In a big, airy room in the same orphanage where Stoyan lives, I meet Ivanka. She has Down’s syndrome and I guess she is about three years old. She toddles towards me, resplendent in short, blue and red checked dungarees, a thick mop of dark brown hair flopping on her forehead.
I reach down and pick her up. Unlike Stoyan, she is stiff and arches away from me. I remember my friends, who visit this orphanage regularly, telling me that many of the children do not understand how to be cuddled.
I sit down and gently rub her back. She yanks at my earrings. Then, without warning, a low keening sound issues from the back of her throat. I start to burble in her ear, the sort of nonsense I used to tell my own children when they were distressed – chit chat, sing song, silly little sounds repeated over and over again.
The thought hits me like a punch in the stomach. Ivanka has never known what it is to have a constant, reliable voice in her life, the familiar murmuring of mother or father or both, a hundred times a day, every day of the year.
Never before have I paid any thought to the way we provide background noise for our children. How everything they do is accompanied by the reassuring sounds of a voice they have heard since they were in the womb. How even before they can understand speech we are telling them I love you, you are special, I am here for you.
In the orphanages, I also saw many children whose limbs were growing at strange, painful angles because they had not received the physiotherapy and other treatments they needed when they were born. When I think about Ivanka, I wonder how a child’s personality might also distort if she does not receive that basic, early affirmation.
Ivanka is one of thousands of children with disabilities who have been abandoned in Bulgarian orphanages. In the Communist years, disabled people were viewed as shameful. Orphanages were built miles outside centres of population and the children hidden away for fear that the people might suspect the authorities were unable to produce a perfect society. A woman giving birth to a disabled baby was told to give it up: the state would care for it better than she could, said the doctors.
I think of these abandoned children as the children of silence. Perhaps they themselves are silent because they have long since given up on trying to communicate with others. Or they are like Ivanka, surrounded only by meaningless, impersonal noise from people who are stretched to the limit, an ever changing whirl of carers rushing to try and do the basics for an impossible number of charges.
They are also children about whom the world has been silent for far too long. In 2007 the BBC screened Kate Blewett’s documentary about the horrendous conditions in an orphanage at Mogilino. You can view it here but be warned that the content is extremely distressing. As a result of the film, that orphanage was closed.
Additionally, since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU four years ago, a policy of deinstitutionalisation has been introduced. But there are still too few people speaking up for these youngsters.
One exception is the Cedar Foundation. Cedar is where I found hope in Bulgaria. It is where I had the humbling experience of meeting people who are not afraid to dream big dreams and give their lives to righting the injustices meted on children like Stoyan and Ivanka. More of that next time.