“When I started first grade, our neighbors would constantly say, ‘They’ll never achieve anything’, or ‘Look at the state they’re in’, or ‘They’ll just start prostituting’. They already decided my future. In the end, it worked out in the opposite way.”

After losing her father to gangrene, at the age of 1, and her mother to Leukemia, at the age of 3, Qaliashvili recalls the pitiful and underestimating remarks from her neighbors in the rural village of Bakuriani, Georgia. Specifically, she describes feeling her kindergarten teacher’s sense of disgust towards her. “I hated the pity. It was so annoying and made me feel like I wasn’t normal. They would always compare us to their own kids, saying that they would have bright futures because they had parents to support them but that my sister and I would be left behind in the village.”

Qaliashvili shares her journey growing up as an orphan to working managerial jobs at DHL Global Forwarding, one of the largest logistics companies in the world, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for 18 years. Eventually, she was promoted as the Airfreight Product Head at the firm during which she managed 160 employees and was the only female in the leadership team of 16 people. “It felt a little weird because the transport industry is male-dominated. But I didn’t experience any sexism. On the contrary, I was given so much respect and flattery. My boss would say, ‘We need more women on our team. Why do we only have one woman on the team?’”

However, Qaliashvili’s career had small beginnings. While studying civil engineering at Moscow Technical University, she worked at a factory during the day and attended classes at night. After her graduation, she returned to Georgia where she worked at the national parliament and, simultaneously, taught English.

For Qaliashvili, romance took a back seat in order to prioritize her education. “Education was the most important thing for me. I didn’t care about guys and I was very strict with that. I didn’t want to get distracted by anything.”

This mindset encouraged her to learn English at an early age which, during the turbulent ‘90s in Georgia where electricity outages, water outages, and unemployment was nearly a daily occurrence, became her source of income.

“I never thought I would ever need it for survival, but there came a time when I did. By working at the parliament and teaching English, I supported myself and my sister.”

Although, Qaliashvili married before moving to the United Arab Emirates where she gave birth to her daughter. “Now, I have a lovely husband and daughter,” she says.

Much of her determination to excel in her education and career stemmed from the words of her high school geography teacher who took Qaliashvili and her sister under her wing. “Everyone respected and feared her in our village because she was very intelligent and had a lot of authority in the region. She raised us and, honestly, she was like our guardian angel. No one dared to mess with us because they knew we were under her protection. She would always tell me, ‘You have to set an example for others. You have to lead a life that will make us proud.’”

There is no secret behind Qaliashvili’s success. “It’s all about hard work. I never tried to get promoted at DHL because I was already so happy with my job. I just worked really hard and the promotion just happened unexpectedly,” she says.

Qaliashvili thanks her late grandmother, Natasha, for not being sent to an orphanage and living with a roof over her head. Working as a local trader, Natasha supported Qaliashvili in her youth before passing from a heart attack at 85 years old. “She always guided me and said, ‘Dear, you don’t have parents so don’t give people anything to talk about. They’re all watching you and waiting for you to fail. You have to achieve something in your life and prove them all wrong.’”

Most of all, Qaliashvili thanks her faith for her strength today and wishes she had discovered it earlier. But having spent most of her youth in the Soviet era when religion was forbidden and mocked, she only turned to Christianity in her 30s.

“If I had found God earlier, my life would’ve been so much more peaceful and happy.”

With her voice softening, Qaliashvili reminisces about her three memories of her mother. “One night, it was raining hard and I was left home alone. I heard a mouse and got really scared so, of course, I started crying and hid in a corner and tried to be really quiet. Then, my mom comes into the house so I ran and hugged her. But I remember her face. She looked so tired and weak because that was the period when she was already getting the Leukemia.”

Her second memory of her mother was when she was released from the hospital and carried into the house where she spent her remaining days. And the third memory was of her mother in the casket. “I remember, when she was laying in the casket, her eye just opened because of a reflex and one of the men at the funeral shut her eye and put a coin over it. I was mad at him for days because I thought she was coming back to life and he had just killed her again,” she says, chuckling.

Qaliashvili’s single memory of her father is of him in his casket. “During the funeral, I was reaching for him and so they sat me on his chest. And I was eating an apple and tried to feed it to him.”

Seeing orphans in movies and shows always tugs at her heartstrings and wishes she could tell them, “Never give up because you can achieve anything through hard work. But, most importantly, God has a special place in his heart for orphans and always protects us a little more. You’ll be okay.”

Cover image by Pexels