The Daily Fight to Help Others
Julia Simeonova works as a health mediator in one of Bulgaria’s least affluent towns
This story is part of our series of publications that will tell the stories of front-line workers in the field (social workers, mediators and nurses) who performed and continue to perform their duties tirelessly and with dedication to help hundreds of children and families to overcome the challenges brought about by COVID-19 more easily.
From the very outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julia Simeonova has worked on the ‘front line’, as we have come to call the place where people take immediate care of our health work, and has not taken a day off. Yet, in reality, Julia is stationed at the last line of defence, i.e. that last invisible line which actually constitutes the last chance at help for an entire community of between several hundred and one thousand people whose situation is extremely difficult. This situation starts with the lack of running water and electricity but also entails zero access to vaccines and the threat of diseases such as tuberculosis (among others), ultimately culminating in the frequent lack of food sufficient to eat at least once a day anything other than bread or pastry made of simple kneaded dough.
Of course, Julia cannot alleviate this situation all on her own. She works as a health mediator in one of Bulgaria’s least affluent towns, Nikolaevo, located in the Stara Zagora Region and she is the only person who helps and teaches the local community how to take better care of their health. In the context of the coronavirus, this has become all the more vital. Aside from this, she also does a lot of other work to assist the community: she fills out forms and benefits applications for them, she provides assistance to people in need of a hospital stay, facilitates the interaction with administration for people, the majority of whom do not speak Bulgarian, finds ways to provide in-kind assistance and even does the shopping for them.
Owing to the threat of the virus, she has spent the past two months going from door to door every day and explaining the most important measures, such as those relating to isolation, hygiene and disinfection, to the community.
‘This is all well and good, Julia, but how could we wash and bathe when we have no water?,’ the community in the town of Nikolaevo asked promptly.
So she organised their efforts: they could carry water to wash their hands just as they did in order to wash their clothes. The community were quick to take steps, even sending their children with mini-carts in order to fill as many containers as they could with water from the only drinkable water fountain in their residential district. Thanks to the National Network of Health Mediators, Julia has provided all families with soap and bleach.
Few realise what this achievement has required of the young woman. She has had to go from door to door daily, offering explanation upon explanation. That is because, unfortunately, brochures and leaflets are not all too efficient for the purposes of this community. Hardly anyone is able to read them. Even if the community is able to understand the illustrations, they will often have no way of following these due to the lack of water and hygiene and disinfection material already mentioned.
‘I do admit that, at first, I would scare them to some degree, citing the hefty fines that awaited them if they failed to comply with the isolation requirements. I told them about the severe repercussions of the disease and even informed them about the death toll on a daily basis,’ Julia tells us. ‘The community was scared further by the cases of the disease registered in several neighbouring villages, one of which was even under lockdown for a few days,’ she adds.
Thus, although the community initially stonewalled against the young woman’s efforts, it is evident that the majority of them now comply with the rules more strictly. This does not mean that her work is done though.
Another responsibility vested with the young woman by local authorities and institutions concerns the monitoring of those in quarantine. ‘An exceedingly high number of people returned to the residential district from abroad over the past few months. These people are not used to being isolated either and so they were keen on visiting all their friends and family,’ Julia elaborates. She was tasked with controlling this, i.e. monitoring the community’s compliance with quarantine measures, drawing up lists of people returning from abroad and subject to isolation, going from door to door and driving the message home that people were not to go outside or gather for meetings.
Since the community lost their few chances at earning a living, working in tobacco plantations, for instance, as a result of isolation, Julia requested the cooperation of the National Network of Health Mediators and of NGOs to prepare food packages. Nevertheless, this assistance was sufficient to help only a part of the families, so Julia had to choose which of them needed it the most.
‘That broke my heart. Everyone in this district lives in dire poverty so I found it very difficult to decide who should receive this assistance and who should not. This is a place where children will cry themselves to sleep due to hunger,’ the young woman remembers. That is one of her most traumatising memories from the two months of isolation. Nothing else bothers her: she does not mind receiving daily calls, asking her to do the shopping, offer advice...or help in any other way. She is not fazed by the seeming lack of prospects of the situation in the district ever changing. However, she wishes she did not have to choose and could help everyone instead.
The situation did not change even after the whole of Bulgaria learned about Nikolaevo when authorities found a young blond girl who came to be known as ‘Maria, the blond angel’ in a Greek Roma community. It turned out that the child was a Bulgarian Roma albino girl abandoned by her family. DNA tests showed that Maria’s family lived in dire poverty in Nikolaevo and that they had other children, too. The only thing that changed after the few months of media attention was that her family relocated to a neighbouring village and new people settled in their previous home. Their circumstances remained the same: they had no income, water or electricity.
The fact that Julia cannot overhaul this entire situation weighs heavy on her since she herself is from Nikolaevo but has lived in the town of Kazanlak after she married. The young woman’s husband supports her in the difficult task of accepting this reality. ‘You cannot help everyone in everything. You should do what you can to the extent feasible. You cannot give up. If you do, there will be no one to stand by their side,’ he tells her often.
Julia has not thought of giving up either. Even now, with the serious risk of coronavirus present. Although her child is barely 2 years and 7 months old and she worries about them, Julia has not requested a leave of absence or self-isolated but has stuck by the community.
‘Of course, I am worried. I was even more worried during the first ten days or so, when I did not have any protective equipment on me. I could not abandon them, though, or there surely would have been a full-blown outbreak in the community,’ she says.
The National Network of Health Mediators has now provided her with all the protective equipment necessary: a mask, a plastic screen, protective gear, gloves and shoe covers.
Equipped with these, she visits the community daily. She does that for the people there, a front-line worker and their last line of defence.