Marrying help to a good work ethic is key to success at one of Sofia’s leading NGOs for deprived youngsters

Stela Gachevska and Dilyana Gyurova, the current executive directors of Concordia.

When I last visited the Concordia Foundation* in 2010 the atmosphere was one of fragile hopes and dashed dreams. Government funding was non-existent, the building was dark and decaying and many of the “residents” were delinquent street kids for whom “living on the edge” was a stubborn life choice.  Even the area, a run-down industrial zone of Sofia, seemed dangerous and threatening.

Photographs of the fallen – mostly haunted, emaciated, hollow-eyed adolescents cut down by drugs – stared out from behind flickering candles in the chapel.  I came away touched by the dedication of Concordia’s then Austrian director, Father Markus Inama (now an Executive Board member) but I was aware that there was a mountain to climb.

Having fun is the best antidote to deprivation

Seven years on and the building has been seriously revamped, there’s a large restaurant that would do any institution proud, the workshops are buzzing and even the surrounding area seems spruced up. Attitudes to Concordia have also improved markedly. A few years back, according to Dilyana Gyurova, the current joint head and executive director along with Stela Gachevska, there was still scepticism about any organisation that contained the word “foundation”. Many believed it to be a money laundering enterprise or some nepotistic, government-affiliated scam.

In the summer of 2017 the foundation scored a major victory, one that surprised Dilyana herself. “We managed to secure some government money. We finally made it! We now have one of our day care centres funded through Sofia Municipality.” (To his credit, current Prime Minister Boiko Borissov did visit the home and tried to support it when he was Sofia mayor.)

Today, unlike in 2010, drug users are sent elsewhere, Concordia’s social workers having concluded that addiction was simply beyond their remit. A key aim now is to cultivate a healthy work ethic among its residents. Clothes and household items are purchased via a points’ scheme. Products made at Concordia for onward sale include colourful candles that have proved popular with major businesses, especially as Christmas presents because their company logos can be etched on them.

Dilyana in the candle workshop at Concordia

Permanent institutional care is in the past, explains Dilyana. Concordia aims to promote independence.  Part of its mission statement is to accompany “children and adolescents into a self-determined life”. To that end they provide temporary shelter to young adults, aged between 18 and 35, for up to three months, and the possibility of a so-called supervised apartment for between six and eight months. If they stay longer the residents have to fulfil certain criteria.

Young adults, all of whom stay at Concordia voluntarily, are now the main focus of the team’s work but children’s needs are not neglected. Children used to stay in rooms at the Sofia base but this is gradually being phased out; this November they will be permanently relocated to a home in the small town of Bozhurishte, near Sofia.

Football has proved to be one of the most popular group activities

One of Concordia’s most popular initiatives was the establishment of a football team in 2015. “Now it’s a registered football club. Among our players are unaccompanied minors from refugee camps. Football has proved a strong tool for social integration, our most successful tool, in fact,” Dilyana told me.

Ninety five per cent of those who pass through Concordia’s doors are Roma. The organisation definitely does not define itself as a Roma help group. It is – in a sense – an “incidental” statistic but it would be silly to deny that the Roma are the most disadvantaged group in Bulgaria. Illiteracy, poverty, truancy, vagrancy, underage pregnancy, child prostitution and drug use (a cheap marijuana-like substitute being the substance of choice) are all more prevalent in their marginalised community.

Education, according to Dilyana, is pivotal to reversing the trend. It’s difficult to persuade parents who can’t read or write themselves that their children should attend school; they could be begging instead. To counter this the home offers an after-school programme whereby teachers visit Concordia to help children with their homework. Apart from organised football tournaments there are many trips to parks and camps.

The canteen would do any institution proud

Of course, looking after children, some of whom have been irrevocably traumatised, is more than about material need, or even comradeship. Emotional needs are also paramount. Staff care deeply for the children but Dilyana makes clear that parameters have to be established. “We have psychologists on our team and they do individual work with the children.  But we’re definitely strict about borders. You won’t see someone from one of our teams bringing children home. The focus is on the professional side. As with teachers, in pre-school or in the first stages of education, there are different opinions about where to draw the line. Emotional needs are essential but so too are professional borders. I can’t say we have arrived at a definitive solution.” The situation regarding children at Concordia is complex. Everything is highly regulated and controlled by different authorities, especially the Stage Agency for Social Support.

Many Bulgarians still have a jaundiced view of Roma, believing they get something for nothing. The reality, Dilyana tells me, is rather different.

“Officially, the state offers social benefits,” says Dilyana. “If you live below the poverty line, you’re entitled to apply for certain measures, but support is quite low. Some families qualify for heating support in the winter, some for cash or heating materials, depending on what they use for heating. But the amounts are insubstantial. Allowances for children amount to less than 20 euro a month.”

Dilyana understands some negative stereotypes – without condoning them as such – but she sees how they evolve and admits they are difficult to cast off.

Concordia’s facilities have improved markedly since my first visit there in 2010

“People have fears and they are not very motivated to dig into details or look at the roots of a problem. My husband is from a village next to the town of Ihtiman, that used to have 3000 inhabitants. Nowadays, there are fewer than 500 inhabitants. People see more and more Roma families taking over what was left. I can’t blame people for having stereotypes and prejudices, because this is what people experience in their everyday life. Even if we have, on the other side, examples of well integrated Roma people – those with education and good jobs – the general picture remains of a lack of education. In the eyes of the average Bulgarian it doesn’t require much effort to send your children to school. But if you as a parent are unable to read and write, it’s unlikely you’ll understand the importance of education. And although education is technically free of charge there are always other expenses.”

Many young Roma men, unskilled and uneducated, find employment elusive or poorly paid. They may get cash in hand work in construction; others become security guards. The luckier ones find a job in retail, working in a supermarket, for example, where at least they get a proper contract. Few can afford to be choosy and when they do find accommodation it’s likely to be shared.

Dilyana and Stella admit that it can be difficult to effect change. Fortunately, there are success stories. Yet sometimes “success” can be defined as simply averting disaster. In the Roma community some girls are sold for marriage at the age of just 13. They know of a 10-year-old girl pushed into prostitution. So if a 17-year-old girl is still unmarried and childless that can be perceived as an achievement!

Moving on to higher education is, sadly, still rare. “They start life with many deficits, so it’s difficult for people over 18 to compensate for everything that has happened to them in childhood,” says Dilyana.

Many of the children are from Roma families

Hairdressing has proved a popular trade with some of the youngsters. If you go to certain salons and get a haircut from a trainee hairdresser from Concordia it’s cheaper. If they work hard they can secure a permanent position, so this provides important vocational training for those over the age of 16. Another shop, rented by one of the trainees (near the women’s market in Sofia) is now run by a former resident of the home.

Bulgaria’s difficult economic situation means even a good education does not guarantee a decent salary. Social workers earn about 500 leva a month. Many teachers even have second jobs. So those who have dropped out of school frequently lack the motivation to go back. Waiting at tables is more lucrative. And, sadly, (mostly Roma) children often get roped into professional begging by their families. Vienna is a “popular” destination for Roma children, sometimes accompanied by family members probably because it’s the nearest Western city.

Dilyana is adamant that people should not give money to young children – for example, in cafes in Sofia. “You’re not helping the child, absolutely not, so I wouldn’t give anything. Sometimes my children beg me to give money to someone but I would only give to elderly people, not to children or mothers with children. I’m absolutely sure it’s an organised crime set-up. Someone behind them is getting all the more cash. I feel sorry for all these cases – people in wheelchairs, mothers with babies – but I don’t support the system. I teach my children not to do this.  There are other ways. Support our organisation instead!”

Happy children develop into happy adults

Dilyana feels that the situation in Bulgaria is comparable to Romania. Until recently Concordia was dependent on external funding from the mother organisation in Austria. Help has also come from the several Lichenstein foundations, and in general from Western Europe. In addition to help and recognition from the municipality, which Dilyana describes as a long process that has turned her hair grey (!), Concordia is now well connected to other NGOs. And it is also forging ties with the business world. “Nowadays people are much more open to helping us. Companies help Concordia in many ways that are not only good for their image but also benefit us enormously. Some businesses have a scheme whereby their staff are given three working days to do volunteering work. So instead of going to their usual workplace they come to us. It’s admirable but it’s sometimes difficult to find work for 50 people to do!”

Better that there be too many volunteers, however, than too few . . .

*CONCORDIA, founded in 1991, is an internationally active, independent aid organisation for children, adolescents and families in need. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, it has sister organisations in Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Germany and Bulgaria.

Concordia Bulgaria Foundation’s base is in Sofia, at 4 Pavlina Unufrieva.