Bulgarians may be suspicious of foreigners, but US Peace Corps volunteers know how to befriend them - by extending a hand
Issue 14, November 2007
by Dimana Trankova, Gabriel Hershman; photography Dragomir Ushev, US Peace Corps
While taking in the cool night air wafting gently over the Balkan Mountain and surveying the specks of cloud that hide the stars from his view from time to time, US Peace Corps volunteer Joe Iole is trying to get used to the idea that only 48 hours ago a devastating forest fire was raging on the site where he and his Bulgarian colleagues had made their camp. The disaster managed to destroy a large part of the Central Balkan National Park, but without the joint efforts of Joe and his Bulgarian friends, the damage would have been a lot more.
Back in the United States, Joe was a state park ranger. Now, in Bulgaria, he lives in Gabrovo and works as an environment volunteer.
His job is quite varied. He gathers community volunteers for biodiversity monitoring, teaches Bulgarian youths about environmental practices, and assists Bulgaria's park service to meet the standards of the EU's Natura 2000 programme. “It's reassuring to see the enthusiasm and pride that Bulgarians have in their natural resources,” Iole says. “One of the best parts of my job is getting to meet Bulgarians who are so passionate about their work and the environment, whether they work in the park system or for an NGO.”
The US Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Although it is present in over 70 countries worldwide, the organisation has the most volunteers in South America and Africa. The government pays their air fares and provides them with a relocation fee at the end of their service.
The first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Bulgaria in 1991, shortly after the democratic changes. The latest group joined their ranks in October, when about 40 people took an oath of allegiance in the presence of their Bulgarian partners, Peace Corps staff and American Embassy representatives. They are working on the Community and Organisational Development and Youth Development programmes in 33 towns and villages – at the grassroots level in municipalities, nonprofit organisations and social institutions. With them, the number of volunteers in Bulgaria increased to over 150. Since 1990, nearly 900 volunteers have worked in the country.
Lesley Duncan headed the Bulgaria branch of the organisation in July. Her personal links with the Peace Corps began in the 1980s when she became a volunteer in Paraguay. There, Lesley fell in love with her Peace Corps work and with a man, a volunteer like herself, who would later become her husband. Since then, the two have lived and worked in a number of countries, including East Timor, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Her most recent posting was as Thailand's administrative officer in Bangkok. Now living happily in Simeonovo, she gushes about the cafés, the beautiful countryside and the joys of trekking through Vitosha Mountain. Lesley's children, aged nine and 12, have already adjusted well to life at the capital's Anglo-American School, or AAS.
Currently, Lesley, two other Americans and a staff of Bulgarians oversee the American volunteers scattered throughout the country, who they visit regularly to monitor their progress. Certainly, the volunteer monthly stipend doesn't run to luxuries. Their host agency provides their accommodation, usually the local municipality or school. Volunteers are not allowed to drive – a rule introduced in the early 1990s after a spate of road accidents – neither are they allowed to undertake other remunerated occupations: “It's really part of the Peace Corps mission to live at the level of their partners,” Lesley says.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers