Written as part of Bodler Giving's Global Givers initiative by a regional partner.
How to help refugees to help themselves?
My name is Nikola Gazdov and I am 33 years old. In 2009 I was one of the founders of the Bulgarian Photovoltaic Association and in the following four years was its chair. In 2013-2015 I have been a co-chair of the Energy Committee of the German-Bulgarian Trade and Industry Chamber. I have graduated in Munich, Germany and have also studied in Birmingham, UK. My professional experience is focused on planning and realization of renewable energy projects and in the area of public communication.
In 2013, when a wave of refugees from Asia and Africa flocked to our region, the institutions and citizens of Bulgaria were unprepared. I have been following the topic about people from turbulent areas looking for protection in Europe for 15 years. My understanding is that the topic is complex and there are no easy solutions. And the biggest challenge is to turn the crisis into an opportunity. Instead of thinking in this direction, the institutions and public opinion leaders found an opportunity to spread a sense of crisis among Bulgarians. The public discourse was shaped by extremely negative and even purely racist opinions. The common feeling was that Bulgaria was being attacked by a natural disaster. As a consequence, the citizens felt unprotected and cheated. I also felt cheated. For me, it was because I was thinking that the Bulgarian society acted quite immaturely in the face of this new challenge.
A small group of people turned into a counter point of this negative speaking. My wife had heard about a Facebook group – “Friends of the Refugees”. That same day, we both joined it. “The Friends” were people with different social and professional backgrounds – journalists, lowers, teachers, IT specialists, etc. and most of them even did not know each other. The readiness to benevolently support refugees to find a better life was the common idea which united them. I was impressed by these people – most of them had left their personal life behind and invested all their energy to help complete strangers without any benefit or a second thought. Just because they wanted to help people who had gotten into trouble.
These Facebook volunteers exchanged ideas and information about different topics on a daily basis – about the legislation, the shelters and other places for temporary settlement of refugees, the numbers and demographic profile of refugees, etc. The “Friends of Refugees” supported to a large extent the responsible institutions and helped avoid additional public tensions. The positive attitude of these unknown people inspired me and showed me that even small things are important to the thousands of women, children and men, suffering in a foreign country. In Bulgaria.
Help with what you can.
Everybody from the “Friends of Refugees” helped in the way he or she could. Some helped set up a website. Others proposed free legal consultations and support with contacts with institutions. Then there were those who used their contacts with state institutions and media to influence institutions and help the state improve its activities. I joined the subgroup that organized provisions of first-hand goods. In the summer and autumn of 2013 people from all so called “camps” had a great need for medicines, food and cloths. Along with a few people, whom I had met in person only once, we organized provisions of children’s food and clothing. With my wife we agreed that with the money for an excursion abroad we would buy diapers, formula and kettles for boiling water. The money that we saved during that whole year, was sufficient for covering the needs of the children from only one camp for a week. I realized that in that moment the most important thing is to cover the basic needs of the people. But in the same time I was absolutely clear that it is necessary to search long-term solutions. The question was – what were they?
Learn Bulgarian, help yourself.
Thanks to the Facebook group and the information from the State Agency for Refugees I learned that most of the refugees are not interested in learning Bulgarian. The reason is very banal – most people see Bulgaria as a transit country. Their end destinations are the rich countries from Central and North Europe. Of course, for most of them the dream of Germany and Norway will never come true. And the refugee status received in Bulgaria will become a social anchor for thousands.
I was thinking about this a lot – thousands were in Bulgaria but refused to accept that the possibility to stay here for a long time was real. They choose not to learn Bulgarian and miss the opportunity to more easily integrate in the country if they have to stay here. At the same time, the state does not have a mechanism to push refugees to learn Bulgarian if they do not wish to. For weeks I asked myself how we could overcome this dilemma. From one side, how do you make studying Bulgarian accessible for refugees without pushing and obliging them? And from the other – how to avoid self-exclusion of a big group of people from public life just because they cannot communicate with us locals? Or to say it another way – how to help refugees help themselves?
The idea came to my mind while I was feeding my son Pepi. For months he had eaten his meal only if I had run a cartoon on my smart phone. As every two-year old child, Pepi managed to choose himself what he wanted to watch. Each evening he started with a cartoon in Bulgarian and in a few minutes found himself his favorite educative movies in English. Soon he learnt to count in English: One, two, threе. It appeared that there are not such movies in Bulgarian. Then I thought that if they are interesting, the language lessons in a form of movies “on demand” could help many parents with fastidious children. And also thousands of refugees
I believe that all seeking protection in one or another moment will need knowledge of Bulgarian. When this happens, the chance to have a tutor at hand is minimal. But the availability of a free and accessible online language course could be priceless. To have their “lessons”, the refugee would only need a device with access to the Internet – a smart phone, a tablet or a PC.
My understanding about volunteering and participation in philanthropic initiatives is simple – to help those in need in such a way, so as to enable them to help themselves. For refugees living in Bulgaria the availability of free online video courses in Bulgarian will be very beneficial. Indirectly, the whole Bulgarian society will also benefit from this. There is no model for integration policy without successful communication, and the stranger is less strange if you talk the same language.
How to produce an online language course.
Thus at the beginning of 2014, I decided to organize and create free online courses in Bulgarian. At that time I attended the National Program “Governing Skills” of the Bulgarian School of Politics “Dimitry Panitza” and proposed the idea to my co-fellows from the cohort. During the voting, many colleagues supported the idea, but the majority selected another cause. There was no room for disappointment, however. The exciting discussions with my fellow colleagues motivated me even further. I realized that even obvious causes need perfect motivation and support. So I decided to prepare better and try again. The task appeared to be complex and not cheap. Briefly described, it looks like as follows:
Developing a concept for a free online course in Bulgarian;
Communication with pedagogues regarding the content, communication instruments, level of complexity, etc.;
Engaging a creative team for developing the concept and the story board (visualization of different exercises);
Project budgeting and engaging a project team who will manage and realize different stages (pedagogical, artistic, technical, financial, communication, and so on)
Realization of the project
At the end of October 2014, the project is between stages 2 and 3. The development is slower than I would like but there is progress and that motivates me. All people who I have talked with about the idea are excellent professionals. And this gives me a hope that together we will develop a quality and useful product. In the course of our work I realized that the creation of the online course in Bulgarian needs the same efforts like the realization of a commercial art project. The only difference is that there is no expectation about returning the investment, as the initiative is charitable. Of course, my volunteering enthusiasm is not shared by everybody involved in the realization of the project. The expenses are not small but I am determined to cover them. I am even ready to finance the realization of the pilot episode, which will be on a high professional level and will help attracting additional resources from different crowdfunding platforms. I am convinced that good ideas always find support. Especially when they are realized with high quality and respond to a particular need.
The project about the creation of an online language course in Bulgarian is an excellent experience. And it is at the beginning. I believe that most people have an internal need to participate in good causes. But these causes do not always reach them. New media has the potential to fill this gap and to engage much more volunteers. I feel called to be part of this change!