My volunteering experience in Bulgaria

I remember how nervous and scared I was the days before coming to Bulgaria, but deep down I knew it was something that I wanted, and I needed to do. Bulgaria is not a famous destination in Spain so it sounded mysterious and attractive at the same time -don’t forget to visit it if you have the chance.

The 5th of February -my first day there- was complicated: it had been a very long trip, and the weather was horrible when I arrived in Sofia -it was snowing, and everything was frozen. I called my parents from the airport to tell them that everything was ok and complain about the weather. After that, I went to the bus station to take a bus to Blagoevgrad (The city where my project takes place). In Sofia underground I started to see people with masks; “they are crazy”, I thought, I could never imagine that the Coronavirus situation would get so crazy. Once at the bus station, a man scammed me: he pretended he was working in the bus station information center, he wore an accreditation and looked like a real worker at the bus station. He helped me find my bus, but in the end, he asked me for money, and he followed me until I gave him 5 Lev (2.5€). “This is part of the informal learning of the European Solidarity Corps (ESC)”, I thought.

During my bus trip from Sofia to Blagoevgrad, I started to feel the cultural shock, I felt a little bit scared and I asked myself: “What I am doing here?”. When I arrived in Blagoevgrad it was snowing stronger than in Sofia and it was also darker. The first volunteer I met was Adam. At first, I struggled to understand his Irish accent, it was very complicated for me, but I got used to it with time. One hour later, the French and Italian volunteers arrived, Enorah and Martyna, and all of us started talking about our long journey. It was the first time I shared an apartment and a room, and I was not sure that living together would be easy. Fortunately, I was lucky with my flatmates and we get along with each other. Besides, we also met another three volunteers: Konul, Yaroslava and Irakli from Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Georgia. Their program is longer than ours, six months instead of two.

On the weekends, we traveled to Sofia, Plovdiv and also to North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go to Greece and other Bulgarian cities because of Coronavirus. One of the best things about ESC is the chance of traveling in your free days and visiting countries and cities that are might not be as popular but are actually very interesting. Besides learning about their history, traditions, and food, you also get to meet local people that make you live a unique experience.

As for Blagoevgrad, the first impressions may not be good. It is a small city (circa 75.000 inhabitants), however, it has more life than you can imagine. There are two universities, and one of them is an important destination for international students. Therefore, you can meet a lot of people participating in the Erasmus+ studies program. There are several restaurants, clubs, and events for young people too. One of the things that catch your eye when you visit Blagoevgrad is the number of homeless dogs that there are around the city and follow you everywhere. If you like hiking there is a good route to The Cross, a Christian cross on top of a mountain that is nearby. If you love running there is a path to the nice Bachinovo park, although you need to be careful because at night some homeless dogs can follow you in a very aggressive way. I am staying 2 months in Blagoevgrad but some of the longer-term volunteers may feel the city ends up being too small. However, you can always go for some weekend to Sofia, which is not far at all-around 1 hour and 40 minutes away.

We worked in the office for 7 hours a day from Monday to Friday. Our project is called ESCAPE (European Solidarity Corps Active Participation and Education), and the aim of the project is to promote international mobility programs among Bulgarian youth, although it is also possible to work in other outdoor activities that can benefit the community. Each person must develop their own personal project, it has to be something that has a positive impact on society.

Martyna and I decided to develop more the concept and the idea of promoting mobility and create specific actions rather than posting projects in social networks all day. Most people don’t know about these opportunities funded by the EU and we thought that it was necessary to have direct contact with the target group. Therefore, we created a bilingual survey in English and Bulgarian to know more about the motivations and problems that Bulgarian Youth face when they think about joining an international mobility program so that we could adapt the material and the content of the meetings to the doubts of the students. We created informational material and posters for promotion, and we planned to put some informative stands in universities and schools, and have some meetings with students in classes, but Coronavirus arrived at our lives and everything changed.

Every week we organize a Chat Club, which is an event that takes place on Thursdays in a local coffee, and each week we talk about different topics. Chat Clubs had previously been about different cultures and customs of the different volunteers’ nations, but we decided to change the Chat Club’s format and turned into some kind of debate. We made it more interactive and we decided to talk about difficult or taboo topics in Bulgaria such as mental health, drugs, education, immigration and LGTBI rights among others. Unfortunately, we couldn’t organize all of them because of Coronavirus.

Now I am writing this article from our home, we are in quarantine and we can’t go out of the house except for doing some shopping in the supermarket. In Bulgaria, the Coronavirus situation is not bad at all (at this very moment) if you compare it to the rest of the European countries. We are calm but uncertain of what is going to happen in the next days. In 20 days I have to come back to Spain and I don’t know if my flight is going to be canceled, if Sofia airport is going to be closed, or if I am going to be able to leave Madrid and arrive home. One of the volunteers was called by his embassy to leave and the flight of another one has been canceled; uncertainty is the word to describe the current atmosphere. At the moment, we are writing some articles about different topics and we will post them on social media. Every day we have Skype meetings in which we talk about the tasks we are going to do during the day.

I don’t know how long the situation is going to be stuck for, but, in any case, I highly recommend you join the European Solidarity Corps. There are many projects across all Europe, all of which are posted in the European Commission Youth Portal and in some Facebook groups, they are divided into different categories such as entrepreneurship, social challenges, education, art, or citizen and democratic participation among others. The accommodation, transport, and food costs are funded by the European Union: money cannot be a barrier to participation.

At the end of the mobility, you will receive a Youthpass, which is a certificate from the European Commission that certifies your informal learning and the development of competencies such as communication in foreign languages, digital skills, social and civic competences, cultural awareness, sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, or learning to learn.