Visiting a Roma school

About a month ago, my school officially opened our newly renovated first floor classrooms. Thanks to funds from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, eight new classrooms were outfitted with fantastic new technology. The smart boards, laptops, speakers, and rentable tablets are giving teachers new resources to teach and students new ways to engage with material. My school had a big ribbon cutting ceremony which was followed by a “showcase lesson” to demonstrate the usefulness of our new technology.

Two of my wonderful colleagues and I conducted a class on leadership with our 8th graders. My students did a wonderful job handling the added pressure of lurking government officials, education ministers, and America for Bulgaria representatives. After the lesson, an education official in my region named Diana approached me, and asked if I’d be interested in visiting a nearby primary school that would love to meet an American. I readily accepted her offer after learning that she worked for Parallel Silistra, an organization dedicated to “community development in the fields of respect for human rights and gender equality, European integration and international cooperation, economic development and promoting economic activity, environmental protection, sustainable development and educational activities.” We exchanged contact information, and agreed to solidify a date to visit the school in the near future.

A couple of weeks later, I met up with Diana and her friend Valo after a day of teaching, and headed to the nearby town of Alfatar. Now at this point, it’s important to give you a little more information about Alfatar and its inhabitants. Situated about 20 kilometers outside of Silistra, Alfatar has a largely “Roma” or “Gypsy” population. The Roma constitute a sizable minority in Bulgaria (and much of EU, for that matter), and unfortunately they typically have the lowest socioeconomic status in the country. Now the cause of that low status varies greatly depending on who you ask. From my experiences, the average Bulgarian will tell you that Gypsies are “lazy moochers who aren’t interested in working or contributing to society in any meaningful way.” Others would argue that the Roma population has been ostracized by society, which has caused their current living situation and prevented them from improving it. Regardless of the causes, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that many Roma people live tough lives, and have not managed to mesh with Bulgarian society.

Unfortunately, most of the momentum to integrate the Roma vanished after Bulgaria achieved European Union (EU) status back in 2007. This is because to become a member state, countries hopeful to join the EU must demonstrate a commitment to protecting the rights of minorities. Once member status is achieved, that motivation vanishes.

Having heard so much about the Roma population, I was eager to visit Alfatar so I could further develop my own impressions. As we pulled up to the school, it was immediately apparent that money was tight. While the language school where I work had just been outfitted with smart boards and laptops, there was a noticeable lack of technology and resources in Alfatar. I appreciated the creative lengths teachers had gone to to offer an attractive learning atmosphere for the students. Elaborate designs pieced together from bright construction paper adorned the walls, creating a happy, upbeat environment.

Overview class 2

Teachers welcomed us at the door, and students offered us a bread roll filled with Bulgarian сирене cheese–as we entered their classroom. The topic for the lesson was “introducing your family,” with the underlying goal of showing acceptance to people of all backgrounds…pretty heavy (but important!) stuff for a group of 1st graders! The teacher started the lesson by showing pictures of people from around the world wearing cultural clothing. The conversation focused on the differences between traditional Bulgarian and Indian outfits.

culture difference

Now it was time for the students to introduce their families. One by one, they explained pictures of their families while the teacher walked the photos around the room for everyone to see. The students were interested, and had many questions about where the photos were taken and who they were looking at. A few kids in particular were so excited, they could hardly stay in their seats!

family pictures

I was a little nervous when my turn came around as I’d be speaking entirely in Bulgarian! Fortunately, my practice sessions with Krassy and my Skype lessons paid off, and I was able to explain my pictures, and field a range of questions. The class was especially amused when a young boy asked if I was married, and I responded: “No, are you?” They thought that was hilarious. If only my audience back home was as easy to please with my sense of humor!

Sharing family picture

Our next activity was to draw/color a “class mom.” Essentially, we worked together in two groups to create a mother’s face that incorporated characteristics from all of our mothers. I got to show off my artistic talent by drawing the ears on the portrait in the first picture below (sorry, Mom). When he saw what I drew, one of the kids literally put his head in his hands and sighed, deeply disappointed in my failed attempt. Fortunately, everyone else just thought it was funny and the kid who drew the lips made me look like Rembrandt.

Me with portrait ears Me with portrait 2

After the class, the teachers and the school director all met over tea and cookies. They explained their current financial situation and the pressure it was putting on their resources and programming. I felt really bad for them as they described countless efforts to apply for grants, only to be turned down time and time again. Their clear commitment and dedication had yet to pay off, and that can be incredibly frustrating. To be honest, it was unclear to me why I was involved in the roughly 45 minute meeting. It almost seemed as if they expected me to have a solution or connection for them to take advantage of. After hearing their story, I was disappointed that I couldn’t do more. As we said our goodbyes, I agreed to return for another guest lesson, and I’m hoping to fulfill that promise in March.

I find myself growing increasingly interested in and troubled by the issues plaguing the Roma communities in Bulgaria, and think it’s a cause that needs substantial attention. I often find myself challenging Bulgarian opinions when I hear about “lazy” or “dangerous” Gypsies. I do worry, however, that the situation will not improve until the Roma have access to and take advantage of educational opportunities. I know several of my Fulbright ETA colleagues are passionate about this issue (and even working to combat it), and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts below if you read this!

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Bulgarian Elections and Arms Disposal

Because the primary purpose of this blog is to enhance mutual understanding, I feel compelled to share top Bulgarian news stories from time to time. I’m going to keep this post short, but I wanted to call your attention to two things: tomorrow is election day in Bulgaria and yesterday was a national day of mourning.

  1. Bulgarian politics have been quite unstable recently, and tomorrow marks Bulgaria’s third election in only two years. For the last couple months, the country has been run by a caretaker government after President Rosen Plevneliev dissolved the previous government one year into its four-year term. The new government will have an uphill battle as Bulgaria faces several major challenges: a struggling economy, a recent bank run (I described this in a bit more detail in a previous post), and political corruption. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the newly appointed government will be “so fragmented that it will be unable to form a stable cabinet.” Many people I’ve talked to have expressed frustration over the political situation in Bulgaria. Politics and an unwillingness to compromise seem to prevent anything from getting accomplished (sound familiar?). Thank you Valentin for another great summary of the upcoming election. One quote seems to capture the opinion I’ve heard from students, colleagues, and other locals: “The politicians are ruining our towns and our villages, we are being buried in corruption.” Also, “Bulgarians can be forgiven for pessimism as they vote on Sunday in an election that few believe will deliver them from corruption, stagnation and geopolitical crunch – caught between their new overlords in the EU and their old one in Moscow.” I’m curious to see how tomorrow’s elections play out, and I hope that Bulgaria can find political stability to create a foundation for meaningful economic progress.
  2. Yesterday was a national day of mourning in Bulgaria following a deadly blast in Gorni Lom, a city located about 90 miles outside of Sofia. The blast is yet another unfortunate reminder of a very dangerous industry in Bulgaria–“the dismantling of obsolete munitions.” Despite the danger, Bulgarians have continued this line of work, expressing that they have no other option for employment. The Montana region where the blast occurred has a 21% unemployment rate, and workers at the plant were making about $154/month.

Other Bulgarian Fulbrighters and friends from Bulgaria, I’d love to hear your observations and opinions here!

Current Events

As I mentioned in the “About this blog” section, one of my key responsibilities as a Fulbright grantee is to enhance understanding between Americans and Bulgarians.  In my mind, a crucial part of this entails sharing updates on current events in Bulgaria.  Back when I first started my Fulbright application, I signed up for Bulgaria Google Alerts.  Essentially, this service sends a consolidated e-mail every day summarizing the top news stories in the region.  Several major stories impacting Bulgaria and the Balkan region over the past few weeks jumped out at me, and I wanted to give a quick summary of the most impactful ones.

1. Heavy flooding in June killed 12 people and caused significant damage along the coast of the Black Sea.  Varna and Dobrich (the 3rd and 9th largest cities in Bulgaria) were amongst the hardest hit, with many people losing electricity or experiencing extreme property damage.  A national day of mourning was declared on June 23rd to remember those lost.

Image

 Cars and even homes were swept away by the force of the flooding

2. A massive pipeline project in Bulgaria has been delayed due to considerable political pressure from the European Union.  The South Stream pipeline is planned to run directly through Bulgaria, and pump natural gas from Russia to the rest of Europe.  There is rising concern in the US and EU that completion of the pipeline would increase European dependency on Russia for energy, and ultimately give Russia too much power.  There are also ramifications for the current crisis in Ukraine, as the pipeline would allow Russia to limit energy to Ukraine without impacting the rest of Europe.  This Wall Street Journal article gives some interesting historical context about why that’s important.

ImagePlanned route of South Stream pipeline

3. Five people were arrested yesterday for their involvement in a plot against some of the top banks in Bulgaria.  The conspirators used text messages and e-mails to spread false rumors about the instability of banks, which led to a mass withdrawal of ~$550 million in just a matter of hours.  The government quickly approved an emergency credit line of more than $2 billion, which restored stability.  President Rosen Plevneliev has been working to increase confidence in the banks, saying “We have sufficient reserves, means and tools to deal with any attempt at destabilization, and we stand behind each bank that becomes the target of an attack.”

Thank you Dave Gross for sending me the NYT article about the South Stream pipeline!