The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of Elon University, the U.S. government, or the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So I'll admit it - I am in the absolute worst shape of my LIFE. At some point I need to stop blaming the bone shard and titanium rod in my shin and do something about it. I have had the legitimate excuses that my bike was stolen (from INSIDE my apartment by a "friend," I might add) and the only gyms in Samokov are in private hotels and very expensive, but today I discovered a BRAND NEW GYM near my apartment! It may be tiny (which only means I need to find a time when no one else is there), but its got sparkling equipment... and... its for women only! Woohoo! Go Samokov. So I just painfully worked out for the first time since I threw myself down a mountain. It was brief and certainly not pretty... but it was a start, I guess! 

On another note, I'm pretty sure you can finally consider me "Officially Integrated" into Bulgarian culture. In the last month, about 4 different people have called me at least half Bulgarian, and today, the clocksmith who put the new battery in my watch called me a "Samokovka." He also asked me if I had drank water from the fountain and found my Bulgarian man yet... oh bozhe. ;)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A very Bulgarian Thanksgiving!

Right at this moment, I am very content. On Thursday I was so incredibly blessed to have celebrated Thanksgiving surrounded by a fantastic group of people in Sofia, and then today I was able to share a little bit of American tradition to two of the ladies who mean the world to me over here in Bulgaria - Katya and Mariana (my closest colleagues). Sometime last month I had a site visit from a new PC staff member, and she commented on how refreshing it was to see my solid relationship with these two women, and how comfortable I was in my role here. I thank God for my situation here every day! So it was great to celebrate on Thursday with some of the Americans that have adopted me over here, and then to be able to recreate the meal [to some extent] with my Bulgarian family and the other two rockstar Americans in town.

I had to get kind of creative, but the meal turned out great, and I'm stuffed! Katya cooked the meze appetizers, chicken, and mashed potatoes (mmm), and I covered the green beans, pumpkin casserole, cranberry sauce (thanks, mom!), and dessert. Add all that to some homemade rakia and vino and a whole ton of laughs, and it was quite the amazing feast!!! Delicious, and so much fun.

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NEXT week, I get to see the amazing Abby, and....


No more than 20 minutes after checking in with my field supervisor on my very first day as an intern with the local police gang unit a years ago, I heard a call come over the radio in the Vice office. Just five minutes after that, I was giving short-cut directions to an address I knew all too well - the after school program where I'd been working for the past two years. Next thing I knew, I was on the scene of an execution-style murder on the grass only 30 yards from where I parked my car everyday looking at my first dead body. 

The victim? The mother of two of my children from my program. 

The suspect? Their father. 

Less than an hour before, he had chased her down the block after a domestic dispute, shoved her to her knees, shot her at point blank in the back of the head, then drove straight to the police station, laid his gun on the table, and turned himself in. Then they called all detectives on board.

What happened the rest of the day was a bit of a blur- perhaps because it was a bit of an out of body experience as I felt like I was living my own episode of CSI or Law and Order. I don't think it was until we were sitting in the conference room later in the day that I really began to put the pieces together that I actually knew this family. In fact, I knew them fairly well - just the week before all this,  little Josh and I had been working on his ABCs together before I handed his backpack over to his mother. The scary thing, though? Was that I couldn't make myself truly connect with this nightmare. And that, had never happened me before. 

In general, and for as long as I can remember, I have felt everything. I see everything. I experience everything. 

I remember feeling scared. But not for the reason that you might think. I was scared because I figured there was something wrong with me. I had just witnessed a dead-on-arrival murder scene where a family I had known for a couple of years had been involved on both the victim and suspect level, and on a more disconnected, elementary level I had also seen my first dead body (and a messy one on my very first morning of work, for that matter), and I felt nothing. I don't believe I was in shock. I was convinced I must be sick. Really morbidly sick. 

It didn't take me long to figure out, though, that I was being protected from the situation. Under normal circumstances, this would have torn me apart. But because at the time I was truly discovering, and I still believe, that God is calling me into a field where I will be required to see and experience the very best and very worst of people, I believe He put his hand over me to guard my heart. 

Now, just a few years later, I'm sitting here in my little apartment in Bulgaria two eventful years into my Peace Corps experience, and I am so very tired. Exhausted, really. I have loved and appreciated almost every moment of my service (oddly enough, even the [literally] bone-shattering ones), and if I thought I had the emotional stamina after two years here to invest a little longer, than you better believe that I'd extend my time here in a heartbeat. I may be disillusioned about some American expectations (24 hour Walmart!), I'm definitely not expecting my life in America to be "easy." It certainly wasn't when I worked for a camp in Maryland, or the after school program in NC, or leading groups in urban ministry in NYC, but throughout every trial or hiccup or emotional incident, I had been closer and supported by the people that invested in me and kept me going. The people that reminded me that yes, things happen, but Jesus has his hand in it all and he WILL redeem the situation. 

When my campus supervisor came to talk to me about my internship with the police department, she asked me if I thought I'd be interested in making a career in the police work. At that point, the prospect was fun and exciting, but I did have a feeling that it wouldn't stick (I loved certain aspects of a the job thrilled me - carrying/pulling a weapon did NOT). I did tell her, though, that I took the internship for the insight and experience with the "worst case" scenario. We then talked about my fear that one of two things was sure to happen - either I'd continue to feel every case to my very core so deeply that I'd burn out prematurely, or I'd grow numb and immune to the things that had always penetrated me to my very core. That is a scary thought. Seeing families dig through the dumpsters all day every day makes my heart break. So does knowing my kids don't come to school when its cold because they don't have the proper footwear. So does being asked every week for money so that the baba can buy her grandson breakfast. So does watching another get married. But I wouldn't trade all of that. Feeling things - experiencing them - is what allows me empathize in a constructive way. Or at least try. 

Leaving Samokov is going to be one of the hardest things I ever have to do. I'm ready to go home and be home - to be near my support system and start building my future more tangibly - but I dread the day I have to say goodbye to my life and loved ones here, but what waits for me back home is what has kept me going for two years, and will keep me strong and on my game for these last few (when did that happen?) months. I just hope, that as draining and it is and as much as it hurts, that I never lose the heartache. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I can't express how much I wish I could be back in virginia with my family right now, but I am thrilled tp be able to celebrate with the Gill family again this year, and then share some traditions with my Bulgarian family on sunday!

It's sad to not be spending the holiday with the B24s (although I won't miss traveling on three public busses with a frozen turkey!!)... Miss you guys! Glad you're all home safe. :)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Field trip - 10/20/2010

Bat cave... ostrich farm... onboard bus disco.

The not-so-tough parts of the "toughest job I'll ever love..."

All in a days work:

This was basically the theme song to our camp this summer, and always a favorite! There is always plenty of shrieking when this one gets turned on. Catchy, no? ;)
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Field Trip - 10/20/2010

The random (I don't know if it was last minute or not) stop of the day was to an... [drum roll please].... ostrich farm! Its funny, there was an ostrich farm just 5 minutes or so away from where I went to college and although I had the intention to stop for about 4 years, I never did. But leave it to Bulgaria to make sure I got to one eventually!!

I'm pretty sure the kids were speechless... and I will never live down the fact that one of these two lovely birds in this photo shares a name with yours truly. ;)

I've seen them before at a zoo, but never this close. I think I was pretty shocked at how huge they are. Especially when they are all stretched out like this one.

"The Blue Ostriches"
(The name of the farm)

All in all, definitely another productive field trip! This one was probably our most... diverse... as far as trip highlights and destinations is concerned.
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Field Trip - 10/20/2010

Again, no offense intended for Teteven, but the three hour bus ride totally redeemed itself when we drove to Peshtera next and found ourselves at the Peshtera Cave! The cave was huge and beautiful... and the kids mouths were dropped in astonishment the entire time. I was really impressed with how intently they listed as the guide pointed out different "landmarks" and told different stories.

Beginning the decent into the cave.

GORGEOUS. I was impressed with how well my pics turned out... even though some of them are still a bit blurry.

Haha, as I said, I've never seen the kids so quiet and attentive...

The whole group (minus me... per usual ;)) underground.
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Field Trip - 10/21/2010

The Svetlina kids have gotten to go on a pretty good number of field trips since last June. We have great success with these trips because not only are the kids getting the chance to see the world outside of Samokov, but they LOVE THEM. In and of themselves, the trips serve as an incentive for school attendence and participation, because the kids have to actually attend class in order to be allowed to go.

Yesterday, we had a smaller group than normal (there is that attendance thing again...), but in the end it was a great day. For some reason, though, I was exhausted going into it, with a bit of a headache, and just a little "off" in general. Not a good start to the day... Our first stop was a small village called Teteven in the Lovech region a couple hours north of Sofia. I did a little wikipedia-ing before we left, and still had trouble figuring out what warranted a special trip. It was little village along the Vit river in the Stara Planina mountains, and it WAS pretty, but we only stopped for lunch and then in the history museum for an hour and a half or so before our next stop on the trip.

The girls... posing... as usual. ;)

All the kids posing in front of the museum.

Getting the "schpeal" before the kids were unleashed in the museum.

Nothing was in English and I'm usually too lazy to pick through and read long informative signs in Bulgarian, but I picked up on a long drawn battle for ownership of Teteven between the Bulgarians and the Turks. In fact, the whole village was burned down at one point and had to be rebuilt in its entirety.

The village, like much of Bulgaria, had pretty impressive craftmaship. I'll never get tired of woodwork like this one:
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Christmas hypocrisy... and Straight No Chaser!

I am a FIRM believer in not bringing out anything Christmas until Santa Claus appears during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. I grew up this way. In fact, my dad gets all the stereo magazines loaded up and cued sometime before Turkey Day so that as soon as we all see Santa, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or - when we were little or if I can still manage to get my way ;) - the Chipmunks start blasting through the disc change. As we've all noticed, in the last few years, our beloved consumerist society (here in BG too!) has started getting ready for Christmas earlier and earlier every year!

The last two years I haven't broken out my Straight No Chaser Christmas albums (the only Christmas albums I personally own) until Thanksgiving - keeping in line with Filkins-family tradition. I have to be honest though and come clean: maybe its because my third holiday season from home is taking its toll on me, or maybe its because the Billa grocery store here in town is already sporting its christmas tree and santa hat... but we're a week out from the Macy's Tday parade and I just can't take it anymore!!

I'm ready to rock around the Christmas tree.

So, world? I apologize. I'm making an exception this year, being a hypocrite, and listening to songs about spiked egg nog, holy nights, Mr. Grinch, and the little baby Jesus (thank you SNC!!!!!).

My 12 inch tree won't get decorated until next week though (although I never technically put the actual tree away last year ;)).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I rarely - if practically ever - remember dreaming when I sleep at night. Last night, however, I dreamed that I got fired from my volunteer English sessions with the kids at the kindergarten here in Bulgaria because I don't know calculus. It was quite traumatic.

I'm definitely curious what Freud or Jung would say about that one....

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A little part of my soul dies every time I hear the nasty adjectives "ugly," "stupid," "dishonest," and "worthless" associated with Roma. I've worked with these kids for two years now, and have found absolutely nothing different about these kids than any other child I've ever met. Sure, they may not be the most academically inclined students, or have the biggest dreams or aspirations, but if you came up in a society or system that didn't care whether you failed or succeeded, I'm pretty sure the same thing could be said about you.

The most reassuring aspect of working in international Youth Development is this:

No matter where you are, or what color their skin is, or how clean their clothes are, or if an overwhelming representation of an entire culture thinks of them as a nuisance.

Need proof???

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Friday, November 12, 2010

New plan for surviving winter:

Really great Op Ed in the Sofia Echo

Proud to be Bulgarian, European and Roma

Fri, Nov 12 2010 09:00 CET133 Views
Proud to be Bulgarian, European and Roma

ONE UNREAD MESSAGE: 'Has Tsvetanov ever seen... how a single family lives in a Roma neighbourhood?'
Photo: Krassimir Yuskesseliev

Proud to be Bulgarian, European and Roma

Photo: Spas Spassov

We are either a "nomadic tribe" or an "incubator for generating crime". These comments made by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov last month in Brussels provide a glimpse into what it feels like to be Roma in my home country. Despite claims by Tsvetanov that the media had twisted his words, the damage was already done for me, for my family, and for the 800 000 Roma living in Bulgaria.

The European Commission called the Interior Minister's comment "unacceptable" but I wonder if his remarks are also unacceptable for the average Bulgarian. Do we realise that the way Roma are treated in our country is not right? Why are we so quick to defend attacks on our national identity, yet silent on the treatment of the country's largest ethnic minority? Instead of debating the validity of these statements can we simply think about how we treat our Roma countrymen?

In 2009, Bulgaria's elected officials and the general public reacted with outrage when the country was depicted as a "squat toilet" by artist David Cerny. It felt wrong to sit idly by and accept such a stereotype.

The same is true for our image in Italy. Bulgarians are portrayed in the media as criminals and the vast majority of Italian news stories about Bulgarians focus on criminality. Of course, the average Bulgarian would never accept this generalisation. But when it comes to our stereotypes of the Roma somehow we forget what it is like to be treated in such a derogatory manner. It is easy for us to simplify our thoughts about a certain group of people when we read only bad news about them. But it is not just, it is not correct, and it is simply not right.

Tsvetanov made his statement without thinking about the consequences of his words. Later, he even claimed that it was based on findings regarding the number of registered crimes in the country. Well, one could easily ask Tsvetanov whether or not he knows the real number of Roma in Bulgaria so he could make a good comparative analysis of the number of crimes committed by various ethnic groups. But we ignore this point.

Why is it that when a Roma commits a crime he is labelled only as a Roma but when he wins a European boxing championship, like Boris Georgiev, he is labelled as simply Bulgarian? Criminality does not have ethnicity, and negative criminal stereotyping does not serve anyone apart from populist politicians. Yes, we need to open our eyes and look our problems in the face, but stigmatising Roma and blaming previous governments for failures of integration is not a way out.

Instead, we should look for solutions to how Roma can have the same opportunities, rights and obligations as the rest of Bulgarian society. Roma should not live as outsiders in ghettos and/or in segregated neighbourhoods on the outskirts of our cities. Roma should live together with the majority, and this will only happen when it is no longer acceptable for our elected officials to make these sorts of statements.

Has Tsvetanov ever seen for himself how a single family lives in a Roma neighbourhood? Has he ever asked them about their problems or the opportunities they have had in life before making such a claim? Roma, like many other Bulgarians, leave the country in order to make a better living. Most of those Bulgarians who leave the country are driven out by poverty. For the Roma the situation is even worse as their unemployment rate is the highest in Bulgaria. Roma leave Bulgaria in search of a better life because they face rampant discrimination.

We need to wake up and look around us and see what is going on. We live in a country that since 2007 has been a member of the European Union. Our government agreed to be part of the EU based on values such as respect for human dignity, liberty and equality. Everybody has the right to live with dignity in normal living conditions and enjoy equal access to quality education, health care, and employment, but the majority of Roma in Bulgaria do not enjoy any of those rights.

Our insistence on stereotyping the Roma is why they are seen as "strangers" by the majority population. These same stereotypes are those that led to Bulgarian parents in Pazardjik pulling their children out of classes with Roma students.

This is not how I imagine my life or my children's lives. I do not want to look for opportunities in another country. I want to enjoy my rights and live in dignity as a Bulgarian, a European, and a Roma.

Mr Tsvetanov, we should open a dialogue and talk to the Roma. We need both the government and the Roma to work together toward successful integration and an inclusion strategy whereby Roma become citizens with a full set of rights. Today, the EU is giving us a hand. Mr Tsvetanov, let's work together to build an open and just society where our Government is accountable for all Bulgarians – Roma and non Roma alike.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I guess technically we've exchanged a few brief conversations before, but I still wasn't sure how to react when a Roma woman took my face between her hands yesterday in the middle of a busy intersection, gave me the once over, and then said I'd make a nice Roma bride before pinching my cheek. 

Its a little foggy, but in the end I thanked her before walking away more than just a little taken off guard. 

I've decided to be flattered.

Integration, right? ;)

TMI, but welcome to my brain on overdrive

‎"This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave." 
- Elmer Davis.

Last year my method of warding off boredom and frostbite during another Bulgarian winter in my small mountain city involved teaching myself how to knit... it involved lots of frustration and youtube videos, but I have countless scarves to show for the fruits of my labor. This year, even though I really should develop my knitting knowledge and learn how to make something else (anything else - even a knew stitch would suffice), I'm instead giving in to the overactivity of the enigma that is my brain. I've been told by more than just one loved one that being around me and my drive and passion can be exhausting, but let me tell you... I'm the only one who lives in my brain, and I can guarantee you its more tiring for ME! I've known for a long time that God is calling me to help give a voice to our nation's heroes - specifically, the ones who are living on our nations streets. Last week I had trouble sleeping, and next thing I knew, my brain was reeling into a plan for job development and empowerment back in DC with this target demographic. I don't want to get into a lot of details on this forum, but I am EXCITED. And I believe that its doable for me in a more distant future. But in the meantime, I've been doing some background research on the internet about the issue of Homeless Veterans.

And since today is Veteran's Day 2010, I wanted to share some of these heartbreaking statistics from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website:
  • Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans.
  • America's homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military's anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. 
  • Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era
  • Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.
  • Roughly 56 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively.
  • About 1.5 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
  • The VA estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, but over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has many programs in place to target this obvious need, and there are services available including residential programs and outreach assistance to help our nation's heroes, but they estimate that there are only enough organizations in place to help 20% of vets on the street. The biggest need for this demographic is job assistance and development.... I still feel like our generation needs to do our part to remind our service-members that we haven't forgotten, and we don't take our freedom and their sacrifices for granted. 

Happy Veteran's Day!!!
So proud of the heroes in my life!

Friday, November 5, 2010


... is look rather exciting!

I get to see the lovely Miss Abby (more affectionately known as my BFF) for another rendezvous in Istanbul!!!! 

And.... it looks like my big bro might be porting in "my neck of the woods" again! He's been at sea for a good chunk of the last year, so I didn't get to see him in August when I was home. When he came my way a few months ago, it was very last minute and it would have either cost me a $700 plane ticket for barely a few hours of face time, or so much time on buses that I would have missed him entirely. This time, though, it looks like we can easily make some sibling time work out!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Greeting Card Christians...

I'm starting to feel like this is an accurate description for most of my generation. I know it certainly includes myself, but what do I mean by it? I mean those of us who isolate verses from scripture that, yes, comfort and encourage, but fail to challenge and keep modern day believers accountable, even though "feel good" scripture is surrounded by those that are supposed to govern our existence on this earth.

I would be lying if I said that in my 24th year on this earth I hadn't acquired a more judgmental outlook on life than that of my previous, more naive self. I have these expectations of other's, even though I am constantly (read - ALWAYS) falling short in my own life. I am curious, though. Curious to learn why (and how) we, myself included, are able to read though Paul's letters in the New Testament and so naturally lift verses that build ourselves up (like Ephesians 6:10 - "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might"), but then even more easily bypass the verses in the same book that challenge us to be accountable to our actions and "walk in a manner worth of the calling to which you've been called" (Ephesians 4:1). I realize that its easier to grasp onto the concept of "faith, hope, and love" and "encouraging one another and building one another up" (1 Thess 5:11) than it is to abstain from temptations of this world, but shortly after we are called to embrace God and become "children of light" (1 Thess 5), God calls us to live HOLY lifestyles -- 1 Peter1: 13-16 "Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, DO NOT BE CONFORMED to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.'"

In a time where my generation gravitates towards things that "feel good" or are convenient (I've heard us be referred to as the "Microwave Generation"), have we lost sight of what it means to abandon our old selves and embrace the fact that although we are destined to stumble, we are a chosen race? People of HIS possession? In fact, right before those verses in 1 Peter it specifically tells us to keep our conduct honorable, so that when we were are spoken against as evildoers, they will see our good deeds and glorify God. There are countless verses on debauchery, purity, anger... countless verses that call us to be DIFFERENT. So that our mistakes and misconduct cannot be used against us to refute the power of God. In James it tells us that friendship with the world is enmity with God... are we willing to sacrifice holiness in this life for passion and excitement on earth? 

As a people, we are imperfect. God intended it to be that way. But why should we settle for this? Why should we create excuses for ourselves based on our sinful nature? Why am I capable of justifying my stumbling when I know that God is calling me to be Christ-like in my actions?

With my personality and spiritual gifts, its easy for me to be a "doer of the word" (James 1:22) in the respect of caring for "orphans and widows in their affliction," and almost impossible for me to "flee youthful passions" (1 Tim 2:20) and abandon the temptations of this world. But... for the first time in my life I want to not ignore the fact that God has given us a guide book on faith and conduct in the Bible (2 Tim 3:16 - All scripture is God breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness), and learn to love like He loved, and learn to live like he intended us to live before the distractions of modern day society and sinful nature. Can't do it alone  - good thing I don't have to. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

These photos show exactly what 8th grade kids SHOULD be doing - being kids and having fun. They should have the opportunity to order a McDonald's kids meal and then ride the elevator all day if they want to (five times, to be exact - look at their faces!!) while on a field trip to the mall in the big city.

This was another rough week. As I mentioned a month or so ago, this job is difficult for me. Don't get me wrong, I love it, but the more comfortable I get in my role here, the closer I get to the kids... the harder my work becomes.

Remember last year when I wrote about how one of my girls was propositioned while in school by a man looking to give her parents money so he could marry her? She spent the rest of her 7th grade year under lock and key. Isabella came back to school this year and went on to 8th grade with her classmates. I got a huge hug from her on the first day of school, but she was different - withdrawn... quiet... not the bubbly girl who I met on my very first day in Samokov over two years ago.

Last Tuesday I got to the school and Katya told me that Isabella was married. Just like that. 14 years old. A CHILD. Practically a baby... Apparently the man was very wealthy and her parents got an offer they couldn't refuse.

It's easy to sit where I am and judge the actions of others in a situation like this. Did they honestly think that this is a better life for her? Do they honestly think that some grown man out there want's a child bride for nobel purposes? It makes me sick.

Don't get me wrong - its common for Roma girls to get married relatively young, but this is NOT the norm. However, it does happen. Twice now, for me. Both young girls vibrant and smart and beautiful... with their entire lives ahead of them. I've spent all week simultaneously alternating between tears and the sheer desire to punch someone's lights out.

So again, it was a rough week. I lost one of my favorite students, and I will probably never see her again. It breaks my heart, and I have been praying constantly that God puts his protective hand over her...