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Students work with refugees for the Mercer On Mission trip to Georgia

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Students work with refugees for the Mercer On Mission trip to Georgia

Mercer University students make pottery at the Beteli center for refugees in Tbilisi, Georgia. Clockwise from bottom left: Sophia Hall, Emily Kate Gilbert, Thomas Tsangarides, Allison Troup, Ukrainian refugee Rosie Potsiluiko, Tysen Dougherty, Mary Margaret Smith, Brithny Speraw and Jalyn Massey. Mercer On Mission’s photo

Mercer University students and faculty helped build cultural bridges during a Mercer On Mission trip to Georgia this summer.

At the invitation of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and the World Association of Georgia Muslims, the Mercer team stayed in Tbilisi at the Beteli Center for Refugees, learning about the refugees’ stories and helping to make pottery that the refugees sold for money to send home.

In addition, the Mercer group attended Christian, Jewish, and Muslim services at the Interfaith Peace Cathedral, conversed with Muslim students, and visited the George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology, and Virology.

for dr Chris Grant, Professor of Political Science, this was the seventh Mercer On Mission trip to Georgia. He was joined this time by Dr. Linda Hensel, professor of biology, and Lauren Benedict, associate professor of integrative studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Each visit to Georgia is different and tailored to the needs of the refugee center, said Dr. Grant. The addition of Dr. Hensel added a scientific element that allowed biology students to provide practical service in their field.

“What I really like about this missionary journey is that you don’t have the American imperialist attitude that you come here to help make things better,” said Dr. hensel “You go in, you sit there and you basically say, ‘What do you need?’ What can we do to help you?’”

Many of the refugees at the Beteli center were Ukrainians who had fled their country after the Russian invasion. Although many didn’t speak English, the Mercer students communicated with them using Google Translate on their cell phones.

“We would learn about their stories, and a lot of them had families that were actually still living in Ukraine that are in war zones right now,” said Tysen Dougherty, an aspiring law and public policy major. “We wanted to try to give them a safe environment where they felt like they could open up about anything they wanted to talk about. None of us who have been on the journey could ever think of experiencing something like this, but it’s really hard to be uprooted from home.”

Students worked alongside refugees in the center’s pottery studio, making pieces including ceramic fruits, animals and small shapes like hearts, on which they drew the Ukrainian flag. They left pieces for sale and bought some to take home as well.

During its stay in Tbilisi, the team visited the Peace Cathedral, which houses a cathedral, a mosque and a synagogue. Faced with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Georgia, the Peace Cathedral’s founders had “a mission to bring people of different religious traditions together in an attitude of solidarity,” said Dr. Grant.

Four people stand in front of a painting of JesusMercer University student Benjamin Smith presents a photo essay created by the Mercer On Mission 2021 team to members of the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo essay is a history and art of mosques in Adjara region unknown to many Georgians. Mercer On Mission’s photo

In addition to participating in the various services, the students held discussions with different perspectives. They also interacted with two other student groups from the university, sharing thoughts on religion, politics and culture.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that even in such different cultures, we’re all a lot more alike than meets the eye and it’s easy to find common ground between just about everyone,” Dougherty said.

One day the group hiked up the mountains to the predominantly Muslim town of Khulo, where the Mercer group interacted with school children and helped them learn English.

“We had an afternoon at boarding school where we could play all kinds of games with them,” said Jalyn Massey, an aspiring senior with a double degree in biology and Spanish. “The girls made friendship bracelets. We played this game similar to Twister. Most of the English was pretty good so we were able to have good conversations with them.”

The Mercer team also learned how people there care for the dying.

“They spoke to the children they met and the adults they met about dying, and amazingly, the children were neither horrified by the death nor saddened by it like we are in our country,” said Dr. hensel

That’s because in Georgia people die at home while being cared for by women in the family, while in the US many people die in a hospice or other facility while being cared for by non-family members.

a group photo in front of snow-capped mountainsThe Mercer On Mission team is pictured near Stepantsminda, Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains. Mercer On Mission’s photo

Back in Tbilisi, a smaller Mercer group visited Firefly World, the first children’s hospice in Georgia. The students were allowed to accompany a doctor who needed help with medical English from the medical students.

“She told us about the condition of each child and we got to watch some bedside procedures while we were there,” said Massey, who wants to go to medical school. “It was a sad experience, but I’m glad I got to have it.”

They also attended a birthday party for a patient.

“It was a conflict of emotions for me because I see that they are all happy for this child who is turning 17, but at the same time knowing where in the hospice center he was and would probably die,” said Luis Jiménez, who closed in May she is completing her biology degree and plans to do a veterinary degree. “It was a very emotional experience taking over the hospice care.”

The whole group reunited for a visit to the George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Virology, where researchers study phages and their applications. A phage is a virus that kills bacteria, and in Eastern medicine they are used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. While western medicine relies on antibiotics, interest in phages is beginning to grow, said Dr. hensel

“This trip was a wonderful conclusion to my time at Mercer,” said Jiménez. “I felt like it taught me more about the world.”