Harvest for the Hungry

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November 2007 Visit report

The following article is composed from abridged extracts of the personal diary of team member Steve Green, who visited Bulgaria with Harvest Plus for the first time in November 2007. Whilst there the small team of volunteers helped distribute the boxes of food and blankets collected in Essex during the harvest time earlier that year.

Tuesday November 6th

After breakfast at our hotel in Berkovitsa we collected some boxes and headed for a home for children with mental disabilities. The children seemed well cared for. In one room I met a girl with a severe cleft pallet. I held her hand and she gripped tightly, not wanting to let go. As I went outside I was very moved. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that it is highly unlikely that she will ever get an operation.

We then went to an elderly people's home. The 'day room' there was hard to believe. A dingy square room with seats around the walls. In the middle was a drain hole so they can wash the floor easily. No other features in the room, no TV, no soft seating. That was it. Again I found it sad, moving and hard to accept that just because these people are elderly and no one is paying their way that they end up in such basic, deprived conditions. We saw the existing building and rooms which are old and run-down. We then went to see a newly built wing which includes 'home environment' units where a home setting is replicated with a number of residents and carers spending the daytime there and preparing and eating meals together. The unit has a kitchen and living room like a small flat. This new wing was wonderful. The director of this home, Bobby, is a visionary. The new unit cost 60k which he has collected by good budgeting. He spoke to us for half an hour about the place and his efforts to improve it. He told us that the food boxes had come at the perfect time as their stocks were run down and they had no money to replenish them.

Washing machine at BistrillicaAfter lunch we went to another elderly people’s home. Conditions were poor. Buildings were old. The staff do their best with old equipment but they need a new industrial washing machine, drier and spinner. Keeping residents in clean clothes is a mammoth task at the best of times but without good equipment it is made even harder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ambulance outside Lom

 

Wednesday 7th November

Our convoy was now 3 vehicles, the mini-bus driven by Kamen, Rady’s car and now the ambulance. An uneventful journey soon brought us to a hilltop overlooking Lom from where you could see the huge cranes of the river port. The sight of the ambulance next to the Lom sign was a great photo opportunity and symbolised the end of the mammoth 1600 mile journey for Jason, Kevin and Roger who had driven it across Europe.

We checked into our hotel in Lom and left straight away for the hospital where we were expected. A small committee greeted us at the hospital entrance where there were ceremonial photos with the hospital director. We then had an audience with the director where we learned about the working of the hospital and also got a rather protracted explanation of the Bulgarian health service. The most important point though was that you must have insurance to get treatment in a hospital in Bulgaria, something far beyond the financial reaches of most of the needy people we had met and would go on to meet on our Bulgarian odyssey. It was made clear however that anyone entering the hospital with real urgent medical requirements would be tended to, regardless of insurance. This is admirable but it does then have an effect on the hospital’s own finances as they do not have budget to care for uninsured patients.

Director of Lom Hospital with equipment donated by Harvest PlusAs with the directors of other institutions, we were then given a tour of just about the entire hospital. Great efforts are being made here to renovate the building and update the equipment. In the X-ray department an old x-ray machine has been converted to produce a digital output. Very resourceful and apparently effective as there are ambitions to repeat the conversion on a second machine. Having lots of personal experience of cutting edge scanning technology on CT and MRI scanners, I was thinking to myself that it was hard to accept that the patients at this hospital would not get such accurate diagnoses through a lack of modern scanning equipment. The next room silenced the little voice in my head. There stood a CT scanner in all it’s glory, purchased second hand from the NHS at considerable expense to the hospital but of course at a bargain price compared to a new one.

The rest of the tour included the maternity ward. The cots were made of thick wire mesh and the birthing room looked austere and harsh. Where there would be a big bed in a UK hospital, there was a chair complete with stirrups. It didn’t look very welcoming. The décor was all very tatty too. We did go on to see some beautifully renovated rooms and facilities. There is hope here but they can only do it a bit at a time as the money becomes available.

My thoughts, as I am sure those of the others, were turning to lunch. These were quickly dashed as we said our farewells and drove straight to a mental institution. Fortunately we had a supply of bananas and crisps to stave off hunger which had been given to us by Pastor Nina on our earlier visit to her church.

New Furniture at Chuchurka donated by Harvest PlusThe main building was quite dark inside and the many residents were all milling around, looking at this gaggle of visitors who could at best only say things like hello in Bulgarian. It all seemed a bit hopeless looking at such a run down building. Then things changed as we went next door into a new, purpose built facility which will sleep 24 people just 2 to a room and give them a lovely big day room. New beds, wardrobes, tables and chairs were stacked up inside the main lobby ready to be used. All of this furniture had been paid for by Harvest Plus earlier in the year.

It was great to see the new building, but the residents were not in there yet. A bit of red tape still needed to be cut by the council before it could be commissioned. On returning to the mini-bus my phone was ringing. On the other end was someone from Spain asking me about photos from a conference I had organised at work. I explained where I was and what I was doing and said I would get back to her when I went back to England. It was so strange having a work phone call break into this ‘other world’. A reminder that in just a few days I would be back in my centrally heated house with a full fridge and cupboards. A reminder that when we got home, the efforts must not stop.

Farewells again and onto a classroom project which takes in Roma children and those from single parent families to give them education opportunities. About the size of a classroom at my old high school, with tables and chairs of about the same age. George and Natalia were pioneering the project and once again, were making best use of resources as they became available. A second room needed serious renovation so they could use it. They need proper desks and chairs and although it’s great that they even have computers, they are probably ‘out of the ark’.

Thursday November 8th

After breakfast we went to the box store and loaded the mini-bus and the ambulance which we were hanging onto for a couple of days, with boxes bound for the orphanage. As we went through the boxes we managed to find all four of the specially decorated boxes from the nursery where Hazel (my wife) works.

Boxes outside Lom Orphanage with some of the staffWe arrived there and unloaded, posed for photos with the boxes and went inside.

The director welcomed us into her office and gave us an informative talk, translated as ever by Rady and Plami who by now felt like family. The director had been at this place for 23 years but had only recently been appointed director. She explained that renovations were ongoing as money came in to carry out work. The orphanage was a happy place. It had a different feel to it than the institutions we had been to already. The children were loud and cheerful. They were all very excited about the group of visitors that was walking around their home. The home housed children from the age of 3. We met Marina aged 11 who was very pleased to show us her room which she shared with another 5 children. Her friend Renee was not quite as forward but her face spelled mischief! Later we met Eduardo, Marina’s 7 year old brother. Marina cuddled him for a photo.

Child in the nurseryVisiting the nursery was wonderful. It was full with about 12 toddlers who were in their cots. Having met so many disabled people so far, my first thoughts were that they all were either disabled themselves or were just too weak and had to stay in bed. To be told by one of the staff that they were getting ready for their afternoon nap was a breath of fresh air. A small dose of normality was a huge relief. To hear something that us westerners find normal really made us smile. The children were adorable and even included twin girls. We gave out Beany Teddies which were very well received. I played with one little girl. I started a game of making our teddies kiss, with the kissing sound. She quickly joined in. It was a ‘moment’. There was no language barrier. We were just playing together.

Girls in their room at the orphanageWe were nearing the end of our visit and I popped back upstairs to go to the loo. I didn’t get that far before another girl from Marina’s room grabbed me by the hand and took me back to their room where the girls along with Eduardo, all wanted to pose for more photos. The girls posed like fashion models. It really showed that these 11 year olds are on the verge of becoming young women and that these young people are a key part of Bulgaria’s future. We should draw strength from this and be encouraged to carry on supporting them however we can. The happiness and the energy in these young people was wonderful. We have to do our best to keep that energy alive.

Again, we said farewells as Mike blew soap bubbles in the air for the group of children that had gathered to say goodbye. With big smiles on everyone’s faces, including our own, we set off for our next visit.

This time it was an elderly people’s home outside Lom. As had become the routine, the Director greeted us and boxes were unloaded and piled up for a photo. Then into the Director’s office for his talk about the home. The Director was smartly dressed and his office was smart too with well ordered filing shelves. You could tell that this was a tight ship. When we walked around the building it was clear that this was well run, well maintained and in far better order than homes we had seen earlier in the week. The amazing thing though is that it is run on the same budget as the very run-down buildings and facilities we’d seen before. The difference being that this Director was making the very best of the money and resources at his disposal.

We met some residents and gave them blankets which delighted them. I gave a particularly large blanket to a couple in their own room. We all hugged and had a photo together. I told them in my pigeon Bulgarian that I was pleased to meet them and although we could not hold a conversation, it was another special moment.

Feeling restored after a sandwich lunch back in Lom we hit the box store for more supplies and then headed out of town to the very outskirts, this time using Rady’s father’s mini-bus so that Kamen could have the night off. You could tell we were near the Roma ghetto when we turned off the main road onto a side road, then off that onto a mud track which was unlit and full of large puddles and pot-holes.

We were met by a couple who I think lived in the ghetto. It was through them that we gained access to some people’s homes to give them some food boxes.

Steve with the children in their homeCarrying one of Hazel’s decorated boxes, I went into a small room which was home to about 6 people. 3 children and a baby were on the sofa. I held the little hands of the baby boy who although clothed and under a blanket, was quite cold. We filled the house as four or five of us crammed in carrying blankets. Through a translated conversation with the children’s aunt, we learned that the mother was away working and that the toddler twins we had met in the nursery at the orphanage were siblings to these children but could not be supported at the moment. The children’s faces were a picture as I opened a packet of chocolate bars and gave each of them a milky way.

 

 

Shelling walnutsThe next home we entered was a busy scene. Three grandmother figures all sat shelling walnuts into a pan, the floor covered in shells and husks. Several children were in the room plus a man who must have been the father. It was lively and noisy. There were translated conversations on the other side of the room. I stayed near the door as I could not move further in, there were so many people there. I stood next to the ‘gaggle’ of 3 grannies who dutifully shelled walnuts which were presumably to sell. They started talking to me animatedly. I so wished I could engage them in conversation but all I could say was “neh razbiram”, I didn’t understand. One gestured towards a young boy, her grandson perhaps. So I tested my extended Bulgarian repertoire and said “edno sin”. Not sure that she understood me, I carried on smiling in the right places until Rady was making for the door. I asked him to talk to the lady who had indeed understood that I had one son “Edno sin” and that she wished him a long and happy life. I must learn more Bulgarian! Like with so many people I had met, I wished I could have had a decent conversation with the old ladies.

Outside I played hide and seek with a young boy who kept hiding behind his grandfather’s legs. His grin was amazing as we played.

As we traveled back toward the edge of the ghetto, Jason arrived back from Montana where he had spent the day registering the ambulance with the Bulgarian authorities. He was just in time to present a box to our last house call.

Man examining contents of food parcelJason’s visit was to a dwelling which unlike the others, had no electricity. A small room in which a father and his children live. The only heat was from a small stove, the only light from a candle. It was dark by now and the picture does not do the scene justice as the flash from the camera shatters the darkness in this tiny house.

Jason gave the man a family food box. The man opened it very slowly. He took out each item in bewilderment. Jason described the man’s reaction as sheer amazement that this group of people had traveled from England to give him some food.

View from the ghetto to LomAs we left the ghetto, I noticed the lights of Lom in the distance. The picture brought the reality home, the reality that the Roma people live in the poorest of conditions just a few miles from a big town. A situation which is similar in so many cities across the world.

Thursday was by far our busiest day. We had been to so many different places and to top it all, we had visited a ghetto where a large family lives in a space no bigger than a small bedroom in an average family house in the UK. OK, most of them have electricity and a TV, but that doesn’t really make up for the fact that the children probably only have the clothes they are wearing and spend most of their time hungry. One girl of about 3 was padding round on the mud outside in nothing else than a t-shirt. No shoes, no underwear. This was the world Roger had described when he tried to prepare us for what we would see on our trip. A world so far from our own, and yet the newest member of the EU, just a bit to the South of the Europe we think of as our back yard.

Friday November 9th

Children at the kindergartenWe walked into town for breakfast with Natalia and Milko, our contacts from the Municipality. Omelettes were enjoyed by all. Then yet again we went to the box store for more supplies. We didn’t have far to travel to our first stop however as it was the pre-school or ‘Kindergarten’ as they call it in Bulgaria, which was across the road from the box store. The Bulgarian language seems to be taking on words from various western European countries including France and in this case, Germany.

The ‘Kindergarten’ was a lovely happy place. We came not only with food boxes to help the staff feed the children through the winter, but with a supply of play tents. Roger and I hastily erected one outside and presented it. About 20 children all tried to get into it at once. They loved it. The children sang for us in Bulgarian and then sang happy birthday, or at least a song to that tune! It was a lovely visit to a place which had a warm, happy feel to it. It is worth noting however that there were no Roma children at this pre-school.

The kitchenNext stop was at a food kitchen which provided a ‘meals-on-wheels’ service to over 150 people every day in Lom and it’s suburbs. The building was put up as a temporary measure a few years ago and is still in use. The kitchens are very old and the whole place has a sort of portakabin feel to it with its metal steps up to the first floor office. This service is a real lifeline to many people who pay varying rates for their 3 course meal service, depending on their personal means. Home help duties such as cleaning and tidying are also provided as an added extra although they are not strictly part of the service.

 

 

Resident of the half way house with new blanketsAnother short journey took us to a ‘half way house’ which is directed by the same man that directs the ‘meals-on-wheels’ service. This was in a house which gives refuge to people who find themselves with nowhere to live. We gave more food, some blankets and met a man staying there who had no shoes. The director had given him his cast-offs which the man was very pleased with. Roger agreed to give the director some project money to pay for some shoes when they were needed by visitors to the half way house.

Next on our whistle-stop tour was a special needs school. Housed in a very large building, the school was, by modern standards, in a state of dilapidation. The school is partly residential so we gave some blankets out as well as food boxes. A separate building housed a large hall and kitchen. Like so many of these big, old buildings from Bulgaria’s communist era, there were very high ceilings which make these places so hard and expensive to heat. Diesel to fuel heating is something which crops up on the wish list of just about every facility we visited.

After lunch, Roger and Jason faced the cameras for an interview by a local TV channel, ably translated by Rady. Yet more boxes were then loaded up and we went off to another elderly people’s home. It was a fleeting visit. We gave more food and took blankets into several residents. I presented blankets to a couple in their room. They were delighted and there were hugs all round and a picture was taken of us together. Another emotional scene was when Sue met a lady who’s husband had died just a month ago. No words were spoken but the tears flowed as Sue gave her a hug. The love was felt beyond the language barrier.

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