© Nikolay Doychinov
Originally published in German language in the digital magazine “AufRuhr”: https://www.aufruhr-magazin.de/europa/die-quelle-der-teilhabe/.
Katya Brankova is leafing through documents and quietly – but with emphasis in her voice – reading aloud figures relating to the water sources in the surrounding area. “The facts are right there, we just need to act,” she says energetically. She already has a plan. The 57-year-old teacher lives in Razlog, a town of 12,000 inhabitants in southwest Bulgaria set amid a breathtaking landscape. The River Mesta snakes its way through the valley, majestic mountains rise up on all sides, the air is clear.
Achieving more together: Katya Brankova was able to inspire her students to join her cause. © Nikolay Doychinov
The teacher is convinced that civil discourse starts with her students. © Nikolay Doychinov
“I love my town,” says Brankova, as she looks out of the window at the stunning vista. “What more could I want?” She thinks for a moment with a smile on her face. Then something hits her: “A cinema would be nice. That’s actually the only thing I miss here.” The old cinema was abandoned in the 1990s, after the iron curtain fell. How many other factories, shops and leisure facilities had to close their doors because either they could not find investors, the state had no money, or people just stopped coming. This was exacerbated by the fact that young people, especially, moved away into the big cities or even abroad.
The group wants to drive forward the discussion on the use of the many water sources available in Razlog. © Nikolay Doychinov
But it is not quite that simple: “We Bulgarians are good at grumbling in the privacy of our own homes. But we often aren’t brave enough to voice our opinion loudly and clearly in public. We are scared of how people will react. We are not used to discussing things objectively,” says Brankova. She claims that political and societal engagement is low in most former Eastern bloc countries and that there is no debate culture. But she will not stand for it. Her aim is to shake up society and foster civil discourse. She is starting small – with her own students.
Katya Brankova never tires of raising awareness on how to make the most of water resources. © Nikolay Doychinov
Flowers were once grown in these greenhouses. © Nikolay Doychinov
Bulgaria is one of the most water-rich countries in Europe. © Nikolay Doychinov
She shows photos of the water sources: polluted, neglected, and generally in a very bad condition. “There were once giant greenhouses not far from the water sources. Back then, flowers were grown for the entire country and they were watered using the water from the rivers. But now, there are just ruins.” Brankova wants to raise awareness among the people of Razlog about the potential of these springs.
Katya Brankova loves her hometown Razlog… © Nikolay Doychinov
…which is surrounded by mountains. © Nikolay Doychinov
Together, they have visited the surrounding water sources, conducted interviews with residents, and studied laboratory tests. “Nothing is impossible. We will drive forward the discussion on the use of water sources,” says Brankova. The teacher has also infected the project participants with her enthusiasm and resolve. “We, the young generation, must tackle these problems. And we can do it. It’s a very important cause. I want to help make the most of our water resources,” says Eva Brachkova from the project team.
“I am 57 years old, but I will never stop learning – I want to experience new things and broaden my horizons,” says Brankova. That is why she participated in the Capacity Building program “Civic Europe” by the organizations Sofia Platform and MitOst e.V. This training initiative helps local actors develop and apply their skills in their local area to the best possible effect. How do I write project proposals? How do I get in touch with the people in charge? How do I promote my idea? How do I lead a team? She learned all that in the training program at the start of 2020. “It was great to meet so many different people and face new challenges. It gave me a real boost for my project.”
News of water price hikes at the end of 2018 sparked protests in Razlog. © Nikolay Doychinov
Fikrie Bozova wants mothers to get better at talking to one another. © Nikolay Doychinov
Bozova teaches history and philosophy at one of the only Muslim schools in Bulgaria. “My hope is that the young generation will make Bulgaria a better place. And I am trying to support them in this with my work and my ideas.”
The region surrounding Momchilgrad was famous for the cultivation and processing of tobacco. In the 1960s, Bulgaria was the world’s largest exporter of tobacco products. One eighth of the population worked in this branch of the economy back then. But over the last ten years, the tobacco industry has suffered a decline: The demand from abroad fell, there were no subsidies, and slowly but surely the residents lost their jobs. Many of them saw only one solution – to leave Bulgaria.
She lives with her husband in Momchilgrad… © Nikolay Doychinov
…where she teaches history and philosophy at a Muslim school. © Nikolay Doychinov
This is where she comes in: She wants to help mothers with parenting, give them tips, and create support structures. “I studied child and school psychology. I want to pass that knowledge on.” Bozova has already given three lectures. Twenty mothers attended each time. She claims that there was a great need for discussion. “The mothers even started exchanging ideas with one another. That made me happy. I believe I have managed to break down the first barrier to more exchange and openness.” She speaks in Momchilgrad and the surrounding villages. In these outlying hamlets is where the need is greatest, she says, as the women there are alone and there are no experts or organizations that can provide help.
The demand for her lectures was high, but then along came coronavirus. Bozova has had to indefinitely postpone her sessions because of the pandemic. But giving up is not an option for her. In the coming year, she wants to pick up where she left off. And that is not all: She even wants to start an association and create a space for exchanging ideas. There, the neighbors can say anything they like without fear of reproach – because talking helps. Civic Europe is an incubator for locally rooted civic initiatives, organizations and individuals in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe realized by the Sofia Platform Foundation and MitOst e.V., funded by Stiftung Mercator.
Photographs: © Nikolay Doychinov