When I was a little girl, I was envied by the children in the neighborhood. Growing up during the communism meant limitation of choices in pretty much every aspect of life, and since we had relatives abroad I had toys and clothes others could only dream of. Not to mention all the candy in every color and taste possible compared to the single flavor chewing gum and the tasteless chocolate available in the supermarkets at that time.
When I was 11, my parents divorced and our financial situation changed drastically. Shortly thereafter, despite doing everything within her power, my mom couldn’t pay the bills and soon we were without electricity. We “showered” with water warmed up on the balcony in the sun (thank God summers in Bulgaria are hot and sunny) and the fridge was empty as it was useless without power. The part I vividly remember were the Sunday evenings when my mom would pass an extension electricity cable to our neighbors via the balcony so I could watch my favorite TV show for an hour .
Within a few weeks my mom managed to pay the bill and the electricity was back. But money or the lack there of always remained a burning subject. My wardrobe throughout the school year consisted of a pair of jeans, jogging pants and a few shirts. Later at high school I was the only girl from the class to work after school. But I never considered myself poor not because my mom would never allow that but because I every day I witnesses what being poor really meant.
Going to my grandparents, I could choose between a short route which was through the Roma neighborhood, or the long route – through the non-Roma neighborhood. The non-Roma neighborhood was welcoming and warm. It was peaceful, children were playing around and neighbors were chatting on the streets. Just like my neighborhood.
But even that was not the worst.When I got older, a lot braver and apparently lazier, I sometimes opted for the shorter route – the Roma neighborhood. Pazardzhik, the town I was born and grew up in, has three Roma neighborhoods, and I was “lucky” to live on the border with the rich Roma neighborhood. I was lucky not because I lived next to that neighborhood but because it was the richer and most of all friendlier towards Bulgarians Romani. The rich among them had their incomes from drug dealing and prostitution and lived in the apartment buildings. Most of the Romani lived in houses made of dirt which were falling apart.
Walking through the neighborhood I could see women doing their laundry in front of their houses, throwing the suds away on what was supposed to be the sidewalk and hang the laundry to dry on the street. The smell of cheap soap coming from the wahsed clothes was sharp. Carriages pulled by donkeys and in them dirty, bare-feet children wearing torn clothes from the poor Roma neighborhoods coming to visit their “rich relatives” was a common sight. This third-world country sight, was just around the corner.
But even that was not the worst.
Every now and then the evening news would show news from orphanages in Bulgaria which made me forget that my schoolmates were making fun of my worn-out clothes. The barely surviving, under-nourished children, sleeping on mattresses without sheets with almost no human contact living in those social institutions made the Roma in my town look like millionaires. I watched with tears rolling down my cheeks. I felt helpless and I couldn't eat, sleep or drink, knowing that those images from the orphanages were an everyday reality for the children in them.
When you grow up witnessing utter poverty, you learn to live with it. At least I did but I never got used to it. Neither did I forget the misery and the suffering. Even now when I live 2000km away from my homeland in a country where you don't often see homeless people on the street, news from Bulgaria pierce my heart.
A few weeks ago, I contacted a foundation here in the Netherlands which supports orphanages in Bulgaria to discuss ways I could support them. Luckily enough my meeting with their president coincided with the annual visit of the chairman of the Bulgarian NGO they work with - a lovely woman who has been helping Bulgarian orphans for two decades now. She told me of her visits of orphanages in the winter without heating in the building (mind you, temperatures in Bulgaria could drop to -20oC) or without bathrooms and toilets. She shared stories of disabled children from social instituitions who after receiving physiotherapy from their organization learned to walk, children who learned to speak because they finally had social contact with people. I couldn’t help thinking how neglected these children must be if they can’t learn to talk simply because they don’t have anyone to talk to?
A project I particularly loved was the Baba project. "Baba" means granny in Bulgarian. Through this project the NGO pays half minimum salary (€90) to a retired woman who would be a “Baba" to two children from an orphanage for four hours every day. They would hug and play with the children, read books and take them out for walks. A win-win situation for the children who would get social contact and the baba’s would feel socially appreciated and would make some extra money on top of their small pension, usually €80.
As painful as the stories I heard were, they were most of all stories of hope and I'm even more determined to extend my support towards these two organizations and help improve children's lives children. I hope you will join me in this endevour. We all have the power to help.
P.S. Images courtesy of Stichting Kindertehuizen Bulgarije except for the first one of me as a little girl.