Together Ahead: Radostina Chaprazova, Arete Foundation – Bulgaria

Radostina Chaprazova

We partnered with Bulgarian lifestyle magazine EVA to present female leaders from the Bulgarian nonprofit and public sectors. The result was EVA’s Optimistic Issue: 15 Stories of Success. This is one of the featured stories, republished with permission.

Text: Kalina Konstantinova
Photos: Kostadin Krastev-Koko and personal archive
Translation from Bulgarian: Lika Pishtalova

Radostina Chaprazova graduated in political science and mass communications from the American University in Bulgaria. She was an intern at the European Commission, at the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. She worked as an expert in the project management department at the European Competitiveness Funds Directorate of the Bulgarian Ministry of Economy and Energy. Previously, she worked for the Open Society Institute in sofia. In 2022, she chaired the board of the Bulgarian-American fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange, with her six-year term as a board member expiring in December 2023.

Radostina has over 20 years of experience in the civil society sector, where she has mobilized resources and engaged in policymaking and advocacy for equal opportunities for vulnerable communities. For ten years now, Radostina has been a member of the Bulgaria team of the Arete Youth Foundation. Arete was founded by volunteers and local development experts. The foundation’s mission is to build sustainable and mutually supportive social networks and role models in the Roma community for educational, professional, and personal achievement.

Ms. Chaprazova, the Arete Foundation was founded by foreigners. Are we unable as a society to understand the problems of the Roma, to look for solutions, and, above all, to live together? Do we need an outside perspective to be able to rationally analyze the situation?

Arete Youth Foundation – Bulgaria was established by two Americans, former Peace Corps volunteers. During their stay in Bulgaria, they had the opportunity to work in Roma communities, and they saw the need for providing additional educational opportunities to Roma and other disadvantaged groups in Bulgaria.

Although an outside view can be useful in any sphere, if the picture has not been clearly outlined, if the parameters have not been set, and there are no boundaries, it will remain just a glimpse into empty space. In our case, what these two Americans did had a sobering effect and made many people think about the problems in our society and the ways in which they could be solved. The solution appears simple: we need to focus the attention of the Roma community on education. Unfortunately, over time, it turned out that the problems were of a different nature, they were addressed far too late and in an inefficient manner. Thus, we inherited a backlog of problems.

Despite the challenges, understanding the problems of the Roma and trying to find the right solutions while living together with them should not be so difficult.

We should keep our minds open and build mutual understanding as we engage in dialogue and embrace diversity as an asset. Creating a space of mutual respect and cooperation is key to achieving harmonious relations among the different communities in a society.

What are the greatest challenges in your work?

The Roma can bring value to the society of any country they live in. Yet, they represent the most vulnerable and disadvantaged ethnic community and face multiple challenges in their daily lives. The majority of Roma still live in extreme poverty, social exclusion, and discrimination, which often entails limited access to quality education, jobs, and services, low-income levels, substandard housing, poor health, and shorter life expectancy.

The current situation of young Roma in Bulgaria is rife with challenges that call for urgent actions aimed at guaranteeing equal opportunities and access to education, employment, and participation in all spheres of socioeconomic life. Due to their low economic status and the widening social disparities, many young people of Roma origin lack self-esteem and rarely seek opportunities because of the stigma imposed on them. In many cases, due to a lack of support, access to information, and opportunities, they cannot meet the challenges of modern society as they drop out of school and get trapped in the vicious circle of long-term unemployment and inactivity.

Financial constraints and the fluctuating access to resources are among the challenges when it comes to implementing sustainable long-term programs to support Roma youth.

You are involved in many initiatives and help many young people. Each of your programs has a role to play in creating a robust network. Is there a program that stands out in terms of impact?

Each of the foundation’s programs and initiatives has been designed in response to the needs of the young people we work with. Quite a few of these programs and initiatives are trailblazers in Bulgaria. A lot of thought, time, and effort has been invested in each of them to ensure their long-term positive effect. Therefore, it is difficult to single out one of them. Nonetheless, Arete’s camps and mentoring programs remain our trademark. Our national Together Forward Camps and Camps for Girls are unique in terms of the way through which they continue to inspire and support Roma girls and boys from all over Bulgaria in their pursuit of high academic achievements. These camps promote self-knowledge and self-respect through the values, culture, and traditions of the Roma community; they help the participants develop their social and leadership skills, build a culture of mutual aid and volunteerism, find ways to overcome gender inequality, discrimination, and hate speech. So far, 1,000 young people have participated in the camps; 99.7% of them continue their education and graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 14.8%. What is more, 63% of camp graduates become university students, compared to the national average of 1.16%.

We strongly believe that mentorship plays a critical role in personal and professional growth. Since 2013, academic mentorship has been a key program of the Foundation, and, over the years, it has proven to be outstandingly relevant and successful. The program provided mentoring support by faculty members, integrating 539 undergraduates of Roma origin into the new academic environment and thus increasing their chances of academic excellence. On average, about 98% of students in the academic mentoring program continue their education and earn a degree.

We were the first to raise funds for academic scholarships for students and twelfth graders through charity concerts. With the funds raised so far this year, we will be able to support at least 20 smart, talented, and motivated young people of Roma origin.

An Arete fundraising concert

Are there any stories of young people you have supported over the years that have made quite an impression on you?

There are many inspiring success stories featuring young people. Let me share the story of Hristo Georgiev, a first-year student majoring in Fine Art Teaching at Neofit Rilski Southwestern University. Hristo is a talented artist. When we first met him two years ago, he was considering a teaching major so that he could teach art. Hristo won many prizes from school drawing competitions. He also won Arete – Be the Change in the 21st Century, a competition launched by our foundation. Hristo was a promising young man who needed support and motivation to continue his studies.

The story of Alexandra Antonova from Provadia is similar. We met her for the first time in 2019 at the Forward Together Camp. After taking part in the camp, Alexandra finished secondary school, applied to Shumen University, and is currently graduating with a degree in Bulgarian Studies and Media. She always said that her participation in the camp, where she met other ambitious boys and girls, was a key motivation. Many young people who took part in the camps earned university degrees and are currently employed in the fields they were educated in. We have a young woman with a PhD degree, currently a deputy school principal, as well as many teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives, finance experts, economists, etc. This year alone, we have 27 young people who were admitted to universities.

How did your partnership with the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) come about? What initiatives are you working on together?

Our partnership with ABF started in 2010. We launched a program called Opportunities for Roma Leadership, Education, and Success, which has been running nationwide for 13 years and has been supported by ABF and the Trust for Social Achievement. Thanks to this support, the Arete Youth Foundation was able to develop and showcase a new model of working with Roma youth in Bulgaria outside the formal education system. We support high school students through all stages of their academic and career development, helping them improve their social skills, boost their academic aspirations, reduce the consequences of social stigma, increase their sense of belonging, develop more ambitious and better focused professional goals, enhance their knowledge of national and European civil and political development, etc. Thus, we have helped strengthen their role as drivers of public and social change both locally and nationally.

Arete scholars at the America University in Bulgaria

To date, Arete Youth Foundation has reached more than 4,500 Roma youths across the country. As a result of our joint efforts, our beneficiaries have become lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, teachers, social workers, entrepreneurs, leaders of civic organizations, etc. The foundation is privileged to partner with many of these accomplished professionals.

What are your dreams?

For ten years now, the foundation’s team and I have been constantly learning, growing, and achieving successes together with the young people we work for. Every day brings us hope that the hundreds of young people we motivate, train, support, mentor, and mobilize through our programs will become tomorrow’s leaders, role models, and trained professionals who will responsibly serve their communities and society.

What is your source of inspiration and optimism?

My source of inspiration and optimism is my personal cause and commitment to give back the support I’ve received to become the person I am today. I see myself in each of the girls and boys I work with. I understand their concerns, their reticence in speaking up about their dreams, their desire to succeed and bid goodbye to the status quo. There is no greater reward than helping young people succeed and become proud of themselves. It is inspiring to see how timid and insecure boys and girls become drivers of change, ready to stand by you and help make the impossible happen. Arete is a family to all those young people!

Sign Up Here

Never miss a story from ABF.

Sign Up Here

Never miss a story from ABF.