Bulgarians may be suspicious of foreigners, but US Peace Corps volunteers know how to befriend them - by extending a hand
While taking in the cool night air wafting gently over the Balkan Mountain and surveying the specks of cloud that hide the stars from his view from time to time, US Peace Corps volunteer Joe Iole is trying to get used to the idea that only 48 hours ago a devastating forest fire was raging on the site where he and his Bulgarian colleagues had made their camp. The disaster managed to destroy a large part of the Central Balkan National Park, but without the joint efforts of Joe and his Bulgarian friends, the damage would have been a lot more.
Back in the United States, Joe was a state park ranger. Now, in Bulgaria, he lives in Gabrovo and works as an environment volunteer.
His job is quite varied. He gathers community volunteers for biodiversity monitoring, teaches Bulgarian youths about environmental practices, and assists Bulgaria's park service to meet the standards of the EU's Natura 2000 programme. “It's reassuring to see the enthusiasm and pride that Bulgarians have in their natural resources,” Iole says. “One of the best parts of my job is getting to meet Bulgarians who are so passionate about their work and the environment, whether they work in the park system or for an NGO.”
The US Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Although it is present in over 70 countries worldwide, the organisation has the most volunteers in South America and Africa. The government pays their air fares and provides them with a relocation fee at the end of their service.
The first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Bulgaria in 1991, shortly after the democratic changes. The latest group joined their ranks in October, when about 40 people took an oath of allegiance in the presence of their Bulgarian partners, Peace Corps staff and American Embassy representatives. They are working on the Community and Organisational Development and Youth Development programmes in 33 towns and villages – at the grassroots level in municipalities, nonprofit organisations and social institutions. With them, the number of volunteers in Bulgaria increased to over 150. Since 1990, nearly 900 volunteers have worked in the country.
Lesley Duncan headed the Bulgaria branch of the organisation in July. Her personal links with the Peace Corps began in the 1980s when she became a volunteer in Paraguay. There, Lesley fell in love with her Peace Corps work and with a man, a volunteer like herself, who would later become her husband. Since then, the two have lived and worked in a number of countries, including East Timor, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Her most recent posting was as Thailand's administrative officer in Bangkok. Now living happily in Simeonovo, she gushes about the cafés, the beautiful countryside and the joys of trekking through Vitosha Mountain. Lesley's children, aged nine and 12, have already adjusted well to life at the capital's Anglo-American School, or AAS.
Currently, Lesley, two other Americans and a staff of Bulgarians oversee the American volunteers scattered throughout the country, who they visit regularly to monitor their progress. Certainly, the volunteer monthly stipend doesn't run to luxuries. Their host agency provides their accommodation, usually the local municipality or school. Volunteers are not allowed to drive – a rule introduced in the early 1990s after a spate of road accidents – neither are they allowed to undertake other remunerated occupations: “It's really part of the Peace Corps mission to live at the level of their partners,” Lesley says.
“It's no starvation diet but they do live modestly. The idea is to keep them focused on understanding the challenges and working with and for their community.”
Peace Corps volunteers choose neither their destination country nor their location when there. The organisation decides both for them after an appropriate skills match-up. When they arrive they undergo three-months training – living with host families in several sites near Dupnitsa – where they learn all about Bulgaria and, perhaps most dauntingly, receive language training with expert instructors for four hours a day. After that they are ready to start work in their respective placements.
Lesley believes that Americans come away from Bulgaria with joyful memories. “My understanding of Bulgarian culture is that once you're in, you're very much part of the family,” she says.
Back in the 1990s until they became part of the family, the Peace Corps volunteers had to undergo the challenging trial of winning the trust of a society which was still fettered by the spy mania typical of the Cold War.
“When in 1995 an English language teacher from the Peace Corps came to the Maths School in Dimitrovgrad, my grandpa was convinced that this man was not just a teacher,” Maria remembers. She grew up in Dimitrovgrad, a city known as the “pride of Communism”. “Most of my schoolmates were certain that he really was a spy, and so was I. We found no other explanation for his presence in Bulgaria, which was experiencing a severe economic crisis, or for his enthusiasm to get to know our country.”
Maria, now an executive in a swish office in central Sofia, laughs at her prejudices and is happy that she learnt her spoken English from a native speaker. Fortunately, the Bulgarians have long ceased to doubt the political neutrality of the Peace Corps, which stays clear of US foreign policy or the politics of the day.
Today, nearly half of the volunteers in Bulgaria work as English language teachers. In June, 38 new people joined their group. Another section of volunteers work with the municipalities and others contribute to Youth Development Programmes – the newest of the Peace Corps Bulgaria initiatives. They work with youths, help disadvantaged groups and children with physical and mental challenges. All are matched with an agency and then one to one with a Bulgarian co-worker who becomes a counterpart. Kind-hearted as they are, the members of the Peace Corps are sometimes appalled by the poor living conditions and poverty in Bulgaria. “Everyone is touched by injustices in life and the fate of children in orphanages,” says Lesley. The Peace Corps has volunteers in the Roma and Bulgarian-Turkish communities too.
Volunteers hail from various backgrounds but young applicants are overwhelmingly college graduates. Applicants aged over 50 – there is no upper age limit – are viewed more flexibly, taking into account their technical skills. Each individual has their own special talents.
“The Peace Corps is not about launching large-scale infrastructure projects, helping with disaster relief or building giant structures,” says Lesley. Instead, recipients benefit from those little human touches that can change a life: the Bulgarian girl whose knowledge of English so improved that 10 years later she won a scholarship to a university; the lifelong friendship forged between a Bulgarian baba and a volunteer; the world understanding enhanced from two years working alongside Bulgarian co-workers.
“Living in a community changes your view of the country concerned,” she says. “But change is never a one-way thing. The Peace Corps helps the Bulgarians to get to know the Americans, their way of life and the volunteers themselves, and also to change their attitude to their own town and community.”
Each volunteer can tell a story similar to the one that happened in Chiprovtsi. Before the coming of Thea Roy, a community and organisational development volunteer working in Chiprovtsi Council, nobody in the small town even realised that children did not have a single new and safe playground. For seven months, Roy and her community worked to acquire the funding and local resources to make the playground a reality when it opened in October 2007. The community members of Chiprovtsi assembled the playground in less than 24 hours.
“When we didn't receive funding initially, my community didn't give up and immediately wanted to try again,” Roy said. “Having a safe play area was really important to them – I've never seen anything constructed so quickly.” Some might say that a playground is not that much. But the Peace Corps has always dealt with small projects which have a considerable effect on the lives of the ordinary people – like Joe Iole and his Bulgarian colleagues, who extinguished the fire first and then watched the stars – together.
WHAT IS THE US PEACE CORPS?
• Founded on 1 March 1961, by President Kennedy
• Has despatched over 45 years an estimated 187,000 volunteers worldwide, invited by 139 host countries
• The average age of volunteers is 28
• Ninety three percent of volunteers have an undergraduate degree
• The oldest volunteer is 81
• The current number of volunteers and trainees is 7,749
• Countries covered by the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Turkmenistan
• In Eastern Europe, Ukraine, with 370 volunteers, has the most workers
* With Melanie Fortnum contributing from Gorna Oryahovitsa