A Travellerspoint blog

"If you hold a cat by the tail...

you learn things you cannot learn any other way." -Mark Twain

storm

In other words, experience is certainly the best education – or an unparalleled one, at least. No matter how much I’ve read about the processes and politics of NGOs or about the realm of human trafficking – being here, working here, and experiencing this culture and country is something wholly removed from expectation. My work with Animus continues and is surprisingly busy. My tasks are varied (though mildly mundane) and often very frustrating – but I am thrilled to have tasks in the first place. I cannot decide if this is because I am now more mature (ha!) and more willing to find work if it isn’t given to me…or if it is because Animus has a far smaller staff than Haki. (A little bit of both, I think).

My work with the website has come to a screeching halt as I encountered problems that were no match for even my superior HTML prowess. I emailed the company that owns the domain and did the basic appearance/formatting (which is terrible, if you ask me)…but that was a week ago and nothing yet. Here’s a link if you want to check out my skills:

http://danatip.org/zb/home

I’m responsible for the addition and editing of content and links – and there’s still a LOT of kinks to be worked out. Be gentle with your criticisms :)

(wow, it is torrentially pouring…again…there’s even a cacophany of car alarms sounding off. If this place weren’t so green and gorgeous during the rare sunny day, I’d curse the rain away forever! I may drown on my way home…)

In the meantime, I embarked on a new project – the endless search for potential international donors. Much to my dismay, I was told that our most important, most popular function – the crisis hotline for victims – will cease and desist very soon, due to a sudden lack of funding. I find this problem perplexing: how did they manage to lose funding for one of the primary projects of the organization? If they lost funding, why don’t they have a back-up plan? Why don’t they contact current donors and propose a donation re-arrangement? And, the most important question of all, why don’t they have any existing list/compilation of potential donors? Do they go searching through the thousands of possibilities every time money is tight? Yes, as a matter of fact, they do.

I was amazed to see that there are indeed thousands and thousands of options – there’s foundations for virtually every problem, solution, interest and sympathy in the world. And, even more surprising (though also obvious, in such an opportunistic world), are the businesses making money off helping non-profits make money. Clever, I know. Well, thank you very much, but I am quite capable of conducting my own search! (It just took me 3 million and two thirds hours). Is that an exaggeration? Maybe just a little bit. (it was probably more like 2 million and one third).

Not liking the idea of having to conduct this heinous search more than once, I took it upon myself to compile a fairly comprehensive binder detailing as-of-yet-untapped partnership possibilities– including a handy reference guide at the beginning! Clever, I know. (take that you entreprenurial sharks!) It seems like the totally obvious thing to do, so I should stop gloating shouldn’t I? Well anyway, I outlined the grant requirements, included the applications and contact information, noted our corresponding strengths and programs, and presented my initial findings to my pleased-as-bulgarian-punch superiors. Just as I was ready to continue plowing through cyberspace, I was told: “this is just fine, you can stop. We don’t want to have so many options we don’t know what to choose.”

My response? please imagine a curiously mixed expression of horror and perplexity. Stop? Why? You should have as many options as possible! You don’t know what to choose? Well…shouldn’t you apply for them all??? I must be very green to this business. In my head, more options = back up plans when your most important program is about to crumble! AH!

I’m being a little bit of a drama queen. I enjoyed the work – it was extremely educational – and I am too young and too foreign to really understand the motivations behind such wacky decisions. I just hate to leave any potential untapped – especially in such a desperate situation. I also think my American mindset of: “efficiency! efficiency! more! more!!!!,” is making things a little difficult for me.

So, now that I’ve officially stemmed that project (although I think I will be doing some of the actual grant-writing next week), I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of proofreading and dictation – (my English skills are super-suave, you see.) In other news, I’ll be representing Animus at a regional round-table/conference at the US embassy in two weeks, which should be extremely fascinating. And, on the side, I am authoring a “help-manual” for future international interns. My supervisor wants something to give new arrivals so that their orientation is a little bit smoother than mine. It’s basically an extremely abbreviated version of my book- Bulgaria: how to find food, shelter and a mildly honest taxi driver. I wish there’d been a ‘me’ for me!

All in all, I’m a busy little worker-bee and I’ve been soaking up as much knowledge as my worker-bee brain can manage. In fact, I should probably say that I’ve been “buzzy”…haha! Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll stop.

Ciao for now!

Posted by MegMc2003 05:14 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

President Bush visits Bulgaria

Super-security and secret hand signals.

I snorted when I heard my office mates chatting about the upcoming visit of our dear American president – they were kidding, right? I couldn’t imagine what sort of agenda would bring the bushman to sofia…

But alas, Bush - and his swarm of secret service minions - visited last Sunday and Monday…and he fully succeeded in ruining my life. Okay, fine…he just ruined my weekend. A full twenty-four hours before to his arrival, the entirety of central Sofia was locked up tight with hundreds of barricades - (where do they keep those things in the off-season, I wondered.) Public transportation was severely limited, if it was functioning at all, and residents of the center were kindly requested to remove laundry and all things “unattractive” from balconies. Several suspicious looking characters were preemptively arrested (maybe Bush taught them that!) and Sofia’s finest were stationed strategically on every street corner (looking bored, mind you.) I was intrigued by all these measures…Was there something to fear in Sofia itself? (Sorry, that’s a really bad one. I couldn’t resist.)

I have to admit, I’ve never seen the city center looking so pristine – and with cheesy American flags plastered everywhere, I’d say the oozing hospitality almost offset all the anti-Bush graffiti. By the way, there was a protest that Saturday, though I missed it because I escaped to the Rila Monastery before the lockdown began. It didn’t look terribly convincing on television, but it was nice to see some healthy political activism in a country that makes the Tulsa “honk-if-you…” protesters look like violent radicals. (ie, political/civic participation is virtually nonexistent).

I didn’t wake up early enough to receive the President as he went strolling into the Bulgarian presidency – but I did watch the chaos on my flatmate’s television. The ironic thing was, in spite of the extreme measures taken prior to his arrival, the security appeared to be incredibly lax. Just as you may have seen from the footage of his Albanian visit, people were touching him, (stealing his watch), and practically falling over the barricades. The rumor is that these enthusiasts were ‘imported’ into the center by proud Bulgarian administrators after hearing about the extraordinarily warm Albanian welcome. It may not be true, but it sounds like a very Bulgarian sort of thing to do :)

I stopped following the drama shortly thereafter and I spent my Sunday lazing around my flat – which was pretty much my only option anyway. I’d almost forgotten about the affair until having dinner with a new friend the other night. A Yale undergrad, he and his Texan friend (donning a texas-flag tshirt) had decided to take part in the receiving line. So, although they were “unauthorized”, they waltzed right up and joined the festivities. The Texan caught the attention of the president, flashed him a view of his t-shirt and a loyal ‘hook-em horns’ hand signal. Bush reciprocated, and during the formal ceremony he flashed a ‘hook-em horns’ signal to the Bulgarian cameras. Although not very appropriate, not a big deal right?

The media frenzy that followed was astounding. To Bulgarians, apparently, the symbol is most closely associated with Satan. (Insert clever political quip here...) :)

To give you glimpse of the situation, please allow me to assume my assertive news-reporter voice: “What was that hand signal? What was Bush trying to say to the crowd? Is the gesture Satanic? Is this some secret American symbol? What could it possibly mean? We go now to our resident American culture expert!”

The mystery of it all was mind-blowing – so much so that virtually every news agency pondered the question repeatedly. Luckily, after many hours of strenuous deliberating, an acceptable conclusion was finally reached: Bush was saying “I love you” to his texas friend in the crowd. What a friendly guy! Phew, I’m glad they figured that one out.

Luke, my acquaintance, works at another NGO in town and made the effort to author a “very serious” press release clarifying the issue. By Monday, Bush had packed off for the USA and life in Sofia – chaotic, quirky, frustrating, invigorating – returned to normal.

Posted by MegMc2003 02:45 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (1)

Sexploitation

The situation in Bulgaria and my life at Animus

sunny

Just imagine:

Your parents sold you for rent money. Your boyfriend of two years sold you for a new TV. That job offer in Germany only appeared to be legit. You're kidnapped and smuggled across countless borders. That dream of yours - the dream of a glamorous life in the West - is the most horrifying nightmare imaginable. You're anywhere from 5 to 40 years old, and you'll be raped and beaten repeatedly everyday for the rest of your foreseeable future.

Your body – your life – is probably worth between 100 – 2000 US dollars, depending on your age, appearance and nationality. Even if you do eventually escape the life of a sex slave, you will not come away unscathed. Survivors must endure life-threatening diseases of the body and mind, acute terror and paranoia plaguing their every thought, recurring nightmares and flashbacks, as well as social stigmatization and isolation.

Human trafficking is not limited to sexual exploitation (although this acccounts for approximately 80% of trafficking situations) - millions of men, women and children are forced into situations of servitude, hard labor, and combat situations (ie, child soldiers). Much to the horror of the international community, the trafficking business is booming with over $9.5 billion in revenue is generated every single year. Thus, the buying and selling of human beings is the third most profitable international criminal activity behind the illegal sale of drugs and arms. Of course, guns and drugs are a one-time sale; a woman, on the other hand, can be sold up to twenty times a day, or 7,300 times per year. At $50 to $500 a client, the pimp can pocket $365,000 to $3,650,000 per woman, annually. When a woman is too ill, too old, too much of a risk - she is easily replaceable by any number of potential new victims.

The perfect commodity.

Statistics are mildly unreliable, as the magnitude of the problem is incomprehensible and many suspected victims are never reported. Data from various reputable sources varies drastically with the generally accepted range being between 600,000 and 2 million human beings each year. Approximately 500,000 of these human beings are trafficked from/into the European continent alone, with more than 10,000 of these being women and girls from Bulgaria. Some reports conservatively estimate over 27 million people worldwide are currently held in some form of slavery…some estimate 10 times beyond that. The crisis is reaching epidemic proportions as numbers increase; after all, the supply must meet the demand.

It is the most horrifying of topics to research, and certainly one of the most difficult to digest. The problem is so far-reaching, so entrenched, so profitable, so disgusting that the work of governments and non-governmental organizations seems frustratingly inadequate. If the demand is booming, the supply will be endless. It’s simple economics. Victims come from every single part of the world – no nation or ethnicity is immune. You thought slavery had been eradicated? Think again. It’s everywhere.

My experience at Animus has been interesting, depressing, frustrating and certainly educational. I knew quite a bit about sex trafficking before my arrival – thanks to my very first Model United Nations conference! Unfortunately, like most people in the world, I did not (and still do not) fully understand the gravity and scope of the situation. I never understood how crafty the traffickers can be, and that even the most legitimate of offers – an overseas internship like mine, for example – are oftentimes incredibly believable fronts for trafficking operations. Citizens of Eastern Europe are particularly susceptible targets due to the overwhelming desire of much of the population to find wealth and prosperity abroad. A life in the West is the dream of most young people – it seems that patriotism and optimism were destroyed along with democracy and the economy during former autocratic regimes. Bulgarian women are attractive, intelligent and itching to see a brand new world beyond their borders. I’ve learned all of this from Bulgarians themselves; Animus is an organization for Bulgarian women by Bulgarian women.

Animus (http://www.animusassociation.org) is an interesting NGO with a remarkable number of past and present projects. Most notably, the help line, psychological services, and crisis center/safe house are groundbreaking services that assist innumerable women each year. In addition, Animus is currently working with the tourist sector to recognize and stem sex tourism – particularly within the popular Black Sea coast resort towns. I was also impressed to learn of their ongoing educational seminars (“trainings”) for individuals, organizations, government officials etc. interested in working against human trafficking. This program spans national borders, as many citizens of other Eastern European nations participate. Animus is also hard at work in conjunction with La Strada (http://www.lastrada.org) to expand their influence to the whole of the continent. And finally, the organization lobbies for government reforms – although I have not seen or heard much about this just yet.

I was amazed to see that the organization is fairly small, with no more than 15 people in the office at any one time. These are all women – save one, and he is leaving – who are educated and extraordinarily passionate. Most of them do not speak English, though there are a few who are expertly multilingual. Unfortunately, my rose-colored glasses are officially lifted, as I now see that the typical NGO problems really do plague every NGO. Animus suffers from bad management (particularly in regards to human resources), inefficiency, poor communication and perceived impotence in the large and intimidating realm of the cause. However, I believe the organization has many wonderful and effective programs (ie, incredible potential for serious influence), and I am hoping to help the organization with more effective marketing/communication so that these programs may be better advertised.

As of right now, I am actually building the website for a large upcoming seminar. The work is tedious but just right for me – I stay very busy correcting grammar, working on visuals and researching content. My biggest roadblocks thus far have been a complete lack of direction (umm…I took one HTML course during my freshman year…but I started the project anyway so I could have something to do!), and stubbornness on behalf of the staff – (the worst English grammar imaginable, but they don’t want to change it because they “like the way it sounds.” Ah! Dr. Geller, you’d just die.) They were excited to hear that many of the programs of DVIS/Call Rape in Tulsa are very similar, but not excited to hear my very legitimate input about potential new projects or program extensions. I am hoping that I’ll get some “street cred” as time goes on. I am very aware that there is a LOT I have yet to learn, but I also know that I have at least a little bit to offer too. Overall, I am increasingly optimistic and I hope to do at least one large project that positively affects the organization before I leave. I am learning so much – and the more I learn, the more I want to make a difference.

If you want to learn a little more about trafficking, here are some interesting sites:

www.Notforsalecampaign.org
www.romun.org/documents/Background%20Info/Human%20Trafficking%20Statistics.rtf
www.unodc.org
www.helpsavekids.org
www.us.oneworld.net
www.humantrafficking.org
www.gvnet.com/humantrafficking/Bulgaria.htm
www.mtvexit.org - really interesting videos

Posted by MegMc2003 11:02 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (1)

New Pic Site

Since I have no idea how to program my own site as Porter did, I decided to pick something fun and easy...google is simply amazing!

http://picasaweb.google.com/mccune.megan

I've just posted pictures from Italy, Germany, Croatia and Bosnia. I will be posting pics from Bulgaria very soon.

Posted by MegMc2003 12:08 Comments (1)

Bizarre Bulgaria

My first few (harrowing) days

sunny

I was purely lucky to find an apartment – my previous arrangements had been thwarted at the very last minute, and I was utterly desperate to find something, ANYTHING as soon as possible. During a random web search, I found an old posting for a room in a three bedroom flat just outside the city center. After a few emails, I had somewhere to live! I did a celebratory “whoo hoo!!” in the internet café when I received the confirmation email.

My roommates are friendly and fascinating – one is an Austrian who works as a university professor in another town for half the week, the other is a Bulgarian international lawyer working on behalf of the Bulgarian disabled. Both are approximately ten years my senior (from what I can tell) and very intellectual. My room in the apartment is about twice what it was in Africa (thank heaven) and painted a cheerful light yellow. All three of us sleep on comfortable air mattresses. We have hot water, and there is a constant electricity and water supply…ie, no rations! I’ve decided that I like this situation very much.

I’ll not feign immediate contentment – my first couple of days in Bulgaria were extremely difficult. Everything is in the Cyrillic alphabet: the street signs, the menus, the business names…everything. The language itself is guttural and alien, and my meagre attempts are seemingly futile. The layout of the city lacks the logic of Tulsa, Oklahoma (of course), the taxi drivers usually need directions, virtually no one speaks English, and I am completely on my own about 95% of the time. I can’t tell north from south and up from down most of the time – asking for directions is usually a recipe for supreme confusion for all those involved.

To my astonishment, the head gestures really are reversed – a shake of the head (to Americans meaning ‘no’) actually means “yes”, and a nod (to us meaning “yes”) actually means “no.” Except of course, for those Bulgarians who consider themselves more Western – they do things “our” way…which leads to a whole bunch of befuddlement. Yes? No? Da? Ne? Shake? Nod? What’s going on!?

I was also planning on entitling this entry “Brrrgaria” (I know, how clever) – because the constant downpour was accompanied by 40 degree temperatures. I was certainly not prepared for the cold and wet…I spent my very first day solidly cursing the weather, the language, the lack of internet cafes and my unfortunate aptitude for getting hopelessly lost.

BUT….there is light at the end of the tunnel and the sun came out – (but not before I bought a $6 coat and $3 jeans from a street market). I learned how to successfully point and grunt when ordering food, how to somewhat successfully ask locals for help, and how to make it home at the end of the day (well, for the most part). I am learning the Cyrillic alphabet somewhat quickly – mostly because my livelihood demands it. There is nothing like complete and total cultural immersion to encourage a little learning.

The public transportation system is mostly hopeless – my first attempt resulted in two old ladies adopting me and dragging me from tram to tram, wordlessly pointing and smiling in the fairly correct direction. The only thing I could say was “Ekzarh Yosif!”, the name of the street where Animus is located. I arrived, eventually. The locals are genuine and friendly, and I think that is the greatest strength of the country.

It’s the most difficult culture shock I’ve yet to endure – this place is just so different than any I’ve encountered, and I’ve never had to be so completely self reliant – (which is difficult, but good, I’d say.) My flatmates are exceedingly busy and not available to hold my hand - though they are both fascinating to talk to in the evenings.

So, why is Bulgaria bizarre? Well….I’ll just write a few things to qualify this adjective:

1. The country is mostly run by the mafia. You know, like the kind you see on the Sopranos? I laughed at them when I heard the details – but it is totally true. You can see the fancy cars and the henchmen. They are of little danger to the everyday Bulgarian local – but they have their hands in every market, every government ministry, everything. It’s just a part of life…no big deal. What?! The mafia!?
2. The fashion sense is horrifying – lime green sweatsuits, mullet haircuts, terrible makeup, the shortest skirts imaginable at any age… you think it’s not a big deal, but it’s everywhere!
3. The population has a serious inferiority complex – most people believe the country is backwards, pathetic and virtually unknown. In my opinion, having just joined the EU and such, the only way is up. Half the population wants communism back – the other half are itching to immigrate to Western Europe – this place has so much untapped potential, it boggles my mind. On the other hand, Bulgarians are fiercely proud of their past…their Byzantine, Thracian past that is.
4. The taxi drivers have a strangely unified penchant for the rap artist 50 Cent
5. Just imagine – an abandoned hearse with a huge silver cross growing out of the roof. Not a big deal? Just imagine there’s still a casket inside. Bizarre.
6. The situation with the Roma (Gypsies) can be likened to 1960’s USA or to apartheid Africa. The discrimination is so extreme – it’s completely mind boggling. No one is doing anything about it, and it’s taboo to even mention that there’s a problem. I’ve been told repeatedly to watch my purse or “the thieving gypsies will steal it”, there is severe discrimination within the job market, education, everything. There’s not even an organization to fight for equal rights – it’s just accepted.

Anyway, it is nearly time for me to return home – my start at Animus has been slow on account of my internship manager not arriving until tomorrow. I am become accustomed to life here, and I will write more details about Animus and my work very shortly. Keep the emails coming, it is wonderful to hear from all of you!

Posted by MegMc2003 06:34 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (2)

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