I know its been quite awhile since my last post in April. The past 4 mos have been a whirlwind of finalizing things, exploring, heartfelt goodbyes and long awaited hellos. In May & June finished my Fulbright research and presented it to the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria as well as the Bulgarian National Commission for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings. I packed up my apartment and attempted to fit a years worth of items into 2 duffel bags and a backpack. I traveled on my own and got to visit friends in Utrecht/Amsterdam, Stockholm, London/Oxford, Madrid/Barcelona, Budapest, and Rimini/Florence.
I was told by the DCM at the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria, that once you get the travel bug its hard to stay in one place for too long. She was definitely right, though not to the extent that I’d want the life of a Foreign Service Officer or diplomat. As soon, as I got back to the U.S. I packed up a bag and took a bus from NY to Boston to see friends and go to college friend’s wedding. I stayed there for a week and a half and then returned back to NY, back to the suburbs where I grew up, and where I haven’t lived in 8 years. I’ve been home for 4 weeks and all I can think about is traveling again, and how there are so many places I didn’t get to see.
I’m too practical and pragmatic to simply grab my backpack and attempt to travel for a year on $2,ooo or less. But, I do know that when I finally find a new job I won’t waste my vacation time on silly “stay-cations” for fear of traveling somewhere on my own. I’ll search for off peak rates to go to Croatia or the Greek Islands. Or maybe I’ll go to Argentina or Alaska. But, for now – I’m stuck in the suburbs of Rockland County without a motor vehicle. So believe me when I say its not easy for a girl who has been completely independent for 8 years to have to depend completely on her parents for transportation, housing and food. I was told, I’d have reverse culture shock when I returned to the States, and I have. But, I think that if I had been plopped back down into my life in Boston I would have been better off. Instead, the hardest transition has been living at home, being dependent, and not knowing what tomorrow might bring. Guess I’ll have to make the most out of my new life “In Transition.”
And now, I have Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ The Suburbs” in my head. Not a bad song to have on repeat.
Since arriving here in Bulgaria I have strayed away from talking about the issue of human trafficking for sexual exploitation on my blog mainly because I do research and speak to people who work with victims on a daily basis. I wanted my blog to be a place where I could share more about cultural differences and comical experiences I’ve had here. That being said, it bothers me that too many people through out the world do not understand the immensity of the problem, mainly because of a lack of awareness in our global community around the issue.
In my time here one of the concepts which has bothered me considerably is the fact that these crimes are defined legally and discussed in governmental and NGO circles only through the use of the term “trafficking.” While trafficking through the illegal transport of humans against their will should be considered a crime, it is what comes after that is the most egregious. Women and children are forced to become slaves and perform sexual acts against their will. Most are often raped repeatedly after being trafficked across international borders or within a country, in what is often considered by traffickers the “breaking in” period. Why is it that most laws define these crimes based on the movement of these women and children, and not on the fact that they are held against their will as slaves for unknown periods of time?
Since joining the European Union in 2007, both Bulgaria and Romania have been on probation for evidence of organized crime within their governments, which is very much a factor in the large number of women & girls trafficked into the sex trade from these countries. Now that both these countries are EU members their borders are more open to travel to other EU countries making it easier for traffickers to move women/girls across Europe. In addition, increased international tourism during the summer to resorts on the Black Sea Coast and in the winter to ski havens like Bansko gives traffickers a reason to bring girls to these areas within the country as well. This makes Bulgaria a triple threat – a country of origin, transit and destination.
In the past few years their have been many awareness campaigns and educational trainings that have targeted at risk groups so that girls no longer fall victim to the “job opportunity abroad ads,”etc. Though now more aware of the threat of traffickers, poor women & girls still see prostitution as the only real option if they want a better life for themselves. So despite having knowledge of the possible scenarios that await them many girls think that this won’t happen to them, or that they will go work as a prostitute for a year or a few months and then come back with lots of money. Girls from Bulgaria are the third highest when it comes to sex workers in the EU according to a BBC report. So, some of these girls go willingly, they are not trafficked — but they are often met with the same outcome as those who are forcibly moved across borders. Girls passports are taken away, they are told that they have a debt to repay to the pimp and that they cannot leave until they have earned a certain amount of money as a prostitute. Of course room and board are also added daily to this climbing debt that must be repaid. This is called “debt bondage” and is most definitely “Sex Slavery” since girls cannot leave and most never earn a dime with all of their money going to the pimp. For these girls, if they escape their situation, they often don’t consider themselves victims and blame themselves for what happened. Even girls who were trafficked against their will convince themselves that they chose this fate and that this was the life they wanted. This is a coping mechanism many victims use to allow them to mentally survive this kind of trauma.
But, the question is: In international court systems can these victims bring their perpetrators to justice? The answer to this question is a complicated one, because the burden of proof is on the victim and many times it is difficult to prove in court who the victims are. If a victim explains that she went willingly to be a prostitute in some countries it might be argued that no trafficking crime occurred. Also, many victims are not provided with the support services they need to be confident enough to face their pimps and/or traffickers in court. In Bulgaria, witnesses are only sometimes able to gain refuge in crisis centers/shelters for a limited time. The Animus Association has the only crisis centre for victims of violence (including domestic violence) in Sofia and they can only accommodate 6-8 people at a time for 1 month. This is hardly enough time to provide the necessary mental and social counseling needed. Some victims fear going home because the trafficker knows where she lives and she is concerned harm will come to her or them — or she is simply ashamed and doesn’t want to face her family. There is just not enough funding to provide the help these women need. Also, if a woman does find the courage to file criminal charges she must testify on multiple occasions in front of the accused. There is no option to testify via video in a separate room, etc. The Bulgarian Government would argue that a majority of victims do in fact file criminal charges against their traffickers/pimps.
But, like familiar statistics associated with sexual crimes like date rape – the majority of victims of sex slavery or trafficking do not report that the crime was committed. So there are many nameless victims out there who went through unimaginable trauma or are currently living it who will never be helped or counted.
I could keep going because I’ve barely grazed the surface of this issue, but I’ll save it for another time.
What are you doing February 14th? I originally thought I’d be playing my usually single girl routine of moping and watching chick flicks while eating lots of Valentine’s Day chocolate. But, then I remembered I’m in Bulgaria – where the greeting card & chocolate industry have not yet taken hold and commercialized St. Valentine. What’s even better is that in Bulgaria the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t recognize February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day, but actually St. Tryphon’s Day! And it doesn’t end there – I learned from a friend that St. Tryphon was a Christian healer and is now recognized as the Eastern Orthodox “Patron Saint of Wine!”
So this February the 14th I will be enjoying a night of wine drinking (and maybe a some chocolate) with a few of my close gal pals here in the BG! Thank you Saint Tryphon for officially making my February!
P.S. To any of you ladies having a hard time getting pregnant St. Tryphon’s Day is also thought to be a date that can cure infertility.
In Bulgaria this time each year a festival referred to a Kukeri is held to ward off evil spirits during the winter season. Its very much like Carnivale which is celebrated in many other countries around the world, but with a Balkan twist. Adults and children who participate in the traditions of the festival will dress up in handmade costumes with decorative masks which resemble scary animals or monsters. It actually reminded me more of Native American or Tribal Festivals and Ceremonies in the U.S. – mainly because of the animals and large carved faces. They also have cow bells attached to their costumes so that they can create synchronized sounds to scare demons away.
This year I was able to attend the International Masquerade Games “Surva” and Kukeri Festival in Pernik, a small city outside of Sofia. I went with a few friends and made some new ones while we explored the parade route and took photos of the amazing costumes. There were several countries who participated this year including delegations from China, Macedonia, Slovakia, Belarus and Romania. Most of the participants from Bulgaria were from smaller villages who are more likely to hold on to these traditions.
I find it fascinating that so many cultures and religions have similar ceremonies/traditions particularly between late January and mid March. In Carnivale Festivals, men, women and children dress up in elaborate masks and/or costumes similar to the U.S. celebration of Halloween which also revolves around evil spirits and demons. Even in Judaism we have the holiday of Purim in March in which we all dress up in costumes and make noise whenever someone mentions the name of the villain Hamen during the reading of the Story of Purim “The Megillah.” And just as in Carnivale and Halloween cross-dressing is all part of the fun Nothing like a man dressed as a female to scare the evil spirits away . . .
I returned home yesterday afternoon, after what I considered to be a very productive day of errands. I had paid my rent for the next 3 mos, met with an attorney who helped file paperwork to extend my Visa and get a Lichna Carta or Bulgarian Residence Card for Foreigners, and I did some grocery shopping. When I got home it was almost 5pm and already dark outside. As I reached for the light switch when I opened the door I realized that it wasn’t working, nor was any other light in my apartment, the TV, stove/oven, or internet. It seems everything in my apartment is run by electricity, which is a first for me since I’ve almost always had gas heat and a gas stove.
They have been doing a lot of construction work around my apartment building and I had thought they had accidentally or even purposely shut down the power. When I had walked into my building a sign was on the door, written completely in Bulgarian, so of course I couldn’t understand any of it. So maybe this was only temporary and it would all just suddenly come on in a few hours.
As it began getting darker and darker outside I found my mini-flashlight I thankfully brought with me from the States – and I called my friend in complete panic. In the States, I would have known what to do and who to call, but here it’s not so clear cut. She asked me a series of very logical questions, like: “Were the lights working in the rest of the building?” I hadn’t even thought of that in my sudden state of panic – but yes, they were. The lights in the hallway were on when I walked in and the elevator was working. She said, “so it’s only your apartment then.” and that’s when the light bulb in my head went on, unlike the ones in my apartment which would surely remain dark for the remainder of the evening. They shut of my power! In the U.S. they are legally required to send you a warning notice. I guess that doesn’t apply to Bulgaria. No warning – Nothing!
When I first agreed to rent my apartment in Sofia, I had asked A LOT of questions — especially regarding utilities. First, I asked how I would pay them, since in the U.S. we had to contact the various utility companies for heat/gas and electric when we moved into a new home. Would I receive bills by mail? How would I pay them if its by cash only? In the U.S. I paid all my utility bills online. Even if I did receive bills here in Sofia, I wouldn’t be able to read them in Bulgarian. Sensing this concern, I had been told by the Management company that was responsible for the property that they would let me know how much I owed in utilities when I came in to pay my rent every 3 mos and they would pay the bills for me. I was completely relieved because this was one less stress I would need to deal with. So for the last 3 mos I didn’t question the fact that I had not received a utility bill in the mail. That is, until I did receive one. Last weekend I found a random unmarked envelope in my mailbox with no name attached. My friend who was with me at the time informed me that it appeared to be a utility bill for October. It was now December and this was the first utility bill I received in almost 4 mos, since I had not received a bill for September or November.
So, on Monday when I went to pay my rent I asked one of the women at the management company how I should pay this bill and why I hadn’t received bills for September or November. I had thought maybe they had been getting the bills, based on what I had been told when I moved in. She didn’t know why I hadn’t received the other bills, but she told me I would need to pay at the Post Office. Yeah, that’s right – here you pay your utility bills at the Post Office. Now, I’ve already had bad experiences at the Post Office even with a friend to help who spoke Bulgarian so I was not looking forward to going back – so I decided I would go pay tomorrow (aka. Today). Boy was that a big ironic mistake on my part.
So at 6pm after realizing what had happened I called the mobile of one of the people at the Management company who had been extremely helpful in the past. Also, I was planning on asking that they pay the fee of 38 Leva, which my friend mentioned was necessary to get the power in my apartment turned on immediately. When I called her husband, a UK National and owner of the company picked up. I explained to him the whole situation and he proceeded to tell me that his company would have never offered to help me with my utility bills without requiring commission for the service. I explained that while he may not have offered – his staff kindly had. And right now I was more concerned about getting my power turned back on. He then proceeded to take a very, very unfortunate tone with me and lectured me on how this wasn’t Anglo Saxony, it is Eastern Europe and customer service isn’t the same here and that I was even lucky that he had picked up the phone. This was not the kind of response I expected nor wanted to deal with in while sitting in my pitch black apartment, but I rose to the challenge and matched his tone. Explaining that I did not expect him to aid me at every beck and call, but I did expect to be treated with respect and given the services offered at the time of the lease agreement. I had not even suspected something had been wrong because I was under the impression that they were handling my utilities. He then went into a complete tirade – this time raising his voice and saying that this wasn’t America and better get used to it and hung up. One minute later he called back and said he would have his wife call to find out how much I owed in utilities. His wife later called and was as helpful as usual, explaining to me how much I owed and told me that I should go to a local mall early in the morning instead of the Post Office for better service. According to her, utility bills sometimes get lost, which is why she relies on a website to know how much she owes each month — she offered to email me this information. Her husband called later that night to offer an apology, which I accepted.
I spent the night reading by flashlight – and managed to finish one book and start another. It sort of reminded me of sleep away camp. I couldn’t cook dinner, make toast or microwave anything so my dinner consisted of several oranges and crackers & cheese (which I know some of you think is funny – since this is a normal meal for me anyway). Since it was so dark and there wasn’t much to distract me I fell asleep a bit earlier than normal.
The next day I got up early and took a taxi to the Sofia Mall to pay my utility bill. Unfortunately, my landlord (aka. the Management Company) was wrong about the time they opened. As it turns out they aren’t open until 11am, and I had arrived at a little before 9am. So that takes us to where I am now – It is 10:34am and I am sitting in UNDA Coffee drinking tea and thinking “Why Me!”
Hopefully at 11am I won’t have any further problems — fingers crossed . . .