People have been gathering under the thick sweet shade of the grapevine for generations, telling stories and passing on legends. Stories help teach tasks, reinforce principles, create values, and persuade people to modify their thinking and behavior. Storytelling is also one of the most powerful tools that social change leaders can harness to communicate their mission and advance their organization’s goals.
With our “Through the Grapevine” program we aim to provide a forum for storytelling and to enhance knowledge and skills for the writing of high quality stories.


The Time Has Come For Me to Study in Bulgaria

By Oleg Komsalov, Crime Prevention Fund IGA

“I chose to return to Bulgaria because of our ancestry, our history and the verses of our poets. I did it because of the kind-hearted people and the pain in their eyes. I chose Bulgaria for the sake of giving my child the opportunity for an equal start, and for the experienced professionals of our education system.”

Boris Tomanov of Kostandovo is an unusual person. That sentiment is shared by his neighbors in the small Roma community in Rakitovo municipality who never tire of asking him whether he misses the carefree routine of a financially-stable life in Portugal. The 33-year-old calmly replies that his home-coming was the best decision his family ever made. During his five years abroad, he succeeded in achieving every immigrant’s dream: a well-paid and well-respected job, a nice two-storied house and a car. “At the time, however, my daughter Maya was about to start kindergarten,” Boris commences his story. To everyone’s dismay, even his close relatives, Boris came back to Bulgaria in the summer of 2012, bringing his wife Annie and young Maya with him.

“I wanted Maya to attend kindergarten in my home country because I believe that a child’s first years are crucial; they lay the groundwork for a successful outcome in life. Early childhood education is the most powerful tool to overcome inequalities and provide opportunities for children to realize their potential. I could see that my nephews and daughter struggled to fit in, and that we would forever be treated as ‘the foreigners’ over there. Our children would always suffer and be underestimated, different from their peers where we lived in Portugal,” Boris justifies.

Upon returning to their native village of Kostandovo, Boris and Annie opened a small grocery and cafe in their community. Maya began attending the local full-day kindergarten Slaveyche, and now she is a second grader and straight-A pupil at Neofit Rilski primary school in Kostandovo. Her teachers are delighted with her and lavish the girl with praise and support. “Maya has a younger sister and our family is quite eager for her to follow in her sister’s footsteps once she turns three,” says Boris. He anxiously adds, “What disturbs me the most is that poverty and cultural differences seem to be a major reason for many of the local children to remain uneducated. Children from poor families are sometimes unable to attend even primary school, just because their parents cannot afford to buy them textbooks or decent clothes. There are a lot of bright kids around here who are not in kindergarten or school due to reasons beyond their control. Their parents have no income, they are illiterate and ignorant. They don’t understand the benefits of early education and in this way doom their kids to ignorance, too. In many communities abroad where I’ve worked, people are aware of the importance of education. And that has prompted them to start fundraising and building their own schools so that their children may learn to read and write.”

Annie also shares her experience in Portugal, saying, “I applied for a job there and the first thing they asked me was about my education.” She is now attending evening classes in order to get her high school diploma.

“My father has a university degree and he used to tell us that he’d be willing to slave away at whatever job, as long as my siblings and I received a good education. We both made the decision to come back because we wanted our child to learn our alphabet and besides, now I can afford to spend time with her and help her with her studies. While we were abroad I felt like a robot—I didn’t have time for anything. I want my child to go to school, receive a decent education and have a good profession so that she can build a good life for herself. We have to change our way of thinking: true, we are Roma—but so what? We are human beings just like everyone else. The family environment is crucial and parents should bring up their children to value education and learn responsibility. Several girls from this community graduated from the university in Blagoevgrad. They speak foreign languages and some of them left for England and are quite successful there. I want my children to succeed in life and I would do anything for them to receive a decent education. If need be, I will leave Bulgaria and work abroad again, but I want them to finish their education here. I feel sorry for other kids who live abroad and cannot read nor tell the numbers. After all, money is not the most important thing in life,” Annie concludes with a sigh.

Little Maya shares that she liked living in Portugal, but is now much happier because she is home, among friends and loved ones. She enjoys going to school, she is an excellent pupil and is as good a learner in math as she is in Bulgarian. She does her homework together with her mother. “I want to become a hairdresser, but that is a ways away—when I grow up, my dreams might change,” the second grader wisely asserts.

“Every person is entitled to an education and the opportunity to attend school is a must; education lays the groundwork for everything needed to change one’s life for the better,” nods Boris affirmatively, adding that education is important not only for the future life of each child, but also for society as a whole. “Educating our children today means that the country where they live will be able to better reach its potential tomorrow because its citizens will be knowledgeable, capable and competitive on the job market. I always try to help poor children in our community when they need textbooks and other learning aids. I wholeheartedly support the work that the Crime Prevention Fund-IGA does on the Springboard for School Readiness project, and I think that we should be asking ourselves what the state can do to support poor children or orphans who cannot afford to go to kindergarten or attend school. It seems to me that they are doomed to become thieves and beggars, and therefore become a burden on society. Ours is a small town and everyone in our community knows why I came back to Bulgaria; a lot of people demonstrate their support for me, while others just can’t grasp my decision. But if I had to face this dilemma all over again, I would do the same thing without any regrets. This is not a sacrifice on my part; it is as an investment in the future”, says Maya’s father confidently.

The story of Boris Tomanov’s family both touched and inspired me, even though I have many years of experience in the NGO sector—trust me, I’ve seen my fair share of strange things! Their story showed me that a person is always entitled to choose how to bring up their children to think, learn and develop socially, emotionally and morally.

Parents are their children’s first and lifelong teachers. They play an extraordinary role in the educational process. Family learning is a powerful tool for reaching out to some of the most vulnerable societal groups. It has the potential to change attitudes towards education and help develop strong local communities that are integrated into the learning process. However, before that happens, people need to realize the importance of active parental participation in their children’s education and lives as a whole.

Why don’t we consider the alternative: the exclusion of parents from the educational process, a severed connection between school and family, the lack of dialogue with families on important matters concerning their children’s development, and ineffective steps toward mutually-beneficial solutions have all led to the numerous negative consequences we have seen in recent years. Young school drop-outs fall victim to drug and other substance dependences or even human trafficking; teenagers behave aggressively, committing acts of violence and other crimes; children are left in social homes… the list goes on and on and does not make for a pleasant read.

A lot of these problems can be dealt with if families receive adequate support to bring up and educate their children, and if they are included as partners in the educational process. It would be sufficient for school authorities to develop policies aimed at parental inclusion, while teachers seek out and find ways to actively communicate with and engage them in school life. Parents should also realize that they are indispensable in the education of their children and insist on taking a more influential role, instead of leaving all decisions and responsibility to the respective kindergarten or school. When such practices become the norm locally, state policies will undoubtedly respond to the need for support.