Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad Chair Boian Koulov: Spreading Bulgarian Language and Culture Is National Destiny
Interview with Boian Koulov - Chair of the Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad (ABUCH)
Boian Koulov is a Senior Researcher and Research Director of the Institute of Geography at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and a member of the Managing Council of the Sofia University's Institute for Doctoral and Post-doctoral Studies "Dialogue Europe."
In 2007, Boian Koulov became Founding Chairman of the Sofia-based Association of Bulgarian Schools abroad. He is also Founding President of the Association of Bulgarian schools in the USA. In 2002, Dr. B. Koulov helped the foundation of the Bulgarian Education Center in Washington, D.C. - a school with kindergarten that teaches Bulgarian language, history, geography, and culture.
Currently, Dr. Koulov is on an eight-month sabbatical at the Harvard University's J.F. Kennedy School of Government.
You are the Chair of the Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad. What exactly is this Association and what is it striving to achieve?
According to its Bylaws, the Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad is a voluntary, non-political, non-governmental organization, with a seat in Sofia. It is set up to carry out activities for the good of the public. Its main goals are:
To popularize and disseminate the Bulgarian language and culture outside Bulgaria;
To help the activities of the schools abroad that teach the Bulgarian language, literature, geography, history, culture of Bulgaria;
To facilitate the exchange of information, pedagogical methods, administrative know-how, educational technologies, and help maintain professional relations among the schools outside Bulgaria.
To lobby on behalf of the Bulgarian schools and any organization that disseminates the Bulgarian language and culture outside Bulgaria;
To make proposals, hold conferences, provide expert advice, initiate and submit documentation, which will help establish the legal statute of the Bulgarian schools of any format outside Bulgaria, in regard to the respective state and non-state institutions in Bulgaria and any other country, where they exist.
A conference under the motto "Native Language and Culture Abroad" was just held in Sofia. What was it purpose?
In 2008, the Association (ABUCH) and the Ministry of Education and Science under the previous government organized two separate conferences in two consecutive days, both of which focused on the same issue - the education in the Bulgarian language abroad and the problems of the Bulgarian schools.
To avoid duplication of efforts and foster a better public-state communication on this issue of geostrategic importance for Bulgaria and the European Union, in 2009, the Association contacted the Ministry with the offer of organizing a joint conference, which was received positively.
In the meantime, the Ministry announced its "Native Language and Culture Abroad" Program, which was directed specifically at the schools abroad. ABUCH participated actively in the preparation of the program and agreed that it would be beneficial that the conference discusses the benefits and shortfalls of this most significant effort on the part of the state for the last 20 years to help the education of the Bulgarians abroad, as well as the work of the schools abroad.
A second, equally important purpose of the conference was to further the Association's most pressing goal to help establish the legal statute of the Bulgarian schools of any format outside Bulgaria. In the draft Law on National Education, prepared by the Ministry, the definition of "schools abroad" included the schools, which are currently recognized by the Bulgarian Embassies.
The Association submitted its own version of this part of the Law, which expanded the definition to include any form of education in the Bulgarian language, geography, history, and culture of Bulgaria. The Association believes these forms of education have to be recognized by the state and supported, according to their own merits. The draft law could not pass through the 40th Parliament, however, the Association declared its interest and expertise in working on this issue.
Finally, another important goal of the conference was to get together teachers, directors, state officials, academics, parents, sponsors and friends of the Bulgarian schools abroad. For most of them - spread over five continents - the conference provides the only chance in the entire year, where they can see each other in person, get to know each other better, share and discuss their successes and problems, formally and informally, and make them public.
The conference also provided a wonderful opportunity for the academics present to get a feel of the problems of these teachers and administrators in terms of educational standards, programs, textbooks, and tests.
The state officials also benefited from the conference, improving their knowledge not just of the functioning of the Ministry's program, but also of the multitude of diverse issues related to the education in the Bulgarian language and culture abroad.
Can you define the most important short-term and long-term goals of spreading and maintaining Bulgarian language and culture around the world?
The goals of maintaining and spreading the Bulgarian language and culture around the world are first of all related to maintaining the cultural identity of the at least two million Bulgarian speakers abroad. It allows for better communication between different age groups within the Bulgarian speakers, as well as with foreign speakers.
According to the Bulgarian constitution, all Bulgarian citizens have the right and the obligation to study Bulgarian language. The dissemination of the Bulgarian language and culture abroad and particularly to speakers of other languages places and establishes the Bulgarian way of thinking, the Bulgarian agenda on the international arena, improves international understanding, reduces social conflict, facilitates trade and tourism, and enriches both the Bulgarian and the foreign cultures.
It is not by chance that the European Union places such a heavy emphasis on maintaining the cultural diversity of the continent and studying and being able to graduate in the mother language, irrespective of the host-country of the particular migrant.
What are the main problems Bulgarian schools abroad face today?
The "Native Language and Culture" Program adequately addressed those problems of the schools abroad, which were related mostly to the need for funding. The funds are still not in the hands of the school directors; however, we have the promise of the new Education Minister Iordanka Fandakova that this will happen within a week.
ABUCH adopted a declaration at the conference, which was very well received by the officials present, asking that this program becomes a permanent vehicle of support for the schools abroad. The state recognition of the great diversity of Bulgarian schools abroad and the establishment of their legal status in the next Public Education Law is the next most important problem, which the Association hopes will be resolved within a year.
This year we have focused also on the necessity of devising special national standards for the disciplines taught at the schools abroad, which will allow the beginning of the work on the school programs, plans, textbooks, and exams for students, who study Bulgarian in a foreign language environment. The problems are challenging, but the expected results will be most rewarding.
Do you share the opinion of Boyanka Ivanova, Principal of the John Atanassoff Bulgarian School in Chicago that Bulgarians in the US are in danger of being assimilated if the State does not interfere?
Of course, I share this opinion and the danger will still exist, even with the support of the Bulgarian state. All we hope for is to slow down this process, help maintain and perpetrate Bulgarian culture and not just among the Bulgarian immigrants, but also among Americans too. Thus, we hope to contribute to the enrichment of the US culture, which is no small feat.
Do you really hope the new cabinet will release the frozen BGN 5 M from the "Native Language and Culture" program of the Education Ministry in times when it is seeking ways to fill the BGN 2,5 B gap that is emerging in the state budget?
Yes, I am positive that this will happen, first of all, because the most important investment in times of economic and financial crises are those in education and, second, we have the promises of minister Fandakova and Minister Bozhidar Dimitrov.
Do you count on the GERB government to bring any of the much needed changes regarding Bulgarians abroad? Did the conference reveal any positive trend in this direction?
I have great hopes in the GERB government to bring positive change regarding Bulgarians abroad.
First, for the first time two ministers - Fandakova and Dimitrov - and the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament Georgi Pirinski were present at ABUCH's conference. The state officials exhibited in-depth knowledge of the problems of the Bulgarian schools, as well as a resolve to turn a new page.
Second, the appointment of a special Minister for Bulgarians Abroad is also very promising, since one of the most important problem of the previous administrations used to be the inter-ministerial communication and coordination, taking responsibility of the issues, concerning Bulgarians abroad.
Finally, the prompt appointment of Raiyna Mandzhukova for Chairperson of the State Agency for the Bulgarians Abroad is also quite promising. In the last two years, this post was vacant or "in transition", which demonstrates the former government's attitude to the issue. Ms. Mandzukova is extremely well suited for the position, both due to her personal circumstances - she is born in the Bessarabia region of Ukraine - as well as by virtue of her long-term professional experience and civil society activities.
What do you think of the appointment a new Minister without Portfolio for Bulgarians Abroad?
As I already mentioned, I applaud the appointment of a Minister for Bulgarians abroad, since a very large number of ministries and state agencies have to effectively communicate and coordinate their activities in order to carry out a coherent policy concerning our nationals abroad.
From my talks with Minister Dimitrov, I can deduce that he understands the actual significance of the dissemination of the Bulgarian language and culture abroad. The Bulgarian schools are the most numerous Bulgarian institutions beyond the borders of our country and their numbers continue to rise around the globe. For the majority of the people of the world, they are the "face" of Bulgaria, they are among Bulgaria's most precious contributions to world culture.
There is no long-term, strategic priority, which unites all Bulgarians inside and outside the country, greater than the spreading of the Bulgarian language and culture around the world. From the Cyrillic alphabet on, this has been our national "destiny."
The above said Minister, Bozhidar Dimitrov, has been exposed as a former communist regime State Security agent. Could this be an obstacle in his work with Bulgarians abroad since many of the older emigrants left exactly because of the Communist regime?
This fact could certainly present a problem, particularly, in some sections of the Diaspora. Most people, I presume, will judge Minister Dimitrov, according to his present deeds.
Your take on the idea to introduce legislation to ban dual citizenship for Bulgarians abroad?
I am a dual citizen myself and, therefore, biased on the issue. But, if you still like to hear my opinion, I think these are ideas that belong to the past.
Between 1990 and 2007, Dr. Koulov has lived in the US and taught at George Washington University and American University in Washington, D.C., George Mason University in Virginia, and West Virginia University. In 2005, he was a Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholar. Dr. Koulov lectured at the US Foreign Service Institute and also participated in US State Department briefings. He is former Chair of the Board of Directors (1997-99) of the European Specialty Group at Association of American Geographers.The US National Science Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the US National Research Council, and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences are among the sponsors of his research. He has reviewed research proposals for the US National Science Foundations and the US National Research Council.
Between 1987 and 1990, Dr. Koulov was a Research Fellow with the Faculty of Geology and Geography at Sofia University. He graduated from Sofia University with a major in Geography of Tourism and received his Ph.D. in Economic and Social Geography from the Institute of Geography at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
Boin Koulov (middle left) and Lyutvi Mestan, MP from the ethnic Turksih DPS Party (middle right) at the 2008 meeting with the Parliamentary Commission for Education and Science. Photo by abgschools.org
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