A couple months ago, a young woman of about 19 years old asked me for some money in front of an ice cream shop. Just as I was about to say “sorry,” my partner asked if I didn’t recognize her.
Ten years ago my band played at an expat bar in Vake Park and every night an adorable, doe-eyed 8 year-old girl used to beg on the sidewalk in front of the door. Sometimes she brought her 5 year-old brother with her. Her name was Maria and she lived on the other side of town. I never gave her money directly because I’ve always considered that contributing to problem rather than helping it. Instead, I’d buy her a sandwich or pay for her taxi back home. Maria said her parents forced her to beg.
When the government re-privatized property after the Rose Revolution and put the bar out of business, the patrons moved to another expat bar and Maria and I went our separate directions. I never saw her since, until that day in front of the ice cream shop. The streets ravaged the beauty her youth had promised and had stripped the luster of girlhood from her eyes. She was old and wrinkled and not even 20.
World Vision, the international charity organization, estimates there are about 2500 street children in Georgia. Typically, the kids start out like Maria and beg to bring money home to their parents. But by the time they are 14, all vestiges of cuteness have gone and it becomes more difficult to beg. That’s when boys turn to crime and girls often turn to prostitution. I shiver to think that Maria may have been a child-victim of sexual exploitation, but in Georgia that scenario is more likely the case than the exception.
My favorite photographer Justyna Mielnkiewicz and I put together a story about Georgia’s street children for Eurasianet.