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Georgians in America watch the violence back home

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VERENA DOBNIK
August 13, 2008
— Khatuna Baghaturia has spent countless hours in the last week on the phone with relatives in her native country and watching the bloodshed on TV. The sight of Russian troops laying waste to Georgia was all the more horrifying because her three children are there now on vacation.

"Every bomb we hope it's going to be the last," said Baghaturia, who lives in Brooklyn and whose children have managed to stay out of harm's way. "It's like a bad dream."


The 37-year-old is among about 20,000 Georgians living in the United States and about 5,000 in New York City home to the nation's largest Georgian population, according to the country's New York consulate.


They have spent the past five days making frantic phone calls home and praying in crowded churches in Brooklyn, where Georgians are scattered in different neighborhoods.


Baghaturia is a former teacher who now runs a restaurant called Tbilisi in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, where she says neighborhood Russians have been flocking for days to offer their support. Brooklyn is home to a sizable Russian population, creating the odd juxtaposition of people from two warring countries living side by side.


"They try to support us, they understand us, they come and say that, you know, we are really sorry, and we are your friends and we are, we are," Baghaturia said.


Katya Ivanova, a Russian-born architect who lives in Ocean Parkway, in Brooklyn, said she supports the Georgians "because we Russians remember those days when we were quite friendly. I vacationed almost every summer on the Black Sea (in Georgia). They're great people, so friendly."


She added, "I hope intelligent Russians are against their government. And I think most Russian-Americans support the Georgians. The Russian government will always be the same even if its name changes."


With tears in her eyes, the cook at Tbilisi prepared the kitchen Tuesday to make her country's "comfort" food kachapuri, a kind of Georgian cheese pizza that warmed tables as daily life moved on under a sunny Brooklyn sky.


"I'm scared for my children and my grandchildren," said Leila Mikeladze, the 46-year-old cook whose grown daughter, son and pregnant daughter-in-law, as well as three grandchildren, are skirting dangers not far from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.


Her parents, caught in the heart of the conflict, cannot be reached by telephone; Mikeladze relies on calls from her children for news.


Baghataria, her husband and staff rely on Internet phone connections, including video images, to keep track of events hour to hour. She hopes her children two daughters ages 19 and 13, and a 7-year-old son remain safe and make it back to New York for the start of the academic year.


But that doesn't solve the problems of Georgia, whose President Mikhail Saakashvili is a lawyer educated at New York's Columbia University. Baghataria says that despite Russia ordering a halt to the war, friends and relatives reported that bombs were still going off Tuesday.


"We need the whole country to be saved and all Georgians to be alive," said Baghataria.


On Saturday, a rally at the United Nations drew Georgians carrying signs that read: "Hands off Georgia" and "Stop Evil Russia."


Protesters included members of St. Nino's Georgian Orthodox church choir who formed a circle to sing their native songs. A room on the third floor of a Roman Catholic school in Brooklyn's Williamsburg serves as the chapel of the church on most Sundays.


In the meantime, Georgians including ethnic Russians gather at places like the Tbilisi restaurant to talk and eat together, make calls, and share hopes for a quick end to the conflict.


Last weekend, there was no entertainment at the Tbilisi restaurant.


"We said, 'People are dying, we can't sing and dance here,'" said Baghataria.


She and her husband came to the United States in 1999, leaving behind a shattered Georgian economy and their children, whom the couple didn't see for four years until their U.S. immigration status was settled.


"I still hope that everything is going to be OK," she said, smiling faintly.


At her Manhattan apartment and studio, artist Rusudan Grigolia spends anxious, sleepless days and nights watching TV, making phone calls to Georgia and keeping in touch by computer.


She flew back from Georgia last week, leaving behind her daughter, a fashion designer in the capital known as Nina K, as well as her 3-month-old granddaughter, her mother and her sister.


"I wish I didn't leave," said Grigolia. "I wish I could go back there and be with them."


She has "lots of Russian friends, and I love them," she said, adding, "I would not expect from Russian government to be so greedy and to be so cruel."


Echoing Republican presidential candidate John McCain, she said, "We all are Georgians now. And I believe the whole world should feel like that because if Russia wins now in Georgia, that means that we all lose not only Georgians."



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