March 22, a Sunday, was one of the first truly nice spring days in Bulgaria, with many people tempted to go outside and enjoy it in the company of friends. But the country had declared a state of emergency nine days earlier and instituted strict social distancing measures as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, especially for seasonal workers returning from West European countries.
There were many returnees among the residents of Fakulteta and Filipovtsi, Sofia’s largest Roma neighborhoods. That Sunday, however, the vast majority observed the state-mandated measures and stayed at home. Health workers from the Health & Social Development Foundation (HESED) learned about a couple from Fakulteta who had quarantined themselves as soon as they returned from Italy on March 13 and had not yet seen their children or parents; the nice weather didn’t make them go out either. A Roma family paused repairs on their roof so as not to endanger the relatives who had been coming to help them.
In tight-knit communities where seeing parents, siblings, and cousins daily is the norm, a few days into the state of emergency, many people were abstaining from contact with family members, especially with older relatives. Weddings and baptisms that had been planned months in advance were canceled. At food pickup stations, people lined up to receive their food packages wearing masks and keeping the recommended six-foot distance. People kept to the vicinity of their houses and avoided large gatherings, by and large.
There are abundant examples of people doing the responsible thing, and the fact that the few small local outbreaks in Sofia’s two most densely populated neighborhoods were quickly contained and relatively few new cases are registered is largely thanks to the work of organizations like HESED. The foundation’s centers are based in the communities, and its staff and volunteers have actively disseminated information in the neighborhoods, alongside health mediators, since the very beginning of the crisis. They emphasize helping people understand the threat they are facing and the importance of responsible behavior on everyone’s part for curbing the contagion.
A health and education–focused NGO, HESED quickly adapted its work to meet needs laid bare by the crisis. From day one, they distributed information leaflets and used social apps like Viber to communicate social distancing measures to neighborhood residents. HESED staff and volunteers from the community walked the neighborhoods to talk to people directly as well. They worked with influential community members, who explained why measures had to be observed and ensured compliance. To reach as many people as possible and engage the young in particular, HESED staff encouraged residents to share videos of themselves observing the quarantine.
The relationships and trust built over the years paid off: people listened, complied with distancing measures, and shared information about their contacts with the authorities.
“People from the Roma community really made an effort to comply, even though the economic consequences are the worst for them. The situation is critical for a large number of families. They deserve recognition and respect,” says Dr. Elena Kabakchieva, HESED cofounder and chairwoman.
Half of the nearly 60,000 residents of Fakulteta and Filipovtsi live below the poverty line. Today, the percentage of families in dire need is even higher, Dr. Kabakchieva says, because many people lost their jobs in construction, the cleaning industry, and retail as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
“We have to do what we can to help them survive in this situation and continue to comply with the measures that will protect us all,” Dr. Kabakchieva says.
Through their knowledge of Fakulteta and Filipovtsi and their residents, the HESED team quickly compiled a list of the neediest families. They also began soliciting donations and turned their daytime centers into food collection points. Support from the StandingTogether initiative of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and US Embassy in Bulgaria allowed them to provide food and sanitary supplies to 125 families without income for a month. With the help of Sofia Municipality, the Communitas and Tulip Foundations, the Bulgarian Food Bank, the French Institute, the Bulgarian Red Cross, and individual donations such as the students and parents from the Triaditsa neighborhood of Sofia, they reach nearly 1,000 families in the two neighborhoods.
“This is the power of NGOs—to be flexible and to respond to situations quickly,” Dr. Kabakchieva says.
The lines in front of HESED’s centers in Fakulteta and Filipovtsi aren’t just for food, though. Parents line up to receive the materials and learning aids team members prepare so that children and teenagers can keep up with distance learning. Those who have access to electronic devices receive help online, but the vast majority rely on paper resources.
Every day, HESED team members receive photos from proud parents showing their children doing homework with the help of the mother or father. “This was a great surprise and the best proof that we have succeeded in building parents’ capacity to encourage and work with their children. We have all kinds of families, not just educated ones, but education has become an important value for them,” Dr. Kabakchieva says.
HESED’s programs emphasize early learning and self-care as a key to a fulfilling, productive life. In its work, the organization strives for effectiveness and sustainability through family and community involvement. As the HESED website notes, “The first few years of life are the most important ones. This is why we help children and parents in Roma communities build fundamental life skills together. If we begin early, we’ll reach far.”