Feature Stories

Aiding Bulgaria’s Families in Crisis

“I am happy JDC and Shalom show us that we are not forgotten ... This is the only thing that makes us feel secure,” says Mario, whose family has been hard-hit in Bulgaria’s economic crisis.
“I am happy JDC and Shalom show us that we are not forgotten ... This is the only thing that makes us feel secure,” says Mario, whose family has been hard-hit in Bulgaria’s economic crisis.

As she was turning 16 this year, Jackey wished she could look forward to a bright future full of possibilities. But coming of age during Bulgaria’s economic decline has left her feeling far less certain about her opportunities.

That’s because Jackey’s family is under extreme economic strain and is among thousands of people for whom JDC has become a lifeline in recent months.

In the span of Jackey’s adolescence, Bulgaria has become the poorest country in the European Union. One quarter of households live under the poverty line—a trend that is growing at a worrying pace. As a result of the global financial downturn, the national debt crisis, and the austerity measures introduced by the government, Bulgaria’s unemployment rates and prices for goods have steadily skyrocketed even as social services and benefits have been drastically reduced. Pensions and salaries have been frozen, there are massive lay-offs, and bankruptcy is becoming commonplace.

Many of the hardest hit people are those in the middle strata—family’s like Jackey’s—who’ve lost their jobs and are unable to make ends meet, to support their older family members and their children.

Jackey’s father, Mario is one such case. For years Mario owned a successful business that generated a respectable income. But when the economic crisis hit Bulgaria two years ago, his company went bankrupt. Unable to find another job, Mario went to the UK and took work in construction in order to send money back to the family.

Soon after, though, Jackey’s mom got a severe lung disease and he had to return home to help look after her. Her health condition remains grave and she is in need of constant care. Jackey worries about her mom constantly.

Mario’s parents live right above them, and require a lot of support as well. Mario’s father suffers from severe health issues with multiple complications, which forced Mario's mother to quit her job in order to take care of her husband.

Though he is anxious to support his family, Mario has not been able to find a job. The Nardeya family’s monthly income amounts to $140—not even enough to cover their utility costs of $160 per month.

“We have reached the point where we have no hope and no one dares think about the future,” Mario says. “I am happy JDC and Shalom show us that we are not forgotten and our lives are not left to chance or fate. This is the only thing that makes us feel secure.”

Of the 7,000 Jews living in Bulgaria, some 4,500 reside in the country’s capital, Sofia. Nearly 25% of this community is now on JDC’s welfare client list, and requests for assistance keep coming in. JDC’s main partner in Bulgaria, the Jewish community umbrella organization Shalom has seen the welfare caseload increase 150% over the past two years.

As a result, JDC has expanded its support to the Jewish community of Bulgaria, helping Shalom create a welfare infrastructure that can integrate a growing number of people into its caseload, especially “new poor” clients like the Nardeya family.

In addition to vital assistance like food vouchers, medicine, and covering utility costs, JDC is also providing psychological consultation and job training to community members who’ve been deeply impacted by the crisis. As part of his ongoing job search, Mario has attended both of the entrepreneurship seminars that were held for community members at Shalom.

In addition, the Nardeyas receive help paying for their heating and water bills, as well as covering the medical costs of Jackey’s grandfather’s treatments. Through JDC’s Children in Need program, Jackey receives support for school supplies, winter clothes, and medicines. JDC and Shalom provide hundreds of students like Jackey with tuition subsidies, school materials, and transportation vouchers to ensure their education continues uninterrupted.

Because Jackey graduated from the local Jewish school she is eager to continue her participation in Jewish life. She is among the large number of young people who now benefit from scholarships to participate in Jewish camps, holiday activities, and JCC events. In exchange, Jackey eagerly gives back, volunteering excitedly at events like the community-wide Purim celebration.

Despite the difficult situation, Jackey and the family remain hopeful that things will improve, and their positive attitude helps them carry on.

"Many people come to us desperately seeking support to buy food and medicine, and to pay their utility bills [fearful that otherwise the government will cut their electricity],” explains Julia Dandalova, JDC Country Director for Bulgaria. Energy costs in Bulgaria have grown by up to 100% and there are many families like the Nardeyevas for whom the utility bills alone exceed their entire monthly income.

“In these days of uncertainty the only secure thing we know is that JDC will help the community get through this,” says Julia. “I often say, ‘Every Jew is responsible for one another,’ but now more than ever I feel the very heavy responsibility of JDC being the only option for so many people.”

Tags for this story: Families

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