Rowing in the same direction: a story of empathy and service from Bulgaria

Fulya Metin, from the town of Novi pazar, 
has devoted her life to helping others

Yuliana Koleva
Fulya Metin
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020
29 May 2020

How do you convince a community of people whose access to information is extremely limited, who live below the poverty line, and who often find it difficult to adhere to quarantine measures, to protect them from COVID-19? How do you persuade them to stay at home when their income mainly comes from gathering herbs and nettles, and collecting firewood? How do you build enough trust with a woman or a child, who has experienced violence, to call you over the phone to share their story and seek support – when discussing such an issue is hard enough as it is, face-to-face?

To achieve all this, you need to have spent years working in their community. You need to know each of its members and all their day-to-day hopes and worries. You need to be one of these people. But most of all, you should have the ability to understand others, to step into their shoes and, with empathy and patience, help them take the steps they need to improve their lives, even if those steps forward are small and are taken over the course of many years.

This is the story of Fulya Metin, age 24, from Novi pazar, Bulgaria.

For almost five years now, Fulya has worked in her town’s Family Counselling Centre, set up by UNICEF in 2011 with the local authorities. The Centre was established to ensure the early detection and prevention of issues such as the separation of children from their families, early marriages and school dropouts. In 2015, Fulya joined the Centre as a student volunteer and has since been appointed as a social work assistant. She is currently in her second year pursuing а social pedagogy degree.

Fulya and her team make their routine house-to-house rounds in Novi pazar to distribute the packages meant for families in need.
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020
Fulya and her team make their routine house-to-house rounds in Novi pazar to distribute the packages meant for families in need.

“The best part is when we hand out children’s books and we can see the glimmer in children’s eyes. I so wish we could stay with them, read together and tell each other stories. These are the best aspects of our job but this is prohibited at present.”

On the day we met Fulya, she and her co-workers from the Family Counselling Centre (transformed into Community Support Centre after the state starts partially subsidizing it) were distributing in-kind assistance packages from the Bulgarian Red Cross to vulnerable families. Due to the physical distancing measures, part of the state of emergency in response to the pandemic, she and her team cannot enter people’s homes, which makes communication exceedingly difficult. But she is determined not to abandon the community. People count on them, she says, mentioning a woman experiencing domestic violence, yet who does not understand that she is a victim; girls abused by their parents; and people with health conditions who have trouble accessing adequate healthcare. “We provide support for pregnant women in the very first months of pregnancy, which enables us to easily determine which of them may be at risk of abandoning their children after birth, and allows us to start working with these women early on to help them keep their babies,” she says, her voice ringing passionate.

At present, Fulya and her co-workers mainly work to ensure that people left with no income as a result of the isolation measures are getting the support they need.

“It is all too easy to merely issue instructions telling people to stay home. But what about those people whose little income comes from going outside and gathering herbs, working on minor repairs or in the field?,” she asks rhetorically.

With a view to providing packages of food, Fulya and her co-workers have drawn up a list of families who are in dire need and have applied for help from the Social Assistance Agency. They are also in the process of looking for other, non-state sources of support for children in the course of distance learning and in making use of their free time. They make sure that warm food reaches the neediest in the community, including people who are bedridden.

Every day, Fulya and her co-workers accompany the police, explaining to people in the community how they can best protect themselves, telling them that they should stay home and maintain good hygiene. The young woman brims with admiration as she explains the daily efforts by local authorities to disinfect the entire town, including the Roma neighbourhood. “We all know we are in this together,” she says. “There’s no divide between the rich and the poor, the Roma and the Bulgarian ethnic groups. The virus does not discriminate and this has become abundantly clear, ” she adds.

The Centre’s partnership with the police has helped Fulya and team to be fully equipped with an understanding of the attitudes and reactions they would encounter in the community.  “Our efforts have paid off because we work hand in hand. We would not be successful, if we worked separately,” she says. Such an understanding informs the work with the local residents, and adds to the rapport she and her colleagues have built with the community.

“There’s no divide between the rich and the poor, the Roma and the Bulgarian ethnic groups. The virus does not discriminate and this has become abundantly clear. ”

Fulya says that the community she has been reaching out to is increasingly aware of COVID-19, its dangers and the precautions needed. People are not gripped by fear, but are informed and adhering to the protective measures.

Staff at the Centre also offer people advice on how to make the best use of their time at home: cooking together, engaging in new family activities and games. “We have tried to help them in adapting their daily life since it is quite stressful for a person to overhaul their way of life. All of a sudden, it turns out that people do not know how to make use of their free time and staying home and having absolutely no money makes them even more upset,” she says.

Fulya and her team make their routine house-to-house rounds in Novi pazar to distribute the packages meant for families in need.
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020

She considers the activities mentioned easy enough to do though. Staff at the Centre find it more taxing to manage difficult cases. Such cases generally have to do with the complete lack of healthcare for families in small settlements in the Novi pazar region. In the past, the Centre could occasionally count on the services of several physicians who would travel using their own transport or transport arranged by the Centre. This has proven impossible under the present circumstances.

“We continue to offer counselling services over the phone. We receive calls from people with whom we have worked before, including young women suffering violence, who share their problems and woes... Yet, it is quite a bit more difficult to help them now. We can only listen to them and comfort them. That, at least, is something,” Fulya says.

This is why she hopes that a way out of the current situation will be found as soon as possible: she wants the community to be in a position to earn at least some money and wishes that her co-workers from the Centre and herself will again be able to help those families and children in dire need. She worries that the state is currently experiencing a period of difficulty and that this will impact centres such as her own. Allocations from the state budget account for only half of the funding needed for the Centre’s running and activity costs, with the rest of the funding comes from UNICEF.

Fulya and her co-workers do not know if they are going to enjoy full state funding for their activities next year and are worried about their and the community’s future. Indeed, people in the communities they support rely on these professionals for all manner of issues. In addition to the main focus on preventing child abandonment, early marriage and school dropout, as well as helping residents fill out all manners of documents, she mentions the team’s involvement in a host of other issues. “We will receive calls because someone’s horse has lost its horseshoe. Or because a man’s wife has run away. We will often phone herb and tobacco collection points and inquire about prices for members of the community.”

”You cannot imagine what the situation would be like, if we could not count on the solid foundation that is the trust we have fostered for years now,” Fulya says. “The community would hardly be aware of what measures exist, or be in a position to adhere to these.”

“Since we are all in the same boat, it is only together that we can pull through,” she adds.