Temur Sukhashvili, an ethnic Georgian from Azerbaijan, knew what it’s like to be an outsider. So, when offered the chance to teach Georgian to ethnic Azeri schoolchildren in Georgia, he did not hesitate.
“Integration starts with language,” he comments.
Sukhashvili, 28, draws on his own experience as an ethnic minority in Azerbaijan to understand the needs of Georgia’s ethnic Azeris, and the challenges they face to become part of Georgian society.
Helping them overcome these obstacles is part of the reason he decided to become a teacher, he says.
Born in northwest Azerbaijan’s Gakh region, Sukhashvili acquired a working knowledge of Azeri, but only spoke Georgian at home.
When it came time for him to go to university, Sukhashvili realized that his knowledge of Azeri was insufficient. The “quality of education” at the Georgian-language school he attended in his native village of Alibeyli was “not good enough,” he admits.
Officially, Azerbaijan claims that most of its 9,900 ethnic Georgians speak Azeri fluently.
The reality, however, often differs.
Azerbaijan has no state programs that integrate ethnic Georgians within Azerbaijani society, and foster their knowledge of Azeri.
After gaining a master’s degree in philology from Caucasus University, Sukhashvili found his calling. He joined a Georgian government program that sends certified instructors to teach Georgian as a second language.
For the past four years, he has worked in public schools in Marneuli, a predominantly ethnic Azeri town in southern Georgia, not far from the border with Azerbaijan and Armenia, to try and help the area’s ethnic Azeris overcome their own language divide.
At 6.3 percent of Georgia’s population of roughly 3.7 million, Azeris are the country’s largest ethnic minority. But, as for other ethnic minorities, their chances for finding a decent job or getting a higher education are slim without knowledge of Georgian.
For a country with two separatist conflicts, making sure that such communities feel part of Georgia is critical. Encouraged by the international community and Georgian civil society, the government has promoted not only Georgian-language instruction for minorities, but also launched a program to facilitate their enrollment in Georgian universities. Participants study Georgian for one year before completing their four-year degrees.
Assessments of the programs vary, but, for Sukhashvili, his pupils are the measurement of success.
As he walks into his third-grade class in one of Marneuli’s schools, they greet him in Georgian with a resounding “gamarjoba!” (“Hello!”) .
Outside of class, Sukhashvili plays soccer with his students or takes them on walks through the surrounding countryside. He believes that spending time together helps increase their interest in learning Georgian.
“School is not just for passing exams,” he says.
“It would be good if Azerbaijan starts the same sort of program for its minorities,” he adds. The Azerbaijani government could not be reached for comment.
Nonetheless, he complains that many of his students are not passionate about learning Georgian.
“After finishing school, they dream to go to Azerbaijan and continue their education there,” he says. “It’s a pity to see this.”
His own background has taught him the reason why.
“Regardless of ethnic origin,” he underlines, “a person should not feel like a stranger in his own country.”
Editor: Elizabeth Owen