Since I’ve been back I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve been hosting the PCV before me in Chirpan as well has his brother. It’s been great hanging out with his since he’s introduced me to his old friends. But the big news is we went to the Mahala (the Roma slums). I’m going to have a lot of free time this summer so I’ve been looking for another project. What better way to finish off my service than helping the most underprivileged? Here’s how it happened:
The Roma people have historically been kicked around. During communism in Bulgaria, they were rounded up and put in separate communities only allowing them to enter town on market days. However, most Roma people are suspicious of outsiders and intentionally separate themselves. This is the biggest obstacle trying to enter the mahala-they don’t really want you there. Given this, you usually have to be invited in by someone. I didn’t have any Roma friends so this was a problem.
We walked to the edge of mahala and sat on some steps overlooking the slum, hoping to get noticed by a group of guys asking us what we were doing. We could see being out and about, some obviously wondering what those white dudes were doing looking into their neighborhood. No one came up to us to see what we wanted. We then decided to take a leap of faith and walk straight into the mahala, uninvited. We decided not to walk down the main street but a side street instead saying “hello” or “good afternoon” to everyone that made eye contact with us. We hadn’t been in the slum for more than two minutes when one of the many people eying us suspiciously asked us what we were doing in their neighborhood. We smiled, introduced ourselves, shook their hands and explained ourselves. Straight off the bat, they asked us if we were missionaries (I’ve been asked this before having been to mahalas in the past so I was prepared to dispel this quickly) As soon as I told them that I was an American looking to teach English for free, their skepticism vanished. It turns out, there is already an English group taught by the pastor of their church. We were, in fact, standing in front of their church (Adventist) and they invited us in to see their place of worship. We stressed that we were not religious and that our English lessons would be open to anyone who wanted to attend.
After our tour of their modest yet lovely church, they said their group would be meeting at six that evening. We were amazed how quickly everything went- in literally five minutes from entering the mahala, we offered a room, class and time to teach English. They then took us out to a cafe; one of the nicest I’ve been to in this country. It was on the second story, outdoors and offered a nice view of Chirpan in the not-so-far distance and the bustling street below. I wrote down my name and number for one of my new friends and he let the pastor know that an American would be joining their class that evening.
That evening we returned. I made copies of the first twenty pages or so of the text book I usually use. It’s the same book the Peace Corps provided for us to learn Bulgarian but translated for Bulgarians to learn English by a PCV. There were about eight students and the lesson went very smoothly;everyone was eager to learn. They had their second lesson the next day (Wednesday) and at the end of that class, they wanted us to return for a third day! My new friends, are quite simply, awesome.