US Peace Corps Bulgaria Director Leslie Duncan: American Volunteers Inspire Bulgarians
Interview with Leslie Duncan, Country Director of the US Peace Corps for Bulgaria, for the Bulgaria-US Survey of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency)
Could you present briefly the Peace Corps in Bulgaria?
Right now we have 145 Peace Corps volunteers – Americans who come here to complete 2 years of service with local partners. It is a person-to-person development agency so we work with counterparts in the schools and in community development – which is municipal, environmental work and work with NGOs.
Our volunteers are mainly young, college educated Americans. They speak Bulgarian and they live in villages and towns all over Bulgaria partnering with the organizations that are hosting them.
What is the reception on part of the Bulgarians? Generally, this kind of volunteer work is not wide-spread in Bulgaria.
We only go where we are invited. So somebody in the community or institution got together and asked the Peace Corps to come. The volunteers are all ready to be part of the village or the town, and they work in conjunction with the needs of the town that are identified. It is either the mayor, or the school director, or the NGO leader, or the Roma organization that wants a volunteer there.
Bulgarians are incredibly warm once that connection is in. Bulgarians start feeling the volunteers as family members and large parts of the communities. You know, babas (i.e. grandmothers – editor's note) give them vegetables. They do become part of the community.
How does a volunteer end up in Bulgaria – what is the assignment process like?
It is quite long, actually – it is a nine-month process and they don't get to choose. They apply through a general process, almost completely online. They have to go through some qualifications – medical, technical. Then they get invited to a country. There are 77 countries where they could go to. They usually don't find out much before 3-4 months before they have to get on the plane.
But what does this mechanism entail on your part?
We are already putting a request for 2012. We have gotten a sense from our partners about what volunteers they need, and we have asked for those people with some basic minimum qualifications. Then they do a 12-week training process once they get here.
We don't really know much about them before they get off the plane. We got their resumes and their aspiration statement. Then in the 12 weeks that they are with us, they live with host host families, and they spend 4 hours a day learning Bulgarian, and the rest of the time they are in cultural and technical training.
What are the most unique and exciting projects that volunteers have been involved in?
Because it is a person-to-person development they are not grand schemes. It is really the inspiration of the volunteer frames, the different ideas about what's happening in their sites, and the partnership.
We have volunteers all over the country doing events with their students – dances, costume parades, parties. Volunteers do a lot of work just helping kids with their educational goals – whether that's specifically English or other fields. We have volunteers working with orphanages, with out-of-school youth, with special-need folks.
My Bulgarian colleagues say the biggest impact the volunteers have is to inspire Bulgarians. To make them believe that things can be done, can happen. The Peace Corps volunteers also bring technical skills. They work on websites for municipalities, for example. But the biggest thing they do is to inspire and to change perceptions and habits, or whatever we have, which are not very good.
What are the difficulties the young Americans encounter in Bulgaria?
The first year is all about figuring out how to communicate with Bulgarians, to work out the language, to understand what's underneath the words, the rhythms, and the routines of Bulgarians, and how they can best partner. The winter is usually pretty hard with their first adaption to the cold and gray and smoke.
But by the second the year they know their communities and the events, sometimes they are caught in the rumors and the gossip.
How is Bulgaria perceived through their evaluations at the end?
They don't actually do evaluations, what they do is make a recommendation as to whether the site is some place that needs another volunteer. I was a Peace Corps volunteer elsewhere, and I don't think anybody comes out of this experience without falling in love with where you are.
Here in Bulgaria people appreciate the pace of life and the warmth and generosity of Bulgarians. People learn a lot about what it is to be in a current EU country that's gone through Bulgaria's kind of history.
Most of us know very little about Bulgaria before they get here so that whole process of understanding the richness of the history here – going all the way back to Thracian times. We thing that 250 years is a long history for a country, and we look at the history that Bulgaria has – it is a good perspective for Americans.
Does the fact that Bulgaria joined the EU restrict the Peace Corps program in the country? Since the so called Western countries are generally not included?
Yes and no. We are here at the invitation of the government. So as long as Bulgaria continues to ask for our presence and we continue to be able to get funding to send volunteers, we don't anticipate that we will be leaving.
I think that our technical partnership with Bulgaria has evolved in the last twenty years. Twenty years ago just having an American in town was different. Now Bulgarians have traveled more. We are now moving to smaller places and more underprivileged communities. But right now the EU funding is coming for small infrastructure projects – it is still not hitting the small towns and the schools.
From your perspective as an organization – how do you view the level of civil society in Bulgaria?
I that just allowing people to see that their voice can make a difference. Just the responsibilities and the benefits of being members of the society. The volunteers come from having done volunteer work their whole lives, they have had both the say and the need to participate in what is happening. I think there is a role for volunteers. But it is not our country, we are only here to assist Bulgarians find that right place.
Volunteers try very hard – first of all to get to know the community, to spend some time thinking about the need of the community, and that to work with the community members, and be careful not to harm their feelings or do something really extreme. But do to projects little by little and help them start feeling like a part of the society where they live. They are careful and they think about our community as real community members. And we are apolitical, and there is no political or religious basis why we are here.
Have you had cases of Peace Corps volunteers getting into some kind of trouble in Bulgaria?
Yes. In general, if something happens, the communities have been great in supporting them in making a correction. If we need to, we will send them home. A small percentage of the volunteers leave early because, for whatever reason, this is not the place and time for them to be here. But Bulgaria has a very small early termination rate. The volunteers generally feel very welcomed and successful here.
There is this stereotype for Americans in Bulgaria that Americans don't know much about the rest of the world. I would say that this is probably more true for Bulgarians, actually. But how do you see that?
Our Americans are diverse. They are small-town, big-town, city kids, farm kids, black, white, Hispanic, Asian so I hope if folks are looking at the collective Americans here as a Peace Corps volunteers. It does reflect who our society is. For the one-on-one contact a village makes, obviously, that becomes the American, and our volunteers are very conscious that they are representing the larger American, and that this is not the television portrayal of Americans.
What do you think should be the valuable thing that a volunteer should take from Bulgaria – even though, clearly, it is individual?
I think the major thing they should take away is how similar we all are – even if we come from different backgrounds. People are people. Everybody is striving to do better for their kids, for a better place to live, for world peace. That is very much the clich? but that's what all nations and people are striving for that. So I think living in a place that's different from your own you see how similar people are.
The Peace Corps is here really to partner with the Bulgarians. None of the successes of our volunteers would have been possible without their Bulgarian counterparts and colleagues. This is how it happens. It is a partnership. And in many cases the Bulgarians are carrying the Americans for a while, until the Americans figure out where they can help. The equation shifts in their second year. But the host family teaches them everything.
What has been the highlight of your Bulgarian experience, and what has been the most difficult thing for you here in Bulgaria?
The highlight is easy. This has been an amazing place to be and work at. I work with a fabulous group of people in a place that's beautiful, and I think the potential here is astounding.
My frustrations have been I think the same frustrations that Bulgarians are going through – civil society challenges – from the fact that the puddles don't get fixed. The other challenges are obviously being away from your extended family. I have my husband and kids are here, and everybody else has visited. This is my fourth year in Bulgaria, and it is a great place to be. It is a great job – I am working with committed, interesting Americans and committed, interesting Americans. You really can't ask for much else.
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