Jeiranashvili, known as “Uncle Kako,”
TBILISI – Two elderly tulip growers have become the face of solidarity in lockdown Georgia after they struggled to make ends meet in the coronavirus crisis triggered a nationwide outpouring of help.
Strict measures to curb the virus in the South Caucasus nation have been particularly hard on pensioners who rely on smallholder farming or outside support, according to activists.
Among them: Mikheil Karaulashvili, 73, and Akaki Jeiranashvili, 63, farmers from the eastern Kakheti region whose stories of hardship in the crisis won hearts and help.
While not connected, the two men share one story.
What does one do when their fields of flowers blossoms in April, amid strict market closures and heavily curtailed commerce?
“Selling tulips is the only way I have to buy bread for my family,” said Karaulashvili, otherwise reliant on a meager 220 lari ($69) monthly pension to raise three fatherless grandchildren and buy medicines for his own ailments.
On Orthodox Palm Sunday, which fell two weeks ago, he took 70 of his tulips to a local church but sold just nine before being fined 3,000 lari by police for breaching lockdown rules – an amount he didn’t know how to pay.
“I felt liked somebody hit me in the heart,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call. “I felt ashamed. I didn’t know how to come back to my family. We had enough problems even without this fine.”
His luck was soon to turn.
After local media reported his plight, four women launched a crowdfunding campaign that gathered donations from hundreds of Georgians totaling some 10,000 lari.
“It was fantastic,” said organizer Mariam Chakvetadze. “People were … sending us money from all around the country”.
Jeiranashvili, known as “Uncle Kako,” experienced a similar wave of support after telling broadcaster Radio Free Europe that his heart was withering as he watched his red tulips rot.
A local artist swiftly launched a campaign offering a virtual bouquet in exchange for donations. At the same time, activists started a Facebook group named “Tulips that wither without us.”
It soon raised enough to buy 1,500 of his flowers.
The tulips were then sent as a present to frontline medical workers dealing with COVID-19 cases at Tbilisi hospitals.
Jeiranashvili is now a small star in a nation of 3.5 million.
“People recognize me from TV, they look at me and ask: ‘Are you that Uncle Kako, who has tulips?’ Then everybody expresses warmth and love and tells me that I have beautiful tulips. So I feel happy and joyful,” he said.
Both men said the experience has given them renewed hope.
“Now I see that there is something worth living in the world. I understood that staying together and helping each other is the force that can defeat the corona (virus) and save the whole world,” said Jeiranashvili.
The group that helped Karaulashvili has collected about 100,000 lari in donations to support other elderly Georgians facing hardship over the past month, said Chakvetadze.
The mountainous former Soviet republic has recorded 411 cases of the novel coronavirus and five deaths.
The government said this week it would present anti-crisis measures to help the country out of lockdown, including support for businesses and some social assistance.