Liza comes from the region of Abkhazia and now lives in Tbilisi. She is 25 years old and one of 50 participants of »Labor Europa«, a project of the city of Osnabrück for young people who like to come together with other Europeans for a week to work creatively on the topic “Peace”. On the evening of our telephone call, the young social anthropologist has just returned from a week-long UN conference in Romania.
When I hear her voice for the first time, I feel confirmed in the impression I had in our previously written exchange, that Liza is a very open-hearted person. Her voice is firm but warm. It seems full of positive energy and filled with the desire to talk to people in order to exchange ideas about political and social circumstances and changes. This is also expressed in her letter of motivation for the Labor Europa. The simplicity with which she formulated her desire to participate, appealed to me. In it Liza describes that she only wants to bring one thing to Osnabrück: a silver spoon. She tells me the exact story later in our conversation. That much is to be told in advance: Liza is one of the 200,000 Georgians who have had to leave the crisis-ridden region of Abkhazia in the western Caucasus since the late 1980s in order to save their lives and have to start all over again after years of flight – with the prospect of never being able to return to where they once stood.
If you are looking for things, you will find ways
But how did she become aware of the Labor.Europa, I would like to know at the beginning of our conversation. “I think that was fate. I was searching the web like every day for my research topic ‘Conflicts’, when I suddenly came across the title ‘War and Peace in Europe’. That made me curious. And when I read the program, I was really inspired and knew: I want to participate. And so I wrote my application,” she tells me.
Since she had to experience the subject of escape herself, Liza has a very clear idea of what “war and peace in Europe” can mean: “We had a beautiful home, were happy, had many friends. No one expected this to happen. Then it all happened very quickly. We had to put it all behind us to save our lives.” Liza was three years old at the time. She hardly remembers the exact events. She believes that it depends on the person in question how to deal with such a trauma. “The only thing I really remember is that we were always going from one place to another. Sometimes I think it’s better for me not to remember anyway. I am a person who prefers not to concentrate on the negative things,” she sums up this part of her young childhood.
In fact, Liza would like to return to her home country someday – preferably to meet with and talk to young people living there. However, since she is a Georgian citizen, she is not allowed to enter Abkhazia easily. The same applies for her parents. “To return there, I’d have to have a Russian passport. I tried once. But as soon as they understood who my father was – a former diplomatic courier – I was denied entry, pointing out that it was too dangerous for me. My father was organized in a peaceful group that wanted to prevent war,” Liza explains to me.
Talking helps to solve internal blockages
Since I only know the conflict in the region to some extent, Liza makes it clear to me that the russian military still controls the lives of the people on the ground. The conflict and the subsequent manipulation and propaganda by the occupying military have, from Liza’s point of view, further intensified the fronts between the Abkhazians and Georgians. “Actually, we’re ready to talk again. Many people my age would like to get in touch with the young people in Abkhazia. But they live like prisoners in their own land and have little or no opportunity to do so.” Liza hopes that people will open up again and start talking to each other in order to defuse the situation. A good basis for this has just emerged in the Georgian capital Tbilisi at the Sokhumi State University. Many former refugees from Abkhazia are organized there, who set up programs to bring young people from Georgia and Abkhazia together. “I met some of the young people who took part in an exchange program. And I was really shocked when some of them addressed me saying, ,I’m so surprised how nice Georgians your age are. We thought them to be awful people, you know’. That is part of the result of false and fake news in a controlled country, where it is hard to get out to meet other people and build your own opinion. They are stuck in their country,” Liza describes the current situation in her home area. Therefore, she fervently hopes that people will continue to work not only to reopen physical boundaries, but also to free their minds for dialogue. Both sides. But first and foremost, this involves respecting the culture of others, she says.
Liza considers the conversation between people from different nations to be extremely important anyway – not only in her home country. In her view, many young people today are often too lazy to get involved politically or to exchange ideas about conflicts. “They don’t want to talk about difficult things. They’d rather talk about clothes, cars, their smartphones or something like this. That’s selfish. Anyone who lives in a country and wants peace to be maintained and orient itself towards prosperity or develop this status, must be interested in more and have the facts clear”. When I ask her whether the possibilities to gather information by the internet as well as social prosperity not necessarily guarantee an enlightened society, Liza answers: “People become lazy. Lazy to learn. Lazy to communicate. Even people my age or even my friends. Whenever I talk about my history having been a refugee, it really irritates me that they show no interest. They want me to just go on with my life. Which I do. But I also think, it is important to know about the historical facts, to bring life in the right direction.”
Another factor that Liza considers as a hindrance to dialogue is the exercise of extremely religious beliefs – when they impose a role on people that they are not allowed to leave. In the course of increasing globalization, it is difficult to maintain something like this – I can only agree with Liza on this point too.
»The Spoon« – a story of suffering and reconciliation
As mentioned at the beginning, Liza’s participation in the project Labor.Europa is about the story of a small silver spoon as an important part of her own biography. This spoon was part of a silver cutlery set, that enabled her and her family to escape the crisis region and hence saving their lives. But it is also part of a process of reconciliation and forgiveness after the personal tragedy. Liza tells me: “The set of this silverware was a fare for crossing the bridge from Gali (a city in Abkhazia, where active military operations were conducted) to a more remote and safe city. After many years, travelling to different countries and finally returning to Georgia, the man who was paid the silver set, called and asked for coming over to our new home. My mother agreed. The man had kept this set all these years. He admitted to my mom that he felt ashamed for taking it as a fee when he had to do it for free. He had finally come to give it back to us. My mother however refused to take the whole silver set. She asked only for one small dessert spoon – as a symbol of that time and the house she lost.”
The man, who then gave her the spoon, had left the region himself in the meantime. Liza continues: “He was really attached to my family. He had been our neighbor. And he felt really bad, that he had taken something from us to save our lives instead of making it an act of humanity and help without getting anything for doing so.” The moment said neighbor asks her mother for forgiveness, Liza remembers very well: “My mom just smiled and said: There is nothing to forgive. You did save our lives’.” A great gesture, I think. And maybe the only one which makes it possible for people to move on from there. Both of them. For without forgiveness the burden remains and it becomes difficult to shape the future. “She is my example of wisdom, she really is,” Liza sums up this moment of reconciliation.
The importance of symbols for peace
For Liza, the spoon has become a personal symbol of reconciliation and thus peace: “The spoon is like a reflection what has become really important for our family. And we are not talking about the actual value of it as a silverware. With my mother’s generous act when saying words of forgiveness and thanking the man that he took his time to find us, she knew at once she did the right thing as she saw that the man was very touched by her reaction and he then smiled a smile of relief.” The symbol for creating and maintaining a peaceful coexistence does not always have to be something big, otherwise there is also the danger that it might become a burden, Liza concretises her thought.
Liza’s mother likes the idea, that her daughter carries the story of the family and the spoon to other young people in Osnabrück. “She thinks that it is an amazing opportunity to experience the reaction to the spoon story by other people. Imagine the opportunity to find out what others will react like. And it can be any reaction. It can be positive. It can be negative. It can be neutral – whatever it is, still there will be some talking about it. That is one of the main aspects why you need symbols, I think,” Liza explains.
Symbols thus function as carriers of stories, acting as a medium for a reaction. In many cases, this should lead to people exchanging information about things that move them, through which they get into conversation and which may ultimately help them to find the lowest common denominator for a good life, one that is characterized by giving and taking. The best basis for peaceful coexistence, I think. Anyone who really wants to end a conflict must first be able to forgive. Otherwise it continues to bubble subconsciously – until in the worst case the conflict is rekindled. Until then it is only like a slightly healed wound, but it does not yet bear a scar and can easily rupture again.
Mutual understanding ensures peace
How can peace be ensured, I want to know from Liza. This is a difficult undertaking, as long as young people in particular avoid listening to each other’s position at least once, she finds and concretizes her thoughts as follows: “I can see, that many people in my region seem as I said before to live in kind of a box. They often don’t have logical questions or answers. They will not allow someone to show them that they might be mistaken. Even if someone opens the door for them to find out more, they do not want to go through that door.” Avoiding conflict through dialogue prevents the lasting securing of peace, Liza thinks. Silence bequeaths, so to speak, the unresolved conflict. “Even if you come from different backgrounds – cultural or educational, it is important to find things that are common ground. If you don’t find that it is hard to keep up peace,” Liza sums it up.
Small bits turn to the big picture
Finally, I confront Liza with a sentence that I myself often heard as a young person – and that I actually don’t like very much. It says, “You can’t change the world.” But is that so, I want to know from Liza. What can a little symbol like the silver spoon mean here? Liza answers: “The spoon has kind of a psychological effect. It is like a force to you, which helps you to put yourself together, if you find yourself in a conflict situation. I hope symbols like the spoon will help people to focus on the positive and their values and believes. And that you go on from there. No matter how long it will take. Small things, sometimes gestures, count, you know.”
At the end of our conversation I would like to know, what hopes Liza has of her week in Osnabrück. Her answer: “My main aim? I just want to talk with the people of my age but with different backgrounds, where they come from, how they remember their life so far. And maybe some of them also come from an area where there has been a conflict or where a conflict might easily break out – especially in the Caucasian area. I really would love to hear from the people about their different experiences. Maybe they can suggest something. Maybe they would like to involve in something. And I hope they like my story and appreciate me sharing it with them.”
Me tired, but also somehow animated we end our almost three-hours lasting telephone call. Although it’s already after midnight, I’ll start writing down first thoughts and sentences. Hoping that people will read Liza’s thoughts on the importance of consistent exchange – also with “opponents” of their own ideas. In my view, she is thus creating the basis for the goal she has declared herself to participate in Labor Europa: to find new concepts and ideas for securing peace. Because only those who are in the position to accept the perspective of the other and possibly also to leave or even take back their own prefabricated view can experience something that ultimately makes peaceful coexistence among us more likely. It’s about empathy and tolerance. That’s to be open to the other person. With this in mind: Let’s peace things up!
Cover: Silver Spoon, © Liza Ardashir