Transforming a community is a long process. Take Malcho Malchev for example. Malcho Malchev is settlement of 4,000 people on the outskirts of Targovishte, a small town in the east of Bulgaria. Dust is everywhere. Streets are lined with houses that appear to be squashed together to maximize space. While some houses are in better shape than others, living conditions are pretty harsh.
Area residents recall better days. Times may be tough. The economy needs to turn around. But residents aren't waiting. They know that with a little help they can start improving their homes and communities right now.
A new and better approach
At the center of change in Malcho Malchev are housing mediators like Turgaj Ahmedov, who was trained by Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria. A new type of social worker, Turgaj comes from the community. He knows what people need.
Turgaj starts by identifying existing problems. He then helps fill out applications, estimates the cost of the work, puts together budgets, and finds affordable construction materials. He's part of a pilot program in three communities around Targovishte that provides small loans to help residents repair their homes one step at a time.
For example, Turgaj has helped Ognyan Rajchev apply for and receive the money needed to improve his home. Ognyan took out a small loan to transform the interior. "I bought the materials and did everything myself," he says proudly.
Today, he, his wife Svetla and his two children, Anastasia and Rajcho, are much happier. The children can study and use the Internet in a more comfortable environment. Everyone is healthier. Ognyan is proud of what he has accomplished and is getting ready to apply for his last no-interest loan to finish the roof and the facade of his home. "I'll repay the loan over 10 months and my home will be completely transformed," he said.
Basic improvements change lives
A few streets away, Svetla Hristova waits for Turgaj to come over and take a look at her home. She needs a €200 loan to raise and repair the roof on her home so she and her son and his family can live in a warm and dry house. "I'll even be able to stand while cooking," she said.
Svetla lives with her son, Marjan, her daughter-in-law, Julka, and their one-month-old baby, Serkan. The young couple with their baby live in home's original room that Svetla and her husband built many years ago. Svetla worries about her grandson and wants him to have the same living standards that other children in much of Europe take for granted.
According to the Bulgarian state national data, 40 percent of Roma houses are occupied by more than one family with several generations living together under one roof. Quite often, there are more than three individuals sharing a room. And, 70 percent of rural communities do not have inside bathrooms with another 40 percent having no piped water supply.
The large scale poverty is related to substandard dwellings that, according to Eurostat (EU statistics data), have one of the following problems: leaking roofs, damp walls, lack of insulation, bad doors and windows, lack of bathrooms or indoor flush toilets and insufficient light.
The Rajchev home had all of the above problems. "Our children, Anastasia and Rajcho, were always sick, coughing, and had runny noses,” said Svetla. "Three years ago we put in new windows, insulation, a bathroom and toilet,” she continued. “Touch wood” we haven't had to see the doctor since.” Now the Rajchev’s are hoping the community will create playgrounds for the children, so Rajcho can ride his bike further than the five metres in is his courtyard and play football.
Hollistic solutions work best
The leader of Habitat's NGO partner, Nevena Majarova, is aware of the problems that remain. She knows the area well and is concerned about the community's development and lack space for children to play. She even calls the local school "the ugliest in the area." "There is no investment," says Nevena. “We need joint action from all levels—the municipality, community, NGOs and residents. If people start living in better conditions and have better community support services and amenities, they will start feeling better and live a more fulfilling life.”
Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria's housing loan program targets socially excluded groups in 12 communities throughout the country and supports 3,500 families. The program, whose loans range from €200 to €500 over 10 to 12 months, has a 97% repayment rate. That might not seem like much, but for many families in Bulgaria it is a fortune. With an additional US$ 1 million in the home improvement fund, Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria can scale up the housing mediator services and implement them in more communities ultimately supporting an additional 15,000 people, including children. And maybe create some playgrounds too.
Creating a community takes time and the residents of Malcho Malchev are doing it one home at a time.
Habitat for Humanity in Bulgaria
Over the past 20 years, no new social housing has been built in Bulgaria. Recognizing this need, Habitat for Humanity has partnered with local NGOs and proposed a social housing program and criteria to determine which families can qualify. Data and information on housing needs collected by housing mediators are fed directly to Habitat for Humanity Bulgaria, informing proposals for changes in housings policies and national housing laws.
Photos: Terry Wilson for Habitat for Humanity EMEA
Video: Production Dissident, Camera work: Terry Wilson