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In the Years to Come, My Foundation Keeps Focusing on Economically Weak Women and their Families

Published: November 21, 2011 | 11:08 am
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First Lady sounds to be a majestic status for women all over the world. However, this magic requires 24-hour involvement in different jobs.

For Mrs.Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs the main challenge is to use the position of the first lady to maximally help the most vulnerable, with a focus on women and children.

The COMMERCIAL magazine recorded an exclusive interview with Mrs.Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs, the First Lady of Georgia.

- As the WHO Goodwill Ambassador in the European Region for the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), you have your separate program within the UN General Assembly in New York. Recently you delivered a speech at the UN Headquarters and reviewed the healthy life style program. You also introduced to the audience the characters of the healthy life style initiative, toys Nika and Nutsa, who call for healthy life style in the televised video promos. The motto of the program is Don`t Worry, Be Healthy! How welcome were Nika and Nutsa greeted at UN?  Why did you choose toys as the promoters of healthy life? Who were they named after?

- In New York at the General Assembly which was focused health-wise on non-communicable diseases I was able to present our quite original National Health Promotion Campaign. Quite an honor, sitting (as always, in alphabetical order!) between the Ministers of Health of France and Germany and getting compliments for the vivid presentation from the President of Hungary! Usually, interventions at international fora are quite monotonous and I wanted to capture the attention of the audience by showing our puppet-characters Nika & Nutsa. People loved it! That I like the name Nika I think is quite obvious and Nutsa was one of my favorite students in my class when I was teaching French at the Caucasus Business School. She is now a successful banker at HSBC and I can say I am proud of her. Of course the names fit well together as well. Nika and Nutsa try to raise awareness among the general population (not just children) about alcoholism, tobacco, drugs, passive life style, unhealthy food habits and pollution of the environment. These are all pressing issues for Georgia and healthy choices and change of behavior will mainly be achieved by giving complete and balanced information on serious topics but in a playful way like we do through the puppets.

- “Just want to let you know that I am one of the 33 co-authors of the Dutch book AAN MIJN JONGERE IK, a collection of letters written by well-known Dutch women to an ‘imaginary younger self’ and containing advices, warnings and life lessons. For sale in Dutch book shops and by internet. Proceeds go to Breast Cancer projects (Pink Ribbon).” Quote from your facebook page. What’s unique about this book and is it available in English?

- I was approached by the compilers of this book to be one of the well-known Dutch women to write an article. In this article I tell ‘my younger self’ to gain as much different experiences as possible and to take on all kind of jobs and learn languages just to be ready for the future, because you never know what it might bring.

Unfortunately this book did not come out in English language. I am now reading the advices of the 32 other women and already have the wish to meet a few of them!

- In 1998 you founded charity foundation SOCO, which has the primary focus of implementing the programs funded by western European and Georgian companies and individuals and is aimed at supporting low income families. Since setting new targets in 2007, SOCO has been actively taking care of reproductive health and child welfare in Georgia. What’s the 2011-2012 main priority for SOCO?

- SOCO was established twelve years ago. Apart from the study grants abroad that we have given for individual students and professionals in the past three years, in 2011-2012 we continue to focus more and more on the issue of economically poor women and children. Our mobile medical team spends the weekends in isolated areas with comparably poor health services. In this transitional period of Georgian health care reforms that are moving towards a privatized system of service provision and also taking into account the still too immature market of medical insurance, there is a huge need for good diagnostics and provision of quality drugs and that is what we offer for free with this project, supported by both UNFPA and a German organization ‘Johanniter Hilfe.’ We focus on women health and offer free consultations with a gynaecologist, colposcopist, cardiologist, ultra sound specialist, general physician and endocrinologist. I myself sometimes help out as a nurse during these mobile team visits and get some general practice in this way. My other work environment is the delivery room of the Gudushauri clinic in Tbilisi, where I do shifts every few weeks.

SOCO also keeps focusing on infertility issues. In Georgia the infertility rate is close to 15% which is comparably high.  We help the couples see a reproductologist, pay their hormone therapy and sometimes gynand guidelines for the different assisted reproductive technologies) in Georgia and it should be made accessible for all layers of the population. In the near future the SOCO Foundation might play a role in this field.  For our today’s infertility projects Georgian corporate sponsors give more easily than for other projects as this is a demographic issue and very concrete in its results. Every achieved pregnancy is like a victory within the project!

SOCO also has a Rare Diseases Alliance office (in Gldani) where we try to make the voice heard of parents and caretakers of children with diseases like cerebral palsy, phenylketonuria, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Krohn, Addison, birth defects like cleft lip or palatum. It is not just necessary to lobby for support with the Ministry of Health, also the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical or nutrition industry are important players in making services and drugs available for an affordable price. Rare Diseases Alliance is supported by the Dutch organization ‘Sharity Fund’. These are the main projects of these years at my Foundation.

- Vera Kobalia, the Minister of Economic Development of Georgia praises you for promoting the program of Afrikaner Farmers Migrating to Georgia.  How did you get involved in this program and what are your expectations?

- The Minister for Diaspora Issues, Mirza Davitaia, approached me to come and meet a large group of Afrikaner farmers interested in Georgian agriculture reforms last year. The contact was so natural (as I can easily understand their language and also physionomicaly they are very close to my fellow Dutchmen) that it became a tradition for me to meet all the groups that came over from Zuid-Afrika to explore possibilities of emigration to Georgia, not just men, but also their spouses and children. They all got my book in English, which gives a good account of how life and culture in Georgia is experienced by newcomers. Already several tens of Afrikaners have sold their belongings back home and have settled in Georgia. Children go to Georgian schools. I think this is a unique opportunity for the Georgian agricultural sector to get in touch with new techniques of produce and cultivating, although there are of course ‘niches’ like wine-making that we rather keep the traditional way!

- You’ve been the First Lady of Georgia since 2004. During these years a number of highly significant social and charity projects have been carried out under your patronage. Could you please recall the most important activities that were vital to be accomplished and would not have happened without the patronage of the first lady?

- I like your last remark! That is exactly my criterium for involvement in any kind of new projects. If an initiative can start or continue well without my involvement than I say ‘no’ but there have been a number of projects, like oncological screening, fighting infectious diseases and the stigma around them, palliative care and use of the safety belt where my involvement has indeed played a decisive or catalyzing role. I hope my DON’T WORRY BE HEALTHY! campaign will also prove to have an impact on our society and that our population gets better informed and will start to make healthier choices and adapt their behavior towards isolated groups in society, environment, animals or towards road safety in general.

- From 1999 to 2003, you were a visiting lecturer at Tbilisi State University. How would you assess the reforms made in educational system of Georgia since 2003? Pros & Cons?

- The most far-stretching reform was the Central Examination for University enrollment and the merit-based system of study grants. There is a small mental revolution taking place as we speak. I get lots of letters of disappointed mothers who have always dreamt of their child going to university but if he or she does not pass the Central Examination then the university level is simply too high for them. It is good that alternative options like (free) vocational education is offered for careers in tourism, IT, engineering etc. In this (quite painful) transitional period a part of society will gradually have to learn to be satisfied with vocational education instead of higher education and understand that professions like social worker, waitress, plumber or carpenter might look less prestigious but are just as important for a well-functioning society as the profession of lawyer, doctor or economist. If I may draw the parallel to the situation of a Georgian orchestra where it is easy to find great string players and fantastic soloists (pianists and singers) but very hard to find wood wind players, simply because they are the least visible in the orchestra, somewhere in the back. They go almost unnoticed. But can the symphonic orchestra (cf. society) sound well without the wind instruments? Through my Association for Promotion of Classical Music we give study grants for those who choose to play wind instruments and we help organize the annual Wood Wind Festival, bringing Western-European players who perform and give master classes at the same time, to popularize these instruments and give them the place they deserve in the Georgian orchestra!

- In 2007 you founded Radio Muza, the first Georgian radio dedicated solely to classical music. Why radio and why classical music?

- Grown up with classical music radio stations in the Netherlands and in Belgium (where I studied) I really missed the existence of such a channel on Georgian radio and when I got the chance to found a 24 hour nation-wide radio station 4,5 years ago, I did not hesitate. It really serves a need in this musically so gifted country: people know and appreciate Radio Muza and can listen to it anywhere on the globe thanks to internet live streaming. The radio’s team consists of 15 enthusiastic young Conservatory graduates who cover classical music, jazz, folk, church, world and contemporary music. I also have 4 hours of broadcast a week which is quite a challenge given my busy schedule. Radio Muza became an active member of the European Broadcasting Union and through them is able to supply broadcasts to other European radio stations of concerts given in Georgia: this is a unique chance to get European exposure for Georgian performers and composers. As you see I am very proud of this initiative and very grateful to all persons who have helped me to make this dream come true over the past years!

- SOCO launched Computer and English education classes in Tserovani for IDPs.  How successful has this project been thus far and are there other educational support programmes planned for IDPs or other socially vulnerable children and adults?

- Yes, the Tserovani project was successful in the sense that we have given these classes in a period of one and a half year to almost 250 unemployed young people living in Tserovani (mostly women were active) and have even been able to provide some of them with jobs and internship opportunities!

I hope the sponsor will continue to assist us so that we can continue to support educational initiatives for IDPs.

- You met Mikheil Saakashvili in 1993 while attending a course on human rights in Strasbourg and later that year moved to New York where you worked at Columbia University and a Dutch law firm. Would you say your daily schedule was busier by then than now? What’s most attractive about being the First Lady and what are the unlovable limitations that come along?

- To be honest, life in New York was a holiday compared to what I experience now. If you take the ‘job’ of first lady seriously then 24 hours in a day is not enough. Apart from taking care of husband and children, fulfilling formal obligations, following and steering my health, social and cultural projects, like anybody else I do need enough time to sleep and relax (through music and sports). It is very hard with such a busy schedule not to neglect your friends, but the real ones can understand this.  Most attractive of this position is the fact that through your conscious choices you can make a difference to many people who need attention in this society, so this is the very rewarding side. But I can name a few setbacks like lack of privacy, always having to be in shape, having to explain to your kids that you leaving home for the evening is more important than staying with them to play (and realizing later that you were wrong). Another thing that is hard to make people realize is that their impression of you being able to afford anything and arrange everything is wrong!

- As we’re all aware you sing perfect, including Georgian and Mingrelian songs. As for local singers and musicians, who are your favorites?

- I much like Zurab Mzhavia, Gogi Dolidze, Sopho Nizharadze but also love to listen to Georgian folk, including ASA party…On one hand I am proud that a lot of our pianists, violinists and singers are being successful abroad but on the other hand would rather beg them to come back and share their experience with students and performers at home, at least 6 months per year!

- You are an author of an autobiographic book The Story of an Idealist (2005). When did you decide to become a writer?

- I had always wanted to become a writer when I was little and then a few decades later Dutch and Belgian publishers approached me to write a book about Georgia after the Rose Revolution which I did with great zeal. It turned out that I myself also satisfied a need: to write down all my experiences in Georgia since 1992 when I first set foot in…Sokhumi!  I would love to spend more time writing as I have beautiful ideas for new books based on historic facts taken place in Georgia, not about myself.

My book reached the top 15 in the Netherlands in 2005 and has been translated from Dutch into Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, Polish and English. I am selling them to fund some of my Foundation’s activities.

- You have two sons, Eduard and Nikoloz. Would you approve if they decide to get involved in politics years from now?

- They should do what their heart tells them to do and in what they find satisfaction, but to be fully honest, I would somehow pity their wives and children because being a committed politician is a 24 hour job at the service of your population and does not leave you much time to spend with your family.

- Your 15 year-old son Eduard has set a new Guinness World Record for fastest typing on an iPad, managed to type the whole alphabet on an iPad in just 5.26 seconds beating the previous record by over a full second. Were you aware of Eduard’s skills and does he have any plans of this type for future?

- He already turned 16 and in the meantime the record was already beaten (by an English boy, half a second quicker!). I helped Eduard to measure the time of this typing when he got prepared for the record attempt so I know he is fast in typing with one hand!  As far as I know he is not yet planning to beat any other records although he was very excited by the whole process and of course its result!

- You acquired Georgian citizenship in January 2008 and you’re now a dual Dutch-Georgian citizen. What do you like most about living in Georgia and what’s the best thing you miss about Netherlands when you’re here?

- Living in Georgia is living close to nature and being part of a huge family and friends’ circle. That is a huge difference with my home country the Netherlands. From the point of view of my position I like the fact that Georgia is a small country because it makes contact with the population very much possible and travels from east to west, north to south feasible in one and the same day!

What I miss about the Netherlands is that you can always see the horizon, take your bike for a quick errand and enjoy the huge skies with thousand and one different cloud patterns. Of course I also miss the traditional Dutch delicacies that I remember from my childhood and of which I always eat too much when I go see my parents, as if I had to catch up for all the time I couldn’t enjoy them!


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