The Russian volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees in Georgia
By Misha Vignanski
Tbilisi, Apr 23 (EFE).- A small hotel patio in the heart of the Georgian capital has become one of the few points of solidarity between Russians and Ukrainians following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“My boyfriend is Ukrainian and I love that country, we cannot be indifferent and not help these poor people,” Maria Belkina, a young Russian who with her parents runs the Gvino Minda hotel in Tbilisi, told Efe.
Dozens of Ukrainian refugees have passed through the hotel in search of aid, which is handed out by a team of around 15 volunteers, the majority Russian.
The facade of the Gvino Minda hotel is adorned with two flags, one Ukrainian and the other Georgian.
This combination is now common across the Caucasus nation, which has so far taken in around 30,000 refugees as well as Russians who decided to flee home after their country invaded Ukraine.
Georgia, which in 2008 was subjected to Russia’s military powers in a conflict that ended with Tbilisi losing control over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, backs Kyiv in the current conflict and has sent hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
The government has so far declined to align itself with Western sanctions on Russia as authorities fear such a move could be met with retaliation from its northern neighbor.
Belkina, the volunteer, arrived in Georgia four years ago.
“We came as tourists but we liked it so much we decided to move to the country,” she added.
When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, a number of Ukrainian families were stranded in Belkina’s family-run hotel, she added.
At first, the hotel owners helped those that were stuck unable to return but eventually they launched a larger initiative to help the growing number of Ukrainians arriving in Georgia to escape the war.
Ivan, one of the volunteers who prefers not to give his full name, told Efe that he left Russia after Putin launched his invasion.
“The Georgian government helps the refugees a lot, but we decided to do our bit, too,” he added.
Georgians donate funds, food and medicine to the volunteer workers each day while Belkina also stocks up products at nearby markets, which are later distributed by a team of 40 to 50 volunteers at the improvised aid center.
“I’ve really taken this war to heart. I have no more tears to shed because of how much I cried, the important thing now is to keep doing all we can to help Ukrainians.”
The Russian volunteers also offer the refugees legal advice and help to organize accommodation.
One of the refugees who has arrived at the center is Svetlana, who did not want to give her full name, who arrived in Tbilisi with her son having made the trip from the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“We were lucky, our house was not destroyed but we went without water, light and gas for a month,” she told Efe.
Svetlana left Mariupol via a humanitarian corridor organized by Russian troops. She and her son made their way into the Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas and from there into Russia.