It's no secret that Bulgaria has been criticised for its lack of adequate aid. For example, the BBC documentary on the Mogilino orphans and the frequent reports on the stray dogs problem have sent out damning messages to the rest of the world of a country still lagging behind in its approach to charitable causes. In response, the ever-growing expat community have taken matters into their own hands, with projects that show that it's not just tourism and property that are on the rise, but also awareness and fundraising. All this is done without government support.
The Global Initiative on Psychiatry Sofia
Robert van Voren came to Bulgaria from ᴀe Netherlands in 1996 as part of his work with the Bulgarian Psychiatric Association. "I became involved in supporting the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, and was attracted by the issue of political abuse of psychiatry," he says. "I couldn't understand how it must be to be locked up as a political prisoner with mentally ill people." When the regime collapsed, Robert's work shifted to supporting people who wanted to improve mental health care.
"When we started, there was basically nothing," he says of the initiatives available in Bulgaria in the mid-1990s. "There was regular psychiatric care, but like elsewhere in Eastern Europe it was highly institutionalised, biologically oriented and there was little understanding of community-oriented mental health."
GIP's first project in Bulgaria, the Vincent van Gogh Day Care Centre, in Soἀa, was launched in 1997. It was a difficult project, as they were unsure as to how it would link up with existing mental health care services. "ᴀe government didn't really respond. We met the minister every now and then, and also some people at the ministry, but mental health was clearly not their priority. ᴀeir reaction was silence instead of indifference."
Fast-forward to the present day, and responses towards mental health in Bulgaria are more progressive, thanks in part to Bulgarian journalists who Robert cites as "allies." "ᴀey have an influence on the public opinion, and public opinion has an enormous influence on the well-being of mental patients. If society accepts them, they stand a much better chance of having a life that has quality."
GIP-Sofia sets out to empower carers, users and professionals, and transform archaic institutional care methods. Previous projects have seen re-training of professionals in the fields of psychosocial rehabilitation and psychiatric nursing, and the set-up of imperative users' organisations.
Robert feels the need for more "brave politicians" – in a reference to Ronald Reagan, who openly admitted suḀering from Alzheimer's – to raise importance of mental health aid in Bulgaria. "I'm sure there are many people in Bulgarian politics who have a demented parent, a child that is using drugs or a wife who is depressed – or they are depressed themselves. Why not acknowledge it and help fellow citizens who face the same problem?"
GIP have been going for more than 30 years, and have plans in the pipeline for anti-stigma campaigns, deinstitutionalisation and general public awareness. Currently a community complex for mental health services is being built in Sofia's Slatina District, and an information line with voluntary call-staff was launched in November. "It takes a long time and a lot of effort, but things do get better," says Robert, adding, "I've never lost hope."
For more information on upcoming initiatives, see www.gip-global.org.
Orphanage aid and youth football Yambol, Krumovo
Even before Nikki and Darren Weeks had relocated to Bulgaria they were doing their bit to help out a local orphanage: "We had been visiting the Yambol Children's Home for a year before we moved here, and often went along to drop oḀ some toys and blankets and other donations."
Their awareness-raising within the expat community has so far led to two vans full of toys, clothes and bedding being brought to the orphanage, and 7,960 leva in donations, which went for a wheelchair ramp, a washing machine and other much-needed supplies.
Darren's love of football branched out the couple's aid into another area – youth and cultural awareness. "There are lots of kids in the next village, Krumovo, so I saw this as a great opportunity to start a youth football club," says Darren. "A year and a half later, the club has gone from around 12 boys to some 40 boys and 9 girls, and is still growing. ᴀey are aged from 6 to 20 years, and they are all Gypsies." Subsequently the Krumovo mayor asked Darren to train up the older lads to enter the Yambol Football League, and he did this with great results. "When the team scored the ἀrst goal of the game in front of their home crowd, I was so excited and proud for them," says Nikki, and adds, "they're underdogs, not only because they're Gypsies and have to suffer racial abuse from fans, but because they have an English manager."
The pair have faced recent monetary pitfalls, as they need to renovate the local gym in order to keep training going during winter. Nonetheless, they have received ongoing help and donations from friends and family. "We received kit from Exeter City FC and Belper Town FC, and people have donated boots and shin pads and so on, but ideally we need a grant. We've hit a brick wall from Bulgaria and the EU on that front." One great helpinghand has come in the form of sponsorship from the popular expat forum at www.mybulgaria.info. Although the forum, some 4,000 leva has been raised, and also a caravan for changing facilities was donated.
The mayor has reported a dip in crime in the area, as the youths are more focused and, as a consequence, get in less trouble. This, in addition to the success of the team, has led to Nikki's and Darren's being approached by natives of nearby villages who want them to start up other clubs. "We would love to take the scheme to other villages and help to get training for coaching certiἀcates for the older kids, so they can help us. We realise this is not going to be an easy thing to do, but with the support of the Bulgarians, the municipality, the people on the Internet and, lets' hope, a grant of some sort, we can achieve this for as many children as possible."
International Women's Club Sofia
Marie Halbherr and Juliette Jespers, French-Vietnamese and Dutch respectively, are at the forefront of IWC's branch in Sofia. "The role of the club, in every country where the organisation exists, is to other expatriate women support and opportunities for interaction and exchanges. However, since the start of the organisation in 1989, IWC's charity work has taken an increasingly prominent role."
This charity work manifested itself in various avenues, including emergency-level assistance, deinstitutionalisation, help with the disabled and, naturally, women's issues, such as female health and intervention programmes for mothers and children.
The IWC started its involvement in breast health awareness in 2002. "Earlier, public awareness on the matter was very little, and full prophylactic and diagnostic screening facilities were limited to a few hospitals in Sofia," says Marie. Provincial Bulgaria was sorely neglected. ᴀe campaign involved distribution of thousands of self-check brochures and a fundraising charity in Sofia's South Park. ᴀe fundraising culminated in the purchase and donation of a mammography unit in 2006, an ultrasound machine in 2007 and the biopsy attachment in 2008 for the Shumen Hospital. At the hospital, free prophylactic checks are carried out for women with health insurance, and at a modest fee for those without it. The IWC Breast Health Awareness Committee also visited local communities and met with the women there to inform about prevention and self-checks.
The IWC also focuses on the prevention of child abandonment and have instigated the opening of Mother-and-Child Centres in Stara Zagora and Vratsa. "The aim is to provide shelter, care, support, training and assistance to pregnant women and mothers who are experiencing ἀnancial, social and psychological diffculties," Marie says.
One recent innovation was the introduction of a Baba Programme. "We started this at three orphanages for disabled children up to four years of age," Marie recounts. "We hire retired women to give exclusive care to two children each. ᴀis programme helps the women ἀnancially, and all of them report back how through this activity they have regained a sense of self-worth. Of course, the babas' loving care beneἀt the children tremendously."
In addition, the IWC supports organisations such as Animus (against violence and traffcking in women), Star of Hope Foundation's Transition Home Programme, Tabitha Social Sewing Project and ᴀe Health and Social Centre in the Fakulteta district with ἀnancial and other donations.
In the future, Marie and Juliette would like to see continued support for women and mothers: "We're so impressed by the women in Bulgaria – they are hard-working, dedicated and enthusiastic, juggling career and family in often stressful circumstances. ᴀe future of the country depends on them."
Stray sterilisation scheme Klimentovo
Dave Smith retired to Bulgaria in 2005, to a village home north of Varna. Although he didn't know much about the country before he came, one thing soon became apparent:
"The amount of stray dogs around was colossal – with many of them starved and ill. Initially, I felt helpless to change the situation, as there were too many to save, but I used to drive around with dog food in my car in case I saw any really desperate cases, and I ended up rescuing three dogs and three cats."
Dave decided to set up some kennels to house expat pets and provide temporary homes for rescued ones. "I was hearing far too many stories of unwanted puppies being thrown from moving cars or abandoned in all weathers to die a slow death. It's a cause very close to my heart, and I felt I needed to do something to help these poor animals." Unfortunately, rehoming the animals proved to be problematic, as many expats had already adopted dogs. It was then that Dave decided to tackle the root of the problem – unspayed animals.
"This is a diffcult thing to undertake on my limited income, so I've been organising fundraising events to help raise more cash," he says. So far, his scheme has seen ten bitches sterilised, two dogs castrated, eight cats neutered and many more nursed and rehomed.
Dave has now become a vital point of call for other expats seeking advice on rehoming and sterilising. He works closely with a veterinary surgeon in Vinitsa, who reduces costs of treatments and makes himself available at all times for emergency cases.
"My mission is to raise awareness to locals and try and raise funds to improve the stray dogs situation, as well as give care to animals that are suḀering. I would like to encourage villagers to come to me if their dog is ill or needs neutering, so that I can oḀer them free veterinary care." Dave has already sought treatment for some ailing village dogs in addition to the castrated cases, and has seen a positive response so far: "Some of the locals have now built kennels for their dogs, and are more mindful of their health."
Dave's fellow local expats have also been forthcoming with their help, partaking in fundraising auctions and other events, although the response from authorities is yet to be seen. "I'm sure that the government is paying lip service to this ever-increasing problem. ᴀey don't seem very concerned about people, so why should they bother with a few animals? Hopefully this situation is on its way to changing."