Feature Stories

For Family at Tipping Point, A Safety Net—and Hope

“At this moment, the help the community gives me is my only hope,” says Mihaela, whose family has been particularly hard-hit by Bulgaria’s steep economic decline.
“At this moment, the help the community gives me is my only hope,” says Mihaela, whose family has been particularly hard-hit by Bulgaria’s steep economic decline.

For the past two years, the Minevas’ downward spiral has mirrored Bulgaria’s economic decline—and now both have reached a critical tipping point.

Mihaela, 40, proud mom of 15-year-old Monica, never imagined her family would plunge into poverty. In 2010, Mihaela’s husband lost his construction business and abandoned the family. The same year, her father lost his small grocery shop and suffered a heart attack.

Within months, the family was evicted from their apartment and moved into an unfinished flat in a poor Sofia neighborhood, where the grandparents’ $200 monthly pension barely covers the rent.

Mihaela and her elderly parents share one room; Monica sleeps in the other. When the JDC social worker visited, she found their water, heat, and lights turned off because of $2,500 in unpaid bills.

The Minevas’ experience is echoed by hundreds of Bulgarian Jewish families. Living in a country with the lowest incomes in the EU, soaring unemployment, and drastic price spikes, nearly two-thirds of Bulgarians report difficulties covering the most basic needs, including food and health care.

These formerly self-sufficient families have joined the ranks of the “new poor,” burdened by declining wages, forced unpaid “vacations,” and oppressive mortgages. Jewish families in Bulgaria are increasingly turning to their community’s welfare system for assistance.

“At this moment, the help the community gives me is my only hope,” Mihaela says through tears. Formerly a store manager, she’s gone through several cycles of job loss and was recently retrained by JDC’s Ariel Job Center as a caregiver for elderly Holocaust survivors.

JDC and Shalom, its main partner in Bulgaria, help meet the Minevas’ needs: a meals-on-wheels program ensures at least one hot meal per day and utility subsidies keep their heat and lights on.

Monica, attending the Lauder Hebrew School, gets help to cope with the hard times and is being tutored by a Jewish university student mentor.

Now, she’s more involved in Jewish Community Center (JCC) programs and the youth group, and she attended Jewish camp for the first time.

In nearby Greece, too, Jewish families and community institutions have been struggling to stay afloat as the devastating impact of the country’s sovereign debt crisis continues to derail lives.

Rafail, 58, has had to count every euro since closing the family clothing business in Athens for good last year. Unable to afford their mortgage or sell their house, he and his wife were forced to cut spending severely and pull their small children, Lela and Moni, out of Athens’ Jewish Community School. Rafail and Sara are among hundreds of Greek parents making heartbreaking decisions just to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

JDC’s emergency grant and expert intervention enabled the Athens Jewish community to offer rent subsidies, food, and school scholarships to families in need. Lela and Moni are once again attending the community day school.

“Being a small community and living in a country with a different but strong national religion makes it even more important to me that my children understand their identity,” Rafail says. “Now, in my time of need, it gives me a feeling of security to know that I am not alone.”

Tags for this story: Families, Youth / Young Adults

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