The Little Girl at the Gate

Peering through a gate, a little Bulgarian
girl watched visitors from a world she does not know. Is her future in that
wider world, or will she be standing on the outside looking from afar? This is
a question only time will tell as developing nations fall further behind the
technological and industrial powerhouse economies in the developed
world.

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Standing at the gate of the small United Methodist church in the village of Staro Orjahovo, Bulgaria, the little girl looked forlorn. She watched a group of visitors from many nations in the developing world, people dressed differently, carrying cameras and other valuables she has never touched, nor perhaps, seen so close-up.

She holds a long bun with a sliver of pressed meat laced by strands of mayonnaise and ketchup, a special lunch prepared by the church members for these guests, themselves and the children. Her hair is tangled and her clothing somewhat less than Sunday-best.

This is a poor village where socks with holes worn through are less a sign of indignity than of use. Use things until they are worn out, then save the remnants to use in some way other than their intended purpose. This is the way of poverty, to use things until they are used up.

She is a child of the Roma, an ethnic group known by some as Gypsies, a term the people consider prejudicial and negative, so they reject it. They are a marginalized people in a marginalized land.

If our children are our future, then one must wonder what the future holds for the little girl at the gate. It’s not a question she can answer alone. Those who provide her education, health care and skills training will, to a considerable degree, answer for her because they will provide the conditions that will encourage or prevent her from achieving a more secure, comfortable future.

Today after nearly two decades past the Soviet-era, her future looks as uncertain and dismal as ever.

Bulgaria is poor. The people lately have taken to voting for communist party candidates again because they are even worse off in today’s free market economy than under Soviet collectivism

Bulgaria is behind. It’s behind the global economy. It’s behind in the skills and industrial capacity needed to compete today.


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And it’s behind in knowledge, if not in spirit. A whole generation matured under the dulling effect of collectivization. They were guaranteed a job, not a great job but one that brought in a salary; not a great salary, but something to help people get by.

This devil they know looks better in the rear-view mirror than the drab struggle seen through the window of the present. Of course the system was stultifying and stale, some say, and enormous energy was spent controlling people and breaking their independence. But at least you had work to occupy your time and there was food, however sparse.

Like a room from which the oxygen has been sucked out, the Bulgarian countryside feels stale with the heaviness of poverty. Instead of encouraging new skills and fostering innovation, the collective system tried to contain free thinking and it was doggedly regulated, routine and cumbersome. To the degree it succeeded, it also held back forward movement, creativity and competitiveness.

It undermined belief in the ability of individuals to determine their future. In theological terms, it sought to erase a tenet of Christian faith that every person is called to claim a destiny blessed by their Creator.


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Skills that are now essential to participate in a global economy that includes the U.S., Europe, China, Japan and India, among the many players, were not taught, or passed along. How can tiny Bulgaria, so disadvantaged and so long repressed, become a participant in this global economic playing field? How can people learn what they don’t know and learn it in digital time?

Only time will tell. And, honestly, I cannot guess whether the little girl with the dark brown eyes that look longingly through the gate is seeing her future, or a world she will never know.

(Postscript: Legal challenges in Bulgaria and Hungary on behalf of Roma children hold out hope that educational opportunity will be extended to them and that civil rights will be granted to the Roma people. See this story in today’s New York Times.)

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