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And now we are all in the by Valeri LEKOV

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atasha Ilieva lives near the recently asphalted Ropotamo Street in Kyustendil’s Iztok Roma neighbourhood. Her house is not at the street though. ·Hers is the one at the back, a bit further down, near the scrap house fence”, some children playing outside help me out with directions. I turn right between the yards and follow a tiny path to a place that used to be a plain field. Now there are about 20 shacks here. Natasha’s house is almost new and has two rooms. As most of the houses around it, it was built in a hurry with whatever was at hand. The bricks were gathered from demolished old buildings, the rafters and beams, roof-tiles, doors, and windows, too, are second-hand. The ceiling on the inside has been made out of an old hardboard piece. The tiny room where Natasha lives has a bed, a corner sofa, a commode, a table, a TV set, and a wood-and-coal stove. Her three children live in the second room. Well, she has other children, too, but they have grown up and have each taken up their own road. Now she lives with Nelly, Emil, and Elvira. She doesn’t have a partner and has never had one for long. Someone comes along, they live together for a while, the next baby comes along, and he ·vanishes”. No marriage, no paternal rights, no alimony payments. And no job either. The family’s sole source of income used to be social assistance payments. ·Come in, I’m cooking some cabbage. I’ll just add some rice to it. I’ll put in what I’ve got - the kids have to eat something”, Natasha, 45, greets me at the door. There is no electricity in the house. In the evenings she ·borrows” some from the neighbours, so that she

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and the children don’t have to sit in the dark. The water comes in buckets from the houses at the street. They built a toilet out of a few pieces of wood behind the house. ·Bathroom? Wherever would we have a bathroom from? If we save a penny, we go to the city bathhouse or carry some mineral water to wash ourselves and our clothes”. All three children go to school. Nelly is in the ninth grade, Emil in the eighth, and the youngest Elvira - in the fifth. And they don’t go to the nearest neighbourhood school, but to the sports school downtown. Until December last year, they had managed to get by thanks to social assistance. Of course, they could not afford a hearty meal every day, but still managed to survive somehow. This is how it used to be. And at school, too, the children would sometimes be given meal coupons. Now, however, things have gone for the worse. Natasha was among the first victims of the amendments to the Social Assistance Act proposed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (MLSP). She used to get temporary three or six-month jobs under the Ministry’s various employment programmes, and she mostly had to do street-sweeping. She also never failed to work the whole five days required to get the monthly social assistance benefits. ·I used to get 178 leva (app. 85 euro) assistance every month. They said they were cutting it and we were to find us some jobs. How this it going to work out, I don’t know. I went to the labour office to ask and they told me - we have no jobs now, come next month to see if there’s anything. What do I do now? Even if I rummage through the garbage, I won’t get to earn a single lev even. I am now only going to receive the children’s allowance, 60 Leva (30 Euro) a month. My children walk all the way to school, and that’s on the other side of town.


e same boat And Emil even has to go to sports practice every day. He has been doing football for a year with Kyustendil’s Velbazhd youth team”, says Natasha. New Year’s Eve came with meatless dolmades and two chicken legs - just so their festive table wasn’t empty. What about Vasilitsa, the Roma New Year? ·I’ve nothing to put on this table, let alone think about Vasilitsa.” The former deputy mayor of the Iztok neighbourhood, Stefan Lazarov, used to help and is still helping the family as best as he can. ·Despite all odds, Natasha sends her kids to school every day. Downtown, not in the neighbourhood school. She is illiterate and she does not want her children to be like her. She knows that if they go to school, they will be able to find a job in the future and cope with the hardships in life; that they will not have to rely on social payments, or the labour office. Her son Emil is one of the best centre-forward players of Velbazhd. I have often given the children some pocket money, or driven them to school so they don’t have to walk all the way. But this is hardly going to solve their problems. Besides, they are not the only ones. There are a lot of poor people in the neighbourhood who, following the latest amendments to the law, will have a hard time surviving. It is always good for a country to have the majority of people in employment, and less people on the dole. This, however, is not yet the case in Bulgaria. True, there were people receiving social assistance without being entitled to it. They worked in the grey economy, on construction sites in Sofia and throughout the country, but would not declare their income. The payments they received resulted from poor control on the part of the social assistance service. And now, because of them, we are all in the same boat”, he says. Emil is back from school and is sitting where a back yard would be, taking an old TV set that he found on the street apart. He thought he might do something useful while waiting for the meal. He is taking out anything metal, unwinding the coils. He will then take all metal parts to the scrap house to make some money. He is nervous and embarrassed. He goes to the Fifth Primary School, in the sports class. He wants to continue his education after completing the eighth grade. What do you mean where? In the sports school, of course, it is right next to his current school. Two years ago he started at that school along with six other boys from his neighbourhood. Now he is the only one left. Even so, he has no problems with his classmates. They respect him because he is a good and talented footballer. ...I haven’t got any textbooks ...We have no money... I can’t afford to buy any... I take only notebooks and put everything down... It’s a good thing our teacher gives me textbooks in class, so that I can study there...”, says Emil bitterly. His only hope now lies with football. He knows this, and is very persistent and diligent in his practice. In winter, they get together three times a week, and in the summer ... every day. He hopes to be noticed and given the chance to wear the shirt of his favourite team in Sofia - Levski. His coach, Mr. Bachkovski, thinks very highly of him and lets him play full-time

every match. Last season Emil played 13 matches and scored 20 goals, two of which against CSKA Sofia1. Lunch is ready. Natasha is calling out for Emil to grab a bite, as he needs to be at the football pitch at 3.00 pm for today’s practice. ·Soon the two girls will come home, and we will have lunch together, but he has to eat now, there is no time”, his mother explains. She has given some thought to going abroad. People say it is easier to find a job there, but she dares not leave her children on their own. She tries to secure some bread for the table, but even that has not been easy of late. It’s been a long time since she bought the children any clothes. She keeps washing and repairing the old ones. The children are embarrassed to wear them, but they are not likely to get new ones any time soon. She is desperate. ·We are running out of firewood, too, but how am I supposed to buy more? I hope the weather stays warmer, or else... What do you know... we can’t even afford to get sick. If I had a job and a 200-300 Leva (100150 Euro) salary, I wouldn’t be so worried. But now, now I don’t know what to do!” And she’s definitely not the only one in these shoes. Many of her neighbours are on the “Ministry’s blacklist” and are not going to receive any payments. They, too, are barely surviving. At least she will be receiving her child allowances. And next month, if she’s lucky to be offered a job (·...anything to earn some bread”), there will be a salary in March. But how are they going to live until then? In the best case scenario that is. And what if no job comes along? It is unlikely that these issues are of any concern to government officials at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and Minister Maslarova. What matters is that statistics showing unemployment drop; the number of the needy is reduced; the fake needy are no longer on the state’s shoulders; more training and workshops take place; the unemployed are encouraged to become employed; and, most importantly, we are able to demonstrate to the EU our efforts and achievements. While people like Natasha, who really do need assistance, are left into the hands of... God. 1 CSKA Sofia is one of the top Bulgarian football clubs, which Tottenham’s striker Dimitar Berbatov played for.

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Статия 'And Now We Are All in the Same Boat'