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Far from home, U.S. students from the Republic of Georgia struggle to preserve their revolution

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Irena Javakhadze prays at St. Nino's Georgian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, New York. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Irena Javakhadze praying at St. Nino's Georgian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, New York. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Irena Javakhadze at St. Nino's Georgian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, New York. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Irena Javakhadze at St. Nino's Georgian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, New York. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Irakli Porchikidze doing his statistics homework at the Lehman Library in the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Irakli Porchikidze doing his statistics homework at the Lehman Library in the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

His fingers racing over the clattering keyboard of his laptop, Irakli Porchkhidze sat in the quiet of Lehman Library at Columbia University, reviewing statistics for his political science class.

Irena Javakhadze, while attending a service at St. Nino’s Georgian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, heard that an American orthodox priest was visiting the church. She skipped over to him as he stood in the sanctuary after the service telling parishioners about the monastery he plans to build in Arizona.

“I was in the middle of a crisis of faith before I went home in August for the summer break,” Javakhadze said. Being away from her home and her church was difficult, and she began to question whether getting a Western education to try and help reform Georgia was worth the sacrifice.

Although they don’t know each other, Porchkhidze and Javakhadze are children of the Rose Revolution, the social movement based on Western democratic principles that erupted in Georgia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both have come to America to study Western ideals so that they can return home and put their educations to the service of their homeland.

Yet their beliefs are at odds.

“The lower layer of society will tell you that all they want are jobs. They’re not worried about their traditions,” said Porchkhidze, a realist more at home in a government ministry than in one of Georgia’s thousands of ancient stone churches.

As a result of the revolution, more Georgians are studying in the West in an effort to institutionalize the changes in their country and to create a Western-educated political and business class while at the same time fighting widespread corruption and crippling poverty.

“Georgia is three things: It is its language, it is the land and it is the Georgian Orthodox religion. These are all in danger,” Javakhadze said.

After deep questioning and a few weeks back home in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, Javakhadze, 32, returned to New York rejuvenated. After feeling that she was losing her connection to her faith, she remembered why she had come to Columbia: to study. The dark gold icons of St. Nino’s anchored her to her faith, and she approached her studies with new vigor.

“Now, maybe I’ll only pray once when I wake up and once when I go to sleep," she said. "But I tell myself I have an excuse because I’ve got my studies.”

Porchkhidze, 26, takes a different view. The flag of the new Georgian republic has four red Maltese-style crosses divided from one another by an even bigger cross of St. George, but Porchkhidze claims Georgians are not too religious.

“The majority of Georgians are Christian only in name," he said. "If I were asked, I would say that I am Christian, that I am Orthodox. But that only matters on religious holidays and celebrations.

“What? I come to America for one year and lose my faith in God?” he joked.

To a Westerner, Georgians may seem very religious. More than 83 percent of the population is Georgian Orthodox, and the church is part of everyday life. At St. Nino’s, the only Georgian church in New York, dark, thick-walled sanctuaries and golden icons loom through the smoke of incense as teenagers in sneakers bounce in with their friends for a quick prayer to their favorite saint. Old women shuffle from icon to icon, kissing each.

These are the customs that Javakhadze misses and Porchkhidze dismisses.

Javakhadze is a master’s student at Columbia's School of Social Work. She is studying “brain drain” and its effect on the Georgian population and economy. Brain drain is a trend wherein skilled workers--engineers and doctors, for example--leave their home country in search of better opportunities abroad. It is estimated that 400,000 to 1 million Georgians live and work in Russia, legally and illegally. The money sent back to Georgia in the form of remittances added up to nearly $220 million in the first half of 2006, or nearly 15 percent of Georgia's gross domestic product.

“This is a dangerous trend for a country,” Javakhadze said. “It destabilizes the economy and makes the country weak.”

Porchkhidze would agree with Javakhadze’s dire estimate. He is a master’s student at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. He is getting his master's in international energy management, a crucial issue in Georgia at present because of the huge BP pipeline running through the country on its way from Azerbaijan to Turkey. The pipeline supplies the country with urgently needed revenue.

“I am a realist. Many people bring up the McDonaldization of the world, but I don’t believe in it,” he said.

Porchkhidze wants to see the economy of Georgia diversify and employment and the standard of living increase--goals of the revolution. Currently the per capita income stands at $3,800 a year, with 54 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Porchkhidze and Javakhadze are united in their goal to improve their country, but their different approach to religion underlines the difficulties of the road ahead for a democratic Georgia.

After more than a year in New York City, Javakhadze said, “I have learned that you should be open.”

She paused, then added, “But what makes you really strong is what you hold inside you: your roots.”

Talking about Georgia’s struggle to become more Western and still retain its values and traditions, Javakhadze asked, “Why would I sell my soul to buy my mind?”

E-mail: jcw2136@columbia.edu