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Volunteer brings glow to Roma kids’ life in Bulgaria
25 April 2006
by Lucy Cooper

Jennifer Hee from Hawaii, USA works as a volunteer with at-risk Roma children in Bulgaria. (Photo courtesy: The Sofia Echo)Jennifer Hee from Hawaii, USA works as a volunteer with at-risk Roma children in Bulgaria. (Photo courtesy: The Sofia Echo)
Sofia, Bulgaria: Jennifer Hee was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Almost three years ago, she applied to be in the Peace Corps, and was offered a Youth Development Volunteer position in Bulgaria. “It was my first offer, and I accepted immediately.”

It was Jennifer’s first time living abroad, although she went to college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “In some ways it was much harder for me to adjust to life on the East Coast, especially at a place like Harvard,” says Jennifer.” I think I had more ‘culture shock’ when I moved off the island to the mainland US for the first time, than I did when I left the country!”

The Peace Corps Bulgaria Youth Development programme matched her to a position with the NGO Future for the Roma, because she was interested in working with at-risk youth, specifically from a minority population.” They could not have done a better job matching me to my organisation,” says Jennifer.

The Association Future for the Roma, founded in 1999, was the first NGO in the town of Dupnitsa, created  in order to improve the quality of life for the Roma population in Dupnitsa, with particular focus on the vulnerable groups of children and women. 

 “Currently, we are writing a project to create a day centre to assist impoverished, at-risk Roma children in Dupnitsa, and the institutionalised youth who may return to homes in Dupnitsa.  Recently, we heard all the orphanages in our region will close at the end of the school year, but we still do not understand why, or how the municipalities and child welfare agencies plan to provide for these kids.  We’re preparing for this by creating a day centre - a place to teach life skills, as well as being a safe space for them to study, shower, or talk to supportive adults,” Jennifer says.

While living in Dupnitsa, Jennifer met another American volunteer, named Nick Hindman, the founder and director of Orphan Sponsorship International (OSI). After their organizations partnered last year in an effort to be more effective working with the Bulgarian municipalities, Hindman entrusted to Jennifer and her colleagues the welfare of the kids he had worked with for five years when he left Bulgaria to open new OSI sires in Sri Lanka.

Jennifer took over as Bulgaria liaison. “Sponsors from all over the world provide funds so that youth can have their physical needs met - clothing for school, school supplies, and medicine, for example,” says Jennifer. “More important, however, is the relationships the youth and their sponsors develop. These individualised, supportive relationships are incredibly important for these kids, who have no other asset-building relationships of this sort in their lives. We have begun to expand our efforts into the Roma neighbourhoods in Dupnitsa as well, to assist especially impoverished families who are doing everything they can to help their children receive an education.”

Jennifer is also co-director of Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), which she worked on last year. “It was wonderful and enriching on every possible level; there is something extremely powerful about gathering 70 young Bulgarian women together in a hotel in the mountains and watching them teach each other about self-esteem, leadership, and teamwork by day; and watching them rock out to Bon Jovi by night,” she says.

“The entire process throughout the year of working on GLOW is also extremely rewarding – from trying to pass on methods of grassroots fundraising to GLOW counsellors; to developing our new website; to improving the curriculum, to making sure participants leave GLOW informed about the most relevant topics, such as the trafficking of women – everything is exciting, because it goes towards the creation of a phenomenal week-long experience for these young women, who return to their communities empowered and inspired.  I feel extremely fortunate that I get to co-direct this camp – it is such a powerful experience for the girls who participate.”

However, there are also many challenges to be faced.

“In Bulgaria, I feel as though I work twice as hard as I did in America, with less than half as many results.  Working with a minority population in a country where discrimination is culturally acceptable is also challenging. Before I came to Bulgaria, I was naive enough to think that governmental corruption would not directly touch my work with youth – it unfortunately impacts my work with institutions every single day. The days here fly by, and things progress so slowly, that sometimes I feel as though I’ve worked so hard, yet have nothing tangible to show for it.”

One of the biggest challenges is trying to understand the attitude towards institutionalised and Roma children. “ Trying to assist these kids after they turn 18 is a nightmare.” She says they have “no life skills” and are “literally put out to survive on the streets when they reach 18.”

“ I realize the law says at 18 they are no longer under the care of the institution, but how can someone call themselves a human being – go home to their own children at night – having treated our institutionalised children so heartlessly? Recently a new director took over at the Slatino orphanage, and things have improved under his competence and care.”

The situation in the community is not good either.

“Another volunteer who used to live in Dupnitsa was forbidden by her landlord to have any Roma children in their block.  Trying to find an apartment for the young woman Kami – the orphan now infamous for winning a BTV trip to Las Vegas after appearing on the show “Vot na Doverie” – was horrible.  When we did finally find her an apartment, the landlord and everyone in her block already had it in set in their minds that she was a terrible kid because she was an orphan, and they made her life miserable. Eventually the entire nation realized what a lovely, amazing young woman she is, despite her far-from-ideal upbringing. Also, once she became famous, the mayor of Dupnitsa essentially gave her an apartment.”

However, she says, “there is virtually no community support for these kids—and trying to accept and understand this drives me crazy.  (I don’t know what I’d do without the punching bag at my gym!).”

There are also the day-to-day challenges associated with living in a foreign county.

“I also can’t deal with the occasional situations where I get verbally abused for no apparent reason. I am pretty sensitive to confrontation, and when the post office woman, for example, yells at me because I don’t understand her, I often just want to crawl in bed, assume the foetal position, and hide from the cruel world of Bulgaria! Then again, when I went to America over Christmas, I found the excessive customer service quite obnoxious and fake. I have developed a panic-inducing fear of bus ticket salespeople that requires me to take tranquillisers before I travel. (Just kidding!).” But, she says, “the wonderful market ladies in my community, the kind woman at the GUM who gives me free clothes for the kids, by far outnumber the abusive people! “  

Jennifer’s chosen field of work also brings problems.

“It’s extremely hard, also, because I work for a Roma organization, to have my work mocked and called futile by my community. One of my coping mechanisms to deal with this is to simply not tell people that I work for a Roma organization, as inevitably this will result in someone going off on a tangent about how stupid and lazy the Roma are. I used to want to argue about it, but now I realize it’s just not worth getting all worked up about it every time.”

As someone working on a daily basis to counter ethnic intolerance, she says of the issue in this country: “It is simply complicated.” Lack of understanding plays a major role in the perpetuation of ethnic intolerance. “My take on the situation is that there is no understanding, or attempt at understanding, and arguments concerning the Roma, for example, are often reduced to extremely simplistic, ignorant remarks. I hate hearing from Bulgarians that the Roma are “bad people” because they don’t pay their electricity, or that Roma children are stupid and lazy and will steal my wallet. It seems almost ridiculously hypocritical considering the mafia, and considering governmental corruption. I guess we all have our own definitions of bad people.” However, Jennifer remains determined.

“Because I know my work is indeed important, and because I adore the youth I work with and want to provide them with every opportunity possible to help them not only survive, but to succeed, I will hopefully continue to work in Bulgaria and extend my assignment, despite the occasionally overwhelming challenges.”  

As another sanity maintaining device, Jennifer teaches Tae Bo to help support the local women’s NGO Cassiopeya in Dupnitsa.  “It’s funny – I went from teaching classes of 60 people at large, corporate gyms, with a clientele that always wanted me to bring maximum pain for the entire hour of class. Here, on a good day I have five women to yell things such as ‘Shake what yo’ momma gave you!’ Good thing they don’t understand me.  They also like to complain and beg me to stop.  I don’t, of course.”