In the heart of Tbilisi, Georgia, sits a grand hotel that was once one of the most luxurious in the city. Now, instead of pampering Soviet-era illuminati as it did during its former years as a Ritz Carlton, Hotel Georgia stands as an emblem of a grimmer post-Soviet reality: one half of the building has been walled off by the Georgian government to accommodate a tiny fraction of the over 200,000 ethnic Georgians displaced by the 1992 Georgia-Abkhaz war. The other half lies largely empty save the top two floors, where a staff of three elderly women—also displaced by the war—tends to the occasional guests in perfectly maintained rooms.
Alexandra Rose Howland, who is working on a long-term project about refugees, had heard about communities of internally displaced persons (or IDPs) living in Georgia; she traveled to Tbilisi last year to find out more. (Abkhazia isn’t formally recognized as a separate country, which is why these people are called “internally displaced persons” rather than refugees.)
Howland was exploring the streets when she stopped into Hotel Georgia to use the restroom—and stepped into what felt like a different dimension. “I was mesmerized by the atmosphere,” she says. Walking up three flights of darkened stairs, she encountered the women, whom she interviewed with the help of her translator.
Howland learned that two of the women lived in the hotel, sleeping on couches in a large linen closet. The other had just recently moved into a tiny apartment with her adult daughter. Their days were spent cleaning, ironing, and changing linens, tasks which they performed whether there were guests or not (when Howland was there, 50 members of the Georgian Polyphonic choir had rented out the two floors; they were the first guests in five months). They were paid a monthly wage amounting to roughly $60, though often this salary only came every three or four months. And in a country where IDPs are largely living on the outskirts of mainstream society, the hotel was one of the few places that would hire them.
They shared intense stories of loss—of home, of husbands and children, of a more comfortable life. They spoke of feeling trapped, without the means to return to their homes, and without the means to create new lives elsewhere. “You could see this pain in every word they spoke, in every gesture,” Howland says.
Howland wasn’t able to photograph the IDPs living in the other half of the building—they were not comfortable being photographed. But the stories of these three women alone added a new dimension to the broader story she wants to tell of displacement, conflict, and identity in a world with shifting borders.
“If you can’t help integrate people from a war that happened 24 years ago,” she says, “how are you going to do it for people who are being put out right now?”