Varna Community Foundation (Bulgaria)
Embracing the other
What was once a thriving tourist destination, Varna, the largest city and seaside resort on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, is now facing a particular set of challenges. The last ten years have seen tourism dwindle, an exodus of educated citizens, and a resulting demographic crisis. Roma now make up more than 12% of the population, but live in some of the worst conditions, with a disproportionately high number living on the streets, and becoming involved in petty crime and prostitution. Anti-Roma sentiment is most commonly expressed through hate speech, which is disseminated by mass and social media, though intimidation is also common. Such anti-Roma behaviour is illegal and contrary to human rights standards in Bulgaria, but it is not regularly prosecuted, rather is often ignored and even tolerated.
In such a climate, how can a community foundation get its constituency to rally behind an unpopular social justice issue? The Varna Community Foundation realized it would be difficult, but this is exactly what it set out to do over 2016 as it created a new scholarship fund for Roma university applicants and students. The foundation used its Varna Giving Circle as a mechanism for raising funds and, beyond that, as a space and place to begin having difficult community conversations about integration. The result was the increased motivation of regular donors to address sensitive issues such as Roma inclusion, the inclusion of new donors hoping for real change, and the positioning of the Varna Community Foundation as a social justice agent in the Varna community.
And on 23 October 2016 four Roma students from the area, nominated by the Technical and Economics Universities in Varna, received their scholarships of BGN 1,000 which will be used to cover their semester and dormitory fees for the coming academic year. The guest list at the awards ceremony was notable: guests from both universities (including students and academics); the foundation’s individual donors; civil society partners; and other interested citizens from the community. So while these scholarships could be real game-changers for the four recipients, the Varna Community Foundation is aiming for more: enhanced public discourse on Roma integration with a view to developing a new Varna that is welcoming to those that are different.