Text by Lasha Shakulashvili
Photos by Elene Shengelia
Negar Khodaivandy, 21, loves the scarf she wears around her neck. It is the same scarf she uses as chador in Iran. One scarf bridges two very worlds, carried by a girl who was born of two very different cultures.
Khodaivandy is one of dozens of young Iranians who are moving to Georgia.
More accurately, they are moving back to Georgia, their ancestral homeland.
Khodaivandy is a member of Georgia's one of the largest diasporas – the group of thousands of ethnic Georgians who were exiled to Persia 400 years ago.
Starting from the early 17th century, ethnic Georgians in Iran were forced to settle in the town of Fereydunshahr. Georgians converted to Shia Islam but maintained Georgian traditions, including the language, although over the past four centuries it has taken on some local traits, including a very specific accent.
Today there is no exact information on the number of ethnic Georgians residing in Iran, however, most of the sources estimate there are around 60, 000.
Many still identify themselves as Georgian, and an increasing number of them are returning home in search of better opportunities and more personal freedom. That is particularly true for young Georgian-Iranians, who consider moving to Georgia – especially capital Tbilisi – to attend university.
Khodaivandy and her sister, Shahrzad, 27, are part of the wave of young Georgians from Iran who moved to Tbilisi to attend the Tbilisi State Medical University.
For Khodaivandy, the decision to move to Georgia was easy. Her late mother was ethnically Georgian and she grew up hearing the language.
“My mother had always wanted to move to Georgia. Few years ago, our family vacationed in Batumi and it felt so heartwarming so see her speaking the Fereydunshahr-style Georgian language with the locals. It was an experience that made a significant contribution to making us feel that we were at home," Khodaivandy says.
Khodaivandy says they felt very welcome when they arrived, in part due to Georgians' attitudes toward the Fereydunshahr Georgians. The group is respected for retaining its Georgian identity and language despite living in Iran for so long.
Negar enrolled to a special class designed for those students who come from Iran and are of full or partial Georgian ancestry. Over the past four centuries, the Georgian language didn’t evolve for the Fereydunshahr Georgians, and the community adopted some Persian words. So, Georgian-Iranians can struggle to communicate. The classes offer a chance to improve their language skills.
A strong command of the language is crucial for Georgian-Iranians as they seek to integrate into Georgian society. The community is well-aware of all the successful "returnees," who have built their careers in Georgia; however, nevertheless, there are stories of people who have moved back to Iran due to the challenges of adapting to life in Georgia.
That includes those who moved back to Iran due to their language abilities.
But other challenges also exist.
For Khodaivandy, it has been hard to make Georgian friends and fully integrate into Georgian society. While her language skills have improved, and she feels at home in the capital, Tbilisi, most of her friends are from Iran or are foreigners studying at the medical university.
Part of the challenge maybe her religion. Generally speaking, the majority of Georgians are Georgian Orthodox and for some people, in the country's violent past, Islam and Iran are associated with long years of occupation and brutality.
That means at times, Georgian-Iranians feel more like "outsiders" than "insiders" in Georgian society. For Khodaivandy, the focus on religion can feel forced.
A person's cultural identity should be tied to language and traditions, she says, not religion.
“My family is Muslim, however, my mother’s ancestors were Christian when they arrived in Persia,” she noted.
“Religion shall not define a person... It is not inscribed on our foreheads what religion we adhere to. Striving to be a better human was the core messages that echo throughout our family values. Speaking Georgian with my maternal grandparents and listening to their stories built my Georgian spirit. In fact, such storytelling makes Iran’s Georgians hold on to their roots,” she said, adding that people’s will to remain Georgian is what matters, not their faith.
And, despite the challenges she has faced building a life in Tbilisi, Khodaivandy says she feels at home in her ancestral motherland.
“My whole family is in Iran, including my sister, who is already a citizen of Georgia. However, I am not alone. I know that my mother’s soul is here, where she had always wanted to be”.
Millennials, February/March 2019