Upon arriving in Bulgaria, I had somehow decided in my mind that I would be safe, both physically and emotionally. I was going to Europe, and no matter how many stories I had previously heard, I believed that because I was an hour’s flight away from Vienna, my experience could not possibly be emotionally disturbing. As soon as I arrived in Sofia and got a glimpse of my surroundings, I knew I was in for a rude awakening. Even within the Sofia city limits, I felt like I was in a remote village. For the first five days of my stay in Bulgaria, I lived with a family in Knazhevo, a neighborhood west of downtown Sofia. From the beginning they made sure to take care of me, feed me, and house me even though I had just met them. Our host, Temenouchka, made sure everything she cooked for us was perfect and would entertain us with stories of her youth and the communist oppression she experienced as a young girl. The only thing I did not like about my stay is that everyone I met was always apologetic, including Temenouchka – they never believed that anything they could offer would be good enough for a foreigner. Whenever I would ask Temenouchka how her day was, she would vent about the stress she faced in her life, with obstacles ranging from her husband’s illness and her low-paying job to how much she missed her daughter (who is currently residing in the United States) and how worried she was about her son who was unemployed. On our last day, Temenouchka had a doctor’s appointment downtown (she had a heart condition), but she made sure to leave us breakfast in the kitchen. As we made our way downstairs to eat, Vasil made us tea and told us that although he could not really cook, he wanted to be there in Temenouchka’s absence and see us off.
After my stay in Sofia, we finally made our way to Razliv, a tiny village outside the municipality of Pravets, about 30 miles from Sofia. There were only two general stores, one restaurant, and the Razliv Orphanage. As soon as we stepped inside the orphanage, kids crowded around us, wanting to touch us, talk to us, and hug us. The three of us were assigned to take care of the twenty or so kids, and we really had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into. Since only one of us spoke Bulgarian and no one at the orphanage spoke English, communication was difficult. But the children somehow managed to welcome us and show us around the village, making us take them on walks and talking endlessly about themselves and their lives, even though we could not understand them. Our work was difficult, and although many times we felt like they were too rowdy and we were their punching bags, the most difficult part was seeing how they were permanently affected because they knew their parents could not or would not take care of them. They were starved for attention and would talk their heads off from the moment you held their hands, even though we could not all speak their language. They cried, yelled at and hit each other, and knew little about respect, but they nevertheless wanted to be loved, and I hope that we at least gave that to them.
Once a week, we would travel to Vidrare, an orphanage for children with physical and mental disabilities. It was here where we felt that our work was the most emotionally draining. Children were crammed into tiny rooms in bunk beds, with as many as ten kids in each room. Although they were physically disabled, many to the point where they could not move on their own or engage in any physical activities, they were often left unsupervised. I was shocked but somehow managed to maintain a mental barrier that would prevent me from processing the reality of these children’s lives. It was so difficult to think about the meaning of their existence and the reason why they had to suffer the way they did, despite the fact that they were not capable of fully understanding their situations. In a way, it was a relief that they did not know of a better life. Because they were so used to what they knew, they made the best of it and found happiness in each other’s company. Things we would consider small made their day. A walk in the afternoon, seeing a donkey on the road, crowding inside the orphanage to avoid a storm, having us there to hold them and play with them, making them feel like they mattered. To them, these were the only things they needed to make life wonderful.
Our presence was nothing but a disturbance upon the daily workings of both orphanages. The workers were very kind to us, but they saw their role in the orphanages as a job, and they did not go out of their way to reach out to the children and act as parental figures. They would get to work, fulfill their duties, take ridiculous amounts of coffee and smoke breaks, and leave the children unattended for long periods of time. Some saw our work in the Razliv orphanage as useless. They simply did not understand why we were wasting our time on children who were unruly and “did not listen.” At the Vidrare orphanage, I found two twin girls with cerebral palsy sitting together behind a door. None of us had noticed them before because they were hidden in silence, their tiny bodies cramped in a padded chair. Their skin was ghostly pale, since they never saw the sun, and their bodies were the size of a toddler’s, despite the fact that they were exactly my age. Sofia and Sibilla had been in and out of hospitals their whole lives, and the nearest hospital in Botevgrad (a town about 20 minutes away from Vidrare) had refused to take them in anymore, considering them a lost cause. Any time they had health issues they had to be driven to Sofia. They were always kept together, which was great, but they were not bathed often and did not have their teeth brushed, so their mouths were rotting and they smelled as if they were wasting away. Not used to interacting with other human beings, they would cringe when you touched them and were very sensitive to everything around them, so they would usually sit together and do nothing but move their eyes around the room. Seeing them smile in response to our incitement was priceless.
I have never in my life felt so welcomed, needed, or loved by complete strangers as I did when I lived in Bulgaria. It was amazing to meet people and children who were willing to give you what little they had in order to make you feel welcome. I felt frustrated a lot during my time there because despite what I did, there was so much more that I could not do for those kids. But I learned a lot from them myself. I learned that in situations that seem desperate and even hopeless, many people hold on to what they do have and are grateful for the people around them, cherishing friendship and time spent with loved ones as a way of enjoying life, regardless of how bad it seems. This was certainly the case with all of the people I met in Bulgaria, especially with Velichko, an elderly man I visited twice who had never married and lived alone despite the fact that he could not really walk or take care of himself properly. When he first met me, he showed me his family pictures and told me how much he enjoyed meeting new people. “Now that I have got nothing left, spending time with the people like you who come to visit me is what I live for,” he said. “Sometimes I feel alone and question why I am still alive, but then I read the letters of other missionaries and foreigners I have met, and I remember that I have many people who care for me.” Although it was in some ways disheartening, I am glad that I could have that impact on someone I met. I know that they all had a great impact on me as well, and in some ways I think I am just like them, getting through life with the encouragement of loved ones and the memories of all the people I have met along the way.