There are four reports on the Bulgaria workshop. They give a sense of what was seen, discussed and learned.
For over a year now, IBTS, alongside other three partners from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Northern Ireland and Lithuania has been involved in a project called SICRIE, sponsored by the EU’s Grundvig programme. The partners meet four times during the course of the project. The first meeting took place in Prague last November; another one in Northern Ireland in May of this year; and yesterday, together with other colleagues, I have returned from the third which took us to Sofia, Bulgaria.
Actually, not just Sofia. Divided into three different groups, we saw Plovdiv, Stara Zagora, Rila Monastery and work with Roma community in Sofia itself.
Plovdiv, where I went with a few others, sounds like fun; and fun it was, of course, to see its 2nd century AD amphitheatre dug out just a few decades ago, the the Roman stadium, or the Djumaya mosque. But what has made the greatest impact on all of us was a walk through a Turkish-speaking Roma district – really, a ghetto. We were welcomed there by a German family who actually live there, who have their children marrying the locals (yes, including someone from the ghetto itself).
The poverty we saw there was heart-wrenching. The soaring levels of unemployment, the meagre numbers of the children who go to school, the dirt in the streets, the shacks which stand for people’s homes…. and the growing presence of radical Islam which speaks into the poverty and marginalization of the people ignored and disregarded by almost everybody. Yet at the same time, there is also the fact that these seem to be people happier than many of us – people who do not have a guaranteed tomorrow and therefore live this day to its fullest; people who sing and dance and laugh and cry and hardly ever commit suicides.
Plenty of things to think about, quietly and aloud – as we did.
It also made me want to sing praises to the EU putting its money into programmes like this one. I may dislike its machine of bureaucracy and the slowness of its movements, but at least it takes seriously the power of learning by engagement and on the grassroots level. Although it was important to sit and discuss things in a room on Saturday, it was so meaningful only because of the time spent previously sharing in an important experience together. And it was not only the visits to places like that Turkish-speaking Roma district, but also because of simply attending to the amazing history and culture of the Bulgarian people – streets, museums, churches, even shops. Done together, in such an unlikely group of us coming from four different corners of Europe (some of us without barely any previous experience of the world outside our own countries), prepared us to share things with each other and to stumble upon insights born out of the intersections of these cultural, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and fun experiences – amazingly so, all packed into less than three days.
A member of the Lithuanian group offers the following reflection on the workshop:
Some time has already passed, but the impressions are still pulsing with life. Even today I was sharing with a friend that I have been much affected by this encounter with other and different cultures. It was a meeting of people from Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania – all of them Europeans, yet different in their frequently strenuous experiences. Perhaps it is for that reason that the participants were open and desiring to work for a change, to share insights, to meet the other who is different from them. Such a meeting was valuable not only in cultural terms, but also in religious and, generally, human terms.
One sentence which has stuck in my mind during the seminar was, ‘riches will not make them happy; they are happy simply because of who they are‘. This was said referring to the social and cultural integration of those groups which in one way or another find themselves beyond the margins of society, and specifically regarding one Roma community in Bulgaria. So often our help is expressed in a desire to make people similar to us. But, as we have heard from those who work with refugees in Prague, people are not necessarily made happy by acquiring living space, work, and so on.
Discussions of the seminar were focused on mutual fellowship and cooperation. We attempted to understand the importance of dialogue, because we may think that we know certain things, and yet behave completely differently. Yet even when we realise the need to renounce cultural imperialism in turning to marginalised groups, unanswered questions remain. Can we hope for at least minimal awareness of both sides in how they contribute to the development of the society in which they live? Must some groups always be entitled to certain concessions, and must others be pressed with greater requirements? If we strive for dialogue, must it start with a mutual agreement to contribute to the wellbeing of the society? And how much contribution should be expected?
Another challenge which is being faced in the Bulgarian context, but is probably applicable to us as well, is the question of balance between identity and integration. It was suggested that we should be working in strenghtening our identity so that then we would be able to add something to the global picture. We spoke of the need to recognise a possibility of several identities which may not necessarily be conflicting. We should not desire to make everybody the same. How to achieve this is an answer worth of a Nobel prize, according to a Muslim sociologist and philosopher from the Turkish-speaking Bulgarian community who was one of the speakers.
So the questions we discussed are enormous. Yet the most important work will start in concrete places where we will attempt to work for a harmonious coexistence of several different cultures.
A member of the Czech group provided the following report:
Accepting the Otherness
As it was planned earlier this year during the Social Integration on the Cultural and Religious Interfaces (SICRIE) Grundtvig project Belfast meeting, SICRIE Czech team attended the next meeting/workshop in Sofia, Bulgaria. The participants from four different locations: Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Lithuania and Bulgaria met again and discussed the progress of their respective projects, the lessons learned, and how this experience can be integrated into the learning tools developed jointly by all teams. The Lithuanian team told the participants how by photo-documenting the life stories of marginalized old people, they have become aware of the complexity of the social and psychological problems faced by this ostracized group and how the SICRIE project makes it possible to spread this awareness in a wider society.
The Bulgarian team shared their experience in working with the Roma community of their country. Their report generated a lively discussion because on the previous day all of the participants had visited several segregated areas and witnessed the ghetto-like conditions of Roma people living in those settlements. The Bulgarian team told the participants about social discrimination, education and identity problems these communities are facing, and about some of the achievements and frustrations the SICRIE members have encountered in their efforts to dissipate the anti-Roma prejudice. An invited speaker related the particular difficulties faced by a Turkish speaking Roma community – the Millet.
Dr. Parush Parushev, the Czech team leader, told the participants about the general developments in the SICRIE projects in the Czech Republic particularly elaborating on the work IBTS students do with homeless people of Prague, helping them both in their practical needs and in recovering their human dignity. Then Dr. Parushev asked the key people leading other projects of the team to report about their progress and experiences. Vanessa Lake spoke about the achievements of the Teen Challenge program which is helping children from marginalized families to acquire social and learning skills. Peter Zvagulis related the experience of working with the refugees from Burma. The integration of the refugees in their new home country, Czech Republic has proven to be a much greater challenge than it was anticipated both by the government organizations and NGOs. The adaptation of the refugees to their new environment was difficult due to several factors.
Peter Zvagulis suggested that the greatest shortcoming of the otherwise generous and well-meant integration program of the Czech government was the disruption of the religious community life of the refugees. Hopefully the SICRIE input will help to make some adjustments in the existing arrangements and increase the flexibility of similar efforts in the future. It seems that the lessons learned from the experience with the Burmese refugees in the Czech Republic may be helpful to NGOs and government organizations working with refugees also in other EU countries.
The Northern Ireland team updated the colleagues from other teams on their peacemaking experience. It resonated very strongly with the participants, especially those who were part of the previous workshop in Belfast. The participants saw the Northern Ireland experience as very relevant to many conflict situations where group prejudice is involved. Sharing this experience may help peacemaking and increasing mutual understanding between communities in other countries. Team leader David McMillan also offered considerations for the format and organization of the learning tool kit that the teams aim to produce in 2011. The participants agreed that electronic media version as the main product, which may be supplemented by print material, would be the most effective way of communicating the experiences and conclusions of the SICRIE Grundtvig project to a larger public.
In the concluding discussions the participants emphasized the importance of learning new ways of how the communities can accept the otherness of minority groups. The first step in overcoming group prejudice is accepting to really learn about the cultural and other particularities of the ostracized people and to respect their human dignity regardless of how undesirable may appear some aspects of their otherness.
The participants agreed that the next meeting/workshop will take place in May 2011 in Lithuania.
A report from one of the Belfast participants
This was the 3rd of four workshops funded through the Grunvig Programme involving participants from Belfast, Prague in the Czech Republic, Sofia in Bulgaria and Vilnius, Klaipeda- [Memel] and Panevezys in Lithuania.
SHORT BACKGROUND ON SOFIA
Sofia, [also known as Sophia] sits on a 545 meter high plateau in Western Bulgaria at the foot of Mount Vitosha and is the highest capital in Europe.
The city motto is “It grows but never ages”. It has a population of 1.4 million citizens. Today Sofia appears to be a diverse mix of regimented Communist-era remains and the now expanding modern architecture. The sight of fine old buildings in decay is commonplace amid a city-centre were the new western influence is fast expanding. The city is both compact and diverse and reflects the religious make-up of Christian Otordox, Muslim and Jewish, that is Bulgaria itself.
The large regimented cement style apartment blocks, dull in appearance and bland in design that is so typical of the Communist period of control – [1946-1989], still blot the horizons in abundance, not only in Sofia, but also in other Bulgarian cities and towns.
When Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s long-time Communist Party leader was forced to resign in 1989, setting Bulgaria on the road to democracy, Sofia’s Jewish population which had lay dormant, began to re-establish itself. In better times during the city’s history, the Jewish community was mainly concentrated in a maze of streets on both sides of Boulevard Maria Luisa. The area is defined by the synagogue, the church Sveta Nedelya and the only surviving mosque in Sofia, facing each other. The hotel in which we stayed; Hotel Sveta Sofia, 18 Pirotska Str. was located in this district.
When the Turks captured Sofia in 1382, they were to hold it for 5 centuries and it was not until the Third Bulgarian Empire in 1879 that Sofia again became the capitol. The Yugoslav border at Dimitrovgrad is only 55km north-west of Sofia and the city’s off-centre location in Bulgaria is a reminder of the loss of Macedonia to Serbia and Greece in 1913. However, Sofia’s position at the very centre of the Balkan Peninsula, midway between the Adriatic and Black seas, made it a cross roads of trans-European routes.
SIGHTSEEING IN SOFIA
Sightseeing in Sofia is centred mostly around museums, although there are a number of old churches to visit, the largest being the neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Church , which is a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died for Bulgaria’s independence from Turkey. Russian tsar Aleksander Second led the fight to secure Turkey’s defeat and withdrawal from the country. Close to the church is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The National Museum of History is the building of the former Palace of Justice , situated on Vitosha, while the National Archaeology Museum is at the eastern end of Ploshtad Batenburg.
Facing Largo, across the street from the Archaeological museum, is the former Communist Party building  with the former Council of State on the northern side of Largo and the former State Council on the southern side, the most impressive Stalinist ensemble in Bulgaria.
I found Sofia during my short visit, a city still untouched by market tourism and I felt able to still identify with the climate of the Communist era [and before] in my architectural surroundings which I liked as it gave a sense of the period before Western modernisation which can be seen taking hold in the way of banks and shopping areas in the centre of the city.
THE WORKSHOPS- [FAMILIRSATION VISITS]
The Belfast group arrived in Sophia on Thursday 7th October and after a settling in period and an evening briefing following dinner the itinery for the following day, Friday, was put in place with a mixing of participants from the various countries into three groups for visits to Romany communities followed by visits to areas of historical importance. There were four in our group, the two Czech representatives, David and myself. We had chosen Rila Monastery as a proposed historical visit, in truth not really knowing its importance to Bulgarian cultural history, or simply how beautiful it was.
However, we first made our way to one of the large Romany settlements to see for ourselves the lifestyle and living conditions of these “camps”.
The first impact you experience is one of “tamed” shock at just how primitive conditions are. What I saw was a shanty-town of every type of make-shift housing you could imagine. If ever there was an example of the saying “Somebody’s rubbish is someone else’s treasure”, it was in that camp. If it could be re-cycled, it was! I don’t even like using the word “camp”, but that’s what it was; a sprawling encampment served by pot-holed tracks and makeshift roads.
But the more you look despite that initial impact; you begin to sense that amid this poverty, there is a structure of community in situ with small shops and bars. Even more startling, you would turn a corner and see two and three storey houses as good as any you would find “on the outside” blending in with the rough and ready huts and you realise that just in any other society, what you are seeing is a type of “class structure”, or simply those who have a bit more money than the neighbours down the street.
We were brought to a small church and had the opportunity to speak to the community pastor, busy with some help doing additional work to enhance the size of his little kingdom. He is friendly and explains to us how important he views his role in doing God’s work to help his people. He refuses a photograph as he is in his “working clothes”, but asks us to join him in prayer. Raising his hands, with all the vigour of an evangelist and a young Ian Paisley, he builds up into a cataclysmic air that would reach the gates of heaven! If he was intending that God should hear him, I stood there thinking that he was certainly making a good effort!! He thanked God for providing and we shook hands and parted to continue our short tour.
We then came across a small group huddled behind a makeshift fire of old chairs with the main intent of temporarily keeping the crisp autumn air at bay. We stop to talk and I revert to the universal language of football and Manchester United!!
Returning to our vehicle, I felt a true sense of having experienced a way of life not fitting the age I was living in, yet on reflection, it was “their” way of life and with the exception of more provision to aid that patched up existence, I asked was there something beneath all that which was positive in a community sense? How can you judge or make conclusions in such a short space of time ? But what it had done was given us thought for debate, to ask questions and to listen.
We returned to the outside world and began our drive to Rila Monastery which is without doubt “a must see”. There is more information on the Monastery here.
Saturday 3rd October was the main all day workshop held at the Mission Bulgaria Ministry Centre. The itinerary listed the morning as a Colloquium on the themes of the Bulgarian ethnic and religious diversity with invited experts from academic institutions in Sofia. The main speaker turned out to be a former Turkish member of parliament who gave us an insight into the Muslim population within Bulgaria.
Using his calculations, in 2001 it was estimated that there were 762,000 Turks in Bulgaria, a figure which has probably increased over the past decade. Added to this he calculated a total of 900,000 if other Muslim minorities are included. He also stated that 49% of Romany’s in Bulgaria could be identified as Muslim, which I found to be a revelation. I would question this, but I am no expert on this subject and the whole issue was new to me.
Lunch at the centre was excellent and in the afternoon presentations from the various groups took place along with feedback from the trips made the previous day to the Romany districts.