beyond the comfort zone

So I’ve been right outside my comfort zone this week and I have loved it. I’m back in Bulgaria, visiting dear friends from way back who are doing astonishing work to bring about deinstitutionalisation of the orphanages here. (You can read about my previous visit here and here.)

This is what it looks like outside.

Beautiful, isn’t it? The only problem is that inside the central heating has broken down. Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a complete wimp about being cold. I have even been known to take a hot water bottle to bed in May. If you had told me the situation before I left I honestly might have wondered if I could cope. I can now see how pathetic that was and how much very good stuff I would have missed if I had chickened out. And frankly, I may be wearing a fleece and a woolly hat in bed but I am managing to have a perfectly good sleep every night!

This is a small and rather silly example but it did make me wonder how much else might be passing me by because of rigid ideas about what I need in order to function – and how many opportunities I might be missing to do something useful. My friends have been telling me about their early days out here and thoroughly humbling me. I’ll save you the horror stories of giving birth in a provincial Bulgarian hospital, but as another example, they moved into an unfinished house with a one-year-old child and all slept together on the floor while they gradually decorated it and installed a kitchen.

It is quite horrifying to think that if they had refused the challenge of moving well outside their comfort zone, many abandoned children here could still be incarcerated in a dilapidated, understaffed orphanage instead of settled in the beautiful small group homes that their charity has set up

children of silence 2

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.

Exterior of orphanage, central Bulgaria

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.

children of silence 1

I went to Bulgaria to look at the work of the Cedar Foundation,a charity run by some good friends of ours who have a passion to see abandoned children moved out of orphanages and into high quality, community-based care. As part of my trip I got the chance to look around a couple of orphanages. This is the first of two posts about some of the children I met.

The orphanage is a bit tatty outside but the inside is clean and bright with freshly painted walls. A lot of overseas donors have invested here and it shows. There is equipment to help some of the disabled children and the grounds are reasonably well maintained.

Nevertheless, there is something that bothers me. As we walk through the rooms, I try to put my finger on what it is. Despite the colourful furnishings and the jolly pictures on the walls, something is very wrong.

It is only when we reach the babies’ dormitory that it hits me. Eight babies, all awake, lie silently in their cots. I have a sudden flashback to when my own children were that young. I know only too well that a wakeful baby in a cot might burble for a bit if you are lucky, but sooner or later that child is going to yell to be picked up.

There can only be one explanation for the silence of these babies, and that is that they have long since stopped expecting anyone to respond to them.

I walk over to a gleaming white cot where a little boy of about 10 months is lying quietly on his side. I crouch down and smile through the bars. His limpid brown eyes barely flicker. Slowly I push my hand towards him and stroke his finger. Suddenly his expression quickens and he sits up and looks at me. Then his face cracks open into a miraculous smile. I notice his two top teeth are just pushing through the gum.

I reach down and pick him up; he snuggles into me. The director of the orphanage tells me his name is Stoyan*. He arrived aged three months and weighing only five kilos. I bury my face in his wispy brown hair and inhale the delectable smell of baby. He is plump now and his fat fist grips my little finger.

The group I am with is moving on. Reluctantly I turn to put him back in the cot. As I prise open his hand to release my finger, his face crumples.

Now I am leaving the room and it is no longer silent. Stoyan is wailing, a high, heart-rending cry of distress. And I, like every other adult he has ever known, ignore it and walk out of the door.

For the rest of my stay in Bulgaria, I am haunted by the memory of Stoyan, and of the other children in that room. The twins who were abandoned by a woman who already had six children. The little girl with a kidney problem who was going to have her photograph taken for an adoption magazine. ‘Wish her luck,’ said the carers, cheerfully.

I am ashamed to remember how my children’s yells used to irritate me. On the flight home, a girl in the seat behind me cries on and off for the entire three-hour journey. I am no longer annoyed. I have understood something about crying children – that their distress is a sign that they are healthy and that they expect, rightly, that when they are upset, someone will respond to them.

*names have been changed