townsend

GENEVA, Switzerland, 17 October 2008 - For a moment during the recent war in and around South Ossetia, Georgia, the front line nearly passed through the Senaki Institute, a residential school for 105 mentally and physically disabled children abandoned by their parents. In the opening days of the conflict, a bomb flattened an adjacent building.

While many residents of the nearby town fled, the children and teachers at Senaki stayed because there was nowhere they could quickly flee. Indeed, if children are the most vulnerable members of society during a conflict, then disabled children like these are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Days later, as fighting persisted, an attack helicopter was dispatched to Senaki, which is located near a military base. Perhaps thinking that the children's institute sheltered soldiers, the aircraft hovered outside the building, its missiles poised to shoot.

Stressful experiences

What may have prevented the destruction of the institute was the curiosity of some of the children inside, according to its Deputy Director, Tina Akhaliaa. Many of the children were terrified, but a handful - unaware of the danger - went to a window facing the helicopter, made eye contact with the pilot and began waving to him.

A moment later, the machine veered off.

That heart-stopping incident was just one of the stressful experiences of children at the Senaki Institute. Besides nurturing frightened children, the school's administrators and teachers - some of whom moved into the facility for the length of the war - also had to contend with one child who re-developed epilepsy and another who required an operation for appendicitis, as well as the sudden shattering of windows when a bomb exploded nearby.

When UNICEF reached the Senaki Institute, staff members were pleased with the delivery of sports equipment and school supplies. They valued receiving these materials because they said it would help to distract the children from their frightening recent memories.

'Ways to reach kids who need help'

The school staff were also appreciative of what UNICEF had already provided. Shortly before the war began in August, UNICEF organized a three-day training for these caregivers on how to identify and treat symptoms of stress and trauma among children.

"That training wasn't about helping children affected by war in particular but on how to create ways to reach kids who need help on an individual basis," said the institute's chief caregiver, Tea Simonia. "We're lucky we had that training when we did."

Building on those foundations, UNICEF planned to hold an advanced training on psycho-social support at the Senaki Institute this month.

Support for improved facilities

Supplies and training weren't the only forms of UNICEF support for the vulnerable children at Senaki. The institute, a legacy of the Soviet era, was created to house disabled children who were unwanted by their families. Over the last few years, the building has fallen on hard times.

Earlier this year, UNICEF and its German National Committee raised hundreds of thousands of euros to help restore and maintain the institute. Construction work that was set to begin just before the war is now poised to resume. Two of Senaki's five wings are scheduled to receive comprehensive facelifts, which will modernize and improve classrooms and children's living quarters.

"Some of the children are still asking when the war will be over, but all this aid and changes in the building should help them move on," said Ms. Akhaliaa.