What happens when you’re seven years old and your world collapses around you? You look for something or someone safe to go to. Maybe that something can take the humblest of forms…
During the summer a group of Bulgarian, American and British volunteers ran a camp for Roma children from three different communities in Northeast Bulgaria. The camps are run by Hope Restored Bulgaria (HRBG), one of FSCI’s in-country partners. HRBG distribute FSCI Christmas boxes throughout the area every December – and they tell us that these small presents can have a huge impact of the lives of the children who receive them.
One such little girl, Elena*, had very erratic behaviour at the camp; one minute she’d be joining in happily, the next she’d be shouting and aggressive. On the first day, one of the volunteers, Su, was asked to walk with Elena to the playground because the group leader thought she might run off. Elena bit Su because she was holding her hand to stop her running in the road. As the week progressed it became obvious that Elena was at her most aggressive and uncooperative when all the children were together, for instance, at the end of the day when they were waiting for the buses to take them home. In particular there seemed to be a lot of aggravation between her and three teenage girls whenever she was seen to be joining in with the activities enthusiastically.
Elena didn’t seem to want to form bonds with the team or her peers and would move away or stop joining in if anybody showed interest in what she was doing. On day three, Turi, the group leader, discovered that Su had been involved with the Christmas Box Appeal in the UK and asked her to give out some toothbrushes and underwear that had come as extras from last year’s shoebox delivery (and to give the children a toothbrushing lesson). After Turi explained to the children that Su had helped with the shoebox presents in the UK, Elena suddenly decided Su was safe to befriend and began to let her guard down, wanting to hold hands, asking her name and laughing at her reflection in Su’s mirrored sunglasses.
Turi explained what was going on in this little girl’s home life that had caused so much tension during camp. Until a few months before, Elena and her younger sister had been living in a stable family in a local Roma community. Then her dad had announced he was divorcing her mum and kicked them out of the family home and their community. Her mum was left with two little girls to raise without support. Having been raised in an isolated environment, Elena’s mum doesn’t speak Bulgarian and can’t read or write. With no husband to protect her and no home, this woman had been forced to leave her two children with her mother while she went to Varna to work as a prostitute, which was the only means of making money left to her because of her lack of language skills and basic education. The day their dad announced the divorce Elena had been given just enough time to pack her few belongings into the wrapped shoebox that she had treasured since receiving it last Christmas and take it with her to her grandmother’s. The difficulty at camp was caused by the older girls mocking her whenever she displayed any enthusiasm for the activities – that she would never find a husband and would end up a prostitute just like her mum.
No wonder Su seemed safer once she was identified with the receipt of Elena’s most treasured possession; that shoebox represented the only gift she had ever received that was just for her and came with no strings attached, just love.
Making a Christmas box is easy, and even though it seems such a simple, small thing, to children like Elena a present like this can mean the world.
Want to make a Christmas box? This way…