International Studies Program Draws Ethnic-War RefugeeContact: Tarateta, Maja
Tinatin Tsereteli was 7 years old when she and her family, who are ethnic Georgians, were forced to flee their hometown of Sukhumi in the Abkhazia region of the Republic of Georgia. An ethnic war undertaken by Abkhazia left approximately 20,000 civilians dead and more than 200,000 Georgians refugees in their own country. Tsereteli now lives with her family in the capital city of Tbilisi in one room of a municipal high-school dormitory, and she wears everyday the scars of what she witnessed as a child.
“My hair fell out, and doctors in Georgia told me it could be because of the stress and the scare,” she explained. “That’s the reason I wear a headscarf every day. But I don’t mind. I like wearing it, and I think it’s my own style.”
Style is important to the 19-year-old budding fashion designer who left Tbilisi for one year to study international studies at Marymount College of Fordham University. Tsereteli took advantage of the Eurasian Undergraduate Exchange Program, organized by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State and administered by IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board). She is one of only 175 students accepted to the program from more than 6,000 applicants, and she hopes to combine fashion and peace-building into a career.
“People think international relations and fashion are different. But I don’t think they’re so separate. With culture, we can make important steps,” she said. “These two are really linked to each other. In the face of beauty, anger is powerless.”
She’s off to a good start proving her theory. She first showed her ornate gowns made of cellophane at a peace camp she attended that brought together young people from both Georgian-Abkhazian sides to study conflictology—how to resolve their differences without war. When the two groups first came together, “In our minds, we had created enemies out of each other. But we did not do wrong to each other. The problem is with politics, not people,” she said.
One way she bridged the gap was by asking some of the Abkhazian girls to model her dresses during the show. “They were surprised and happy. The dresses played a role in breaking the ice. We saw that we were more like each other than we thought. By the end of the camp, we were friends.”
Tsereteli brought several of the cello-dresses with her to Marymount, and her fellow students modeled them at the campus Night of Expression event held in late January.
“In addition to her serious academic pursuits, Tina’s gift for creativity has brought people together in a focused way, transcending their differences and facilitating communication,” said Sister Rita Arthur, R.S.H.M., Marymount study abroad adviser, whose sister was recently a relief worker in the Republic of Georgia. “Tina’s experiences reflect the impact of war and terrorism in today’s world and the efforts that must be made to rise above these very difficult situations.”
On April 29, Tsereteli will show a new dress designed in her Clothing I class at the annual Marymount Fashion Show, held at 8 p.m. in Spellman Auditorium on the Marymount campus.
When she’s not designing dresses, Tsereteli, who speaks four languages and is learning two more, is interning at the United Nations Association of the United States of America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan center of policy research on the United Nations and global issues such as peace and security, health and human rights. In 2002, she was honored by the United Nations for her winning essay on the theme “If I Were an Ambassador of the Peace.” She is also secretary of the Italian-American club on campus, a member of the Asian club and has volunteered at the R.S.H.M. convent.
She returns to Georgia in May, where she will continue to study, design and work. “The war has had a real effect on me,” she said. “I decided to dedicate everything I do to peace-building. I don’t want other children to have to feel what I felt.”
Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to approximately 15,800 students in its five undergraduate colleges and six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx, Manhattan and Tarrytown, and the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y.