Fourteen such schools, staffed mostly by teachers originally from Abkhazia, teach an estimated 5,000 children throughout Georgia. The schools fall under the administration of the Abkhaz Ministry of Education and Culture in Exile, part of the Tbilisi-loyal Abkhaz government based in the Georgian capital.
Central government officials maintain that no official policy exists to keep these children separate from other Georgian students.
Dali Khomeriki, the Abkhaz minister of education and culture in exile, states that the schools are separate from regular Georgian schools by default, rather than by design. The schools are usually located within settlements that were assigned to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) immediately following the 1992-1994 conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"[P]arents prefer to take their children to IDP schools because they know the teachers, the children know each other -- they are from the same settlement," Khomeriki says.
But today, 17 years after the conflict's start, virtually none of the schools' students were actually born in Abkhazia.
Lali Santeladze, a project manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council, cautions that children living in the IDP settlements can experience a "second traumatization" when attending the IDP schools. "They are not born there [Abkhazia], they know nothing about [the] war," Santeladze explained. "They are brought up here, but with this identification of themselves as temporary citizens here; as people who will sooner or later go back to Abkhazia."
That feeling, she claimed, is strengthened at the IDP schools, where an emphasis is placed on remembering Abkhazia. For example, a handmade banner proclaiming "We will return to Abkhazia," is draped across the main hall at IDP School No. 3, a makeshift facility on the second floor of an IDP settlement in suburban Tbilisi. A sign posted near the classrooms lists the names and photographs of men who died during the 1992-1994 war. Other photos feature Abkhaz landscapes and churches.
Roughly 90 percent of the school's 130 students are IDPs. The school, according to Principal Svetlana Rurua, prides itself on keeping the memory of Abkhazia alive in its pupils.
While Rurua believes that integration of IDP children with the local population is beneficial, she stressed that the "main thing" is to make sure the children do not forget "their roots."
"It is helpful for them [to mix with other children], but the main thing is that they don't forget where they are from," Rurua said. "We still have the hope that we will definitely return."
Many parents agree with Rurua. Ella Jejelava's two children were born in Tbilisi, but study at IDP School No. 3, she says, to preserve the memory of their "native" home.
Tbilisi State University sociologist Iago Kachachkishvili agrees with the Norwegian Refugee Council's Santeladze that any sort of segregation of IDPs from the local community is harmful. "You deepen [the] attitude, they are not really ours. This is not positive. It does not help their adaptation process," Kachachkishvili says.
Change may be in the works. Tentative plans exist to expand the schools to include local children, as well as children from the IDP settlements. The integration initiative does not have any set timetable, however. The process, which Abkhaz Education and Culture Minister in Exile Khomeriki calls "reverse integration," is intended to reduce the barriers between the settlements and the local population, while preserving jobs for IDP schoolteachers.
The chances that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will ever return to Georgia have dimmed considerably since Tbilisi's 2008 conflict with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian troops are building permanent bases in the separatist enclaves, which have been recognized as independent by Moscow, along with Latin American mavericks Nicaragua and Venezuela. Despite the lengthening odds against them, many IDP children show no sign of abandoning the dream of a return to their parents' homeland.
"Of course [we should learn about Abkhazia]," says Ketovan Chkadua, a 16-year old IDP who lives in the building that houses IDP School No. 3. "It would be very good for us to be able to go to children in Abkhazia and to communicate with them. We just want to know . . . if they want to be with us."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.