One-Heart Bulgaria, Aid for Roma Mothers

Published in the Fern Ridge Review, October 2019. Photo credits Jennifer Mitchell

When Jennifer Mitchell and her husband Nick Puff first met Luci in an orphanage in Yambol, Bulgaria, the nurses said she would never walk. She had been born three months premature and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, caused by lack of oxygen to the brain during birth. Because of this, and because there were only two nurses to care for all nine orphans, Luci had spent the first two years of her life confined to a crib.

Mitchell, a family physician, took one look at Luci kicking and spinning on her back and knew the nurses were wrong.

Luci, like many of the orphans in Bulgaria, is Roma, a subculture of dark-skinned, impoverished people. According to the 2012 documentary Welcome Nowhere, they are the most vilified people in Europe.

A Roma child playing in a village served by One Heart Bulgaria.

Also known derogatorily as Gypsies (derived from Egyptian), the Romas immigrated originally from India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They have been persecuted since their arrival, enslaved and repressed. During the holocaust, around 500,000 Roma perished.

The documentary depicts a Roma community of over 200 residents living in twenty-nine old train boxcars in Sofia, Bulgaria. They work as street sweepers, cleaning up after street dogs, and collecting and sorting garbage to recycle. Many of the children do not go to school because of cost, and because it is seen as a hostile environment. The Roma are shunned for the color of their skin, their culture, and for their reputation of being thieves.

Mitchell recently became the medical director for a non-profit organization called One Heart Bulgaria, focusing on what they call the “highest orphan rate in Europe.” She contacted co-founder Deborah Dushku when she and Puff decided to adopt from Bulgaria, to see what the organization was all about. Deborah asked if Mitchell would be interested in coming on board with her medical expertise.

Mitchell stands outside a Roma home with the local family.

“That was last summer,” said Mitchell. “I went over as a bystander.” When she got home in June, she started started working on a curriculum of pregnancy classes to offer Roma women out of a clinic in Plovdiv. “Maybe if we can offer vitamins and prenatal care, we can stop the inflow of special needs kids to the orphanages.”

In the Roma culture, it is socially acceptable for women to marry young and start getting pregnant at the age of thirteen or fourteen and it is not uncommon to have upwards of ten or eleven children. “Their family unit is very tight,” said Mitchell. “And the more kids they have, the more work they are able to do.”

“The Roma women are very good moms, their mother instinct is very strong,” explained Mitchell. They do not readily give their children up for adoption, but if a baby is born with special needs, they know they cannot take care of it, and so will leave it at the hospital.

“I think the rate of birth defects is greater there because of lack of prenatal care and nutrition,” said Mitchell. “The only thing covered for free for gypsies is the birth itself, in the most raw condition. Any extra care, including pain medication, NICU services, or prenatal screening they must pay for. And at $7 a month (wage), that’s not a priority.”

So Mitchell and One Heart Bulgaria has been working this year to develop a pregnancy education program for Roma women, a series of classes including prenatal and post natal exams. “We’ve tried to learn about the culture and what it’s going to take to get these people to come in,” said Mitchell. “They have to be given something, because they really have nothing. So we’re hoping we can entice them to come in with gowns and diaper bags and supplies. Complete these seven classes and you can have this bag of stuff for your baby.”

A Roma home.

The organization has thought to bring contraception to the Roma women, to give their bodies a break between pregnancies. “They’re having babies nine months apart. Once you do that a few times, your body starts to wear out and the babies aren’t as healthy.” It is a complicated situation, however, as the patriarchal culture encourages a large family. They have considered bringing IUD’s that could be removed every couple of years. “It is another thing we’d like to launch in some capacity,” says Mitchell.

One Heart Bulgaria runs several other social and medical programs. They sponsor orphanages, hiring Babas (Bulgarian grandmothers) to come in and hold the kids, to play with them, and to turn the babies that are bedridden so that they don’t get sores. There are also physical therapy, education, dental and animal therapy programs.

“Last summer we built a barn and an arena and bought two horses,” says Mitchell. The organization is starting a horse therapy program for special needs kids in Plovdiv. Any of the orphanages or families with special needs kids can bring them to ride and pet and groom the horses for free. Any other person in the community can come on weekends for $2.

On the website, oneheart-bg.org, donors can choose how to give, whether purchasing a newborn supply kit, or Baba services for example. Mitchell encourages donating money rather than supplies as shipping to Bulgaria is expensive. Also, the dollar goes further in Bulgaria and when spent there, will help bolster their economy.

Through the process of adopting Luci and joining One Heart Bulgaria, Mitchell has fallen in love with the country and the people. “I fell in love with their sense of culture. We don’t have that here. They don’t have anything but they’re always together.” She just returned two weeks ago to her Oregon homestead and husband and four daughters, and is already planning to go back.

“People will often say, what difference is this making, what is this doing?” said Mitchell. “But sometimes you just have to do something. There are thousands of orphans in Bulgaria alone, so is adopting Luci gonna change much? No, but for her world, and for mine. If I wouldn’t have met her, none of this would have happened, I would have never gotten involved in One Heart Bulgaria.”

Continued in – “From Bulgaria to Oregon, a Roma Adoption Story”

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