The present seems to be his, but for a few long seconds, the little boy looks unsure about whether the brightly wrapped box that he is clutching is really his to take away or not. Then an adult voice rings out, “It’s yours – go”, and with a half-smile the lad turns and forces his way back into the crowd of children and adults that are pressing around the modest covered porch in the middle of this Roma community, from which Christmas presents are being distributed. A grubby, dishevelled child appears, responding to a name called out by the same voice. Another present is proffered, but this time there is no hesitation, little hands eagerly grasping the gift, and a smile is readily pointed toward the camera quietly clicking away in the corner.
The young man could be aged anywhere between 18 and 35, it’s hard to be certain. It’s often the way with people with severe disabilities who have spent their whole lives in institutions. What is certain is that Ivan’s* grip is very strong. Despite his misshapen and twisted limbs, he holds onto my hand in a way which suggests I might be here a while yet. Another certainty is that he is very happy to see us – he has not stopped grinning since we arrived with Christmas boxes for him and the other dozen or so young people that live in this purpose-built house at the edge of town. His friends are deep into explorations of their presents. Chocolate and sweets are soon discovered – and enjoyed very much. Hats are tried out for size and looks. Looking on, it’s good to reflect that life for young people like these is immeasurably better that it was a decade a so ago, when Bulgaria was just starting to change the way it looked after its most vulnerable children. Not for them the cold, dark and dangerous orphanages of those days…
But now we’re in NW Bulgaria, a region so poor that whole villages lie nearly abandoned as folk leave to find work in the cities, or other countries, far from home and relatives. We haven’t been to this orphanage before, in fact, we’ve never even heard of it. Most of these places have been shut. On the outside, this looks very like an old-style orphanage to me. On the inside it feels like going back fifteen years. This place is cold and dark. Until two years ago it was dangerous too. A local scandal ensued when evidence came to light of staff physically abusing the children here. The director tried to cover it up. In the old days, he would have succeeded. The stories of corruption, organised abuse and cover-ups in Bulgarian orphanages during the communist era and the 90’s are distressing, and whilst there are still incidents like the one that took place here, they are thankfully nothing like as common as they were. We give out some Christmas boxes to more smiles (although the teenagers try to be cool about it, of course). The new director tells us that since the scandal, the organisations that were supporting the kids here pulled out, and haven’t returned, despite all the changes that have been made. We make arrangements with one boy, nearly 18, to come back and see him. If he wants it, there’s a place for him in our House of Opportunity Programme. He’ll need somewhere to go soon – there’ll be no bed for him here after his next birthday.
The activity can best be described as “controlled chaos”. Volunteers bustle back and forth, carrying donated Christmas presents to be checked, or that have been checked, or unloading the vans that have just arrived full of even more presents, put together by families in Peterborough, or maybe Harrow, Swindon or Dorchester. Nearly 10,000 Christmas boxes will come through the small sorting depot in Salisbury during November. Each one gets a check-over before being packed and made ready for its journey to Southeast Europe. Many of these wonderful volunteers here have helped out before. They keep coming back because they love the idea of being able to do something practical in the UK to help people in another country. There are some new volunteers for this year too. We’ll see many of them again next year. It can get you a bit like that.
Imagine for a moment… “What about these?”, Mum suggests, as she looks up and down the rows of woolly gloves in the shop. Her children point to the pair they like. Happily, the price is acceptable, so into the basket it goes. “That’s the list then. Let’s pay and go see if Dad has managed to get that empty shoebox from the shoe shop”. A couple more Christmases and the children will have probably grown out of the enjoyment of “shopping the shoebox”, as they call it. This year it’s still an all-family activity though, and it’s great to have something like this to do together. It may not be quite the same once her kids have grown, but she’ll continue to make a Christmas box every year. Especially when she thinks back to how she received that present all those years ago, in the orphanage where she grew up. It’s a lifetime and another country ago now. And she’s determined it’s something her children will never have to go through.
A huge thank you to everyone who made a Christmas box, gave their time at our sorting depot, drove a collection van, loaded a truck or helped to distribute the presents. You made the annual Christmas Box Appeal a great success. Again.
Click here to see videos of your Christmas boxes being distributed, or go to YouTube and search “FSCI Christmas 2019”.