UMCOR builds health near Sochi Olympics

February 20, 2014

Building Health Bridges in the Caucasus

By Julia Kayser -

Just five miles south of Sochi Olympic Park, where the 2014 Winter Games are being held, is a disputed territory with a bloody history. Abkhazia is one of two de-facto independent administrative regions located in the Caucasus; South Ossetia is the other. Historically part of Georgia, they separated from that country with the support of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Although each of the regions is ethnically and politically distinct, most in the international community recognize them as part of Georgia and not as independent states. But their independence remains contested.

The result is continued conflict and isolation, with hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced. For more than twenty years, communication across the Administrative Boundary Lines has been limited at best. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been working in the region since 1993 to increase access to healthcare for vulnerable people generally and improve maternal and child healthcare outcomes specifically. Last year, UMCOR marked its twentieth year in Georgia with a new project to promote peaceful and healthy living.

The Building Health Bridges project, which ran through September 30 and was supported by funding from the US Embassy in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, fostered communication and cooperation among medical professionals across the Georgia-Abkhazia Administrative Boundary Line (ABL). It brought doctors together, face-to-face, for professional training in neutral locations. This strategy is recommended by USAID, and Building Health Bridges was welcomed and supported by other implementing agencies, including UNHCR, UNICEF, and Médecins Sans Frontières. The project also relied on rich partnerships with local health organizations.

The first wave of training events reached ninety-nine doctors along the Georgia-Abkhazia ABL. Trainings covered topics in maternal and child health, cardiology, oncology, gastroenterology, and, for nurses, in emergency medicine. Afterward, one doctor called colleagues from the other side “new friends.” Another wrote, “This program grants us a unique opportunity to… jointly address health problems.”

UMCOR also launched a virtual health platform that the doctors could access online. Eighty percent of the trainees still use it to collaborate, discuss case studies, and share resources. At the same time, fourteen public awareness campaigns were launched in the doctors’ home districts of Zugdidi and Gali, hosting workshops for more than five thousand community members.

The second phase of the project began in September where the first phase left off. Expanding Health Bridges also is being implemented with funding provided by the US Government, through the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. In November, Nicholas Jaeger, UMCOR program manager, traveled to Istanbul for an event that gathered ten doctors from the communities of Shida Kartli and Tskhinvali, both located along the Georgia-South Ossetia ABL. With the help of a translator, he welcomed them and reiterated UMCOR’s commitment to healthcare and peace building.

Some of the topics covered in this training event were telemedicine, maternal and child healthcare, and management of cardiovascular diseases. The schedule also allowed for fellowship through shared meals and sightseeing in the old city of Istanbul. On the last day, all of the doctors showed signs of increased trust in each other—even those who had been most reserved at first.

Jaeger says, “A great deal of the peace-building work… took place on the sidelines, in private conversations during coffee breaks, during formal dinners, and in sightseeing excursions. During these activities, it was evident that the group was forming a community of practice regardless of ethnic or national identity.”

Training doctors has an exponential positive affect, because it benefits each doctor’s patients. UMCOR estimates that the Expanding Health Bridges project will indirectly benefit 44,000 people, more than half of them internally displaced. Because people tend to trust and respect doctors, tolerance in the medical profession can help bring the region one step closer to peace.

You can support this and other development work in Georgia with your donation to Georgia Emergency Advance #250305.