February 9, 2009

JDC Vocational Training Program Helps Destitute and Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia Rebuild their Lives

Lika and her family, ethnic Georgians, fled for their lives from the war-stricken Abkhazia region of northern Georgia in the early nineties. After her father died in the conflict, Lika and her surviving relatives made a new home in cramped Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) housing in the capital of Tbilisi, but struggled to find lucrative work in the big, strange city.

After a dead-end search for employment, Lika turned to the Vocational Training program, spearheaded by JDC’s International Development Program (JDC-IDP) in cooperation with a local trade union and others. The program, which first opened its doors for classes in 2006, grew out of the desire to help both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees procure gainful employment and longer-term stability.

Despite Georgia’s growing economy, it struggles greatly from civil war and internal strife and remains one of the poorest countries in all of the former Soviet Union—a situation that has only worsened since the August 2008 conflict with Russia.

But for graduates of the Vocational Training program, the odds are great: Upon passing their final exams and receiving certification, they are guaranteed a minimum job placement rate of 80 percent. These placements in the business and private sectors have been secured by a careful study of the job market by JDC-IDP in consultation with national authorities. Training is therefore only offered in specific types of occupations with proven market demand, which have included clothing design, insurance sales, advertising, hotel management, and culinary arts. JDC-IDP and its program partners are looking to secure a 100% job placement rate for graduates in the future and have already done so for some professions.

The most recent session, which comprised nine months of both practical and theoretical coursework, graduated 57 people in August 2008. Even as bombs were falling in the Russia-Georgia conflict, the top 20 students from the course boarded planes to Israel to engage in a business management training component of the curriculum, in partnership with Mashav, the Center for International Cooperation of the Foreign Ministry of Israel.

Despite being faced with the uncertain fate of her family as tanks rolled toward Tbilisi, Lika’s mother convinced her to take advantage of this once in a life time opportunity. “You have to go,” she urged Lika. “Not just for your safety, but to give yourself and the family a real chance to change our lives.” Lika did travel to Israel with her fellow students and was safely reunited with her family in Georgia a couple of weeks later.

To address other local needs in light of the post-war realities in Georgia, JDC-IDP quickly adapted the Vocational Training program, partnering with the Georgian Orthodox Church to provide supplies and stipends to refugee women making large wool blankets for their fellow refugees in preparation for the oncoming winter. What began as an immediate response has since turned into a pilot program through which dozens of women currently work in shifts to sew blankets and earn money from the profits.

For the influx of internally displaced refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, the Vocational Training program curriculum has been adjusted to meet the growing demands of this new population for skills training and employment. Recruitment is currently underway for a set of intensive, shorter-term classes that offer more portable skills, such as hairdressing and cooking; and among the populations being targeted are single mothers whose children—considered to be at risk due to poverty and other adverse conditions—are beneficiaries of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews (IFCJ)-JDC Partnership for Children in the FSU. The top 70 percent of students will also have access to microloans in order to launch their own small businesses once they have successfully completed the course.

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