Thanks to Atanas, my AirBnb host in Sofia, I had the unique opportunity to work at a local soup kitchen in the Bulgarian capital. It was definitely not what I expected to be doing on this little cultural adventure, and with no Bulgarian vocab to my name, I wasn’t sure I would be of any use. Still, I loved volunteering back in the States, so I figured I’d give it a shot in Eastern Europe. Why not, right?
The event was part of Food, Not Bombs, a worldwide organization that provides fresh, vegan cuisine to the impoverished around the world. It was hosted in the Fabrika Autonomia, a community center forged from a crumbling old Soviet beer factory. At first glance, it felt like we were walking into an actual homeless camp, but up some stairs and through a metal-latched door, we popped into an open gathering place with a few plastic chairs and tables, as well as a small operating kitchen.
What stuck out most, was the ambitious mission of this particular branch of Food, Not Bombs. First off, it was run by a group of anarchists. In the U.S. anarchists means people in black masks that start riots and break windows, yet this group was dedicated to what they considered the root of anarchy: empowerment through building community from the ground up, starting with the underprivileged.
Not only, did the group want to feed the less fortunate, they wanted to involve them, asking them to help cook the meals and source fresh vegetables from local vendors or farmers. One of the biggest side affects of poverty is a complete loss of self-worth, but I watched the simple act of cooking give some of that back.
The second time I went to the event, Jimmy, an out-of-work construction laborer living in a gypsy camp, helped stir a giant pot of cabbage. His mother had taught him to cook as a boy, saying that someday he might need to survive on his own. Today, he was just as happy to provide for those around him, adding the perfect amount of spices to his culinary masterpiece.
Most of the poor were over 60 and could no longer work. There pensions weren’t enough to live on and their families had moved away. They were left to fend for themselves at their most vulnerable,
Though I couldn’t communicate directly, the stories came rolling in through some of the kitchen crew kind enough to translate. Ana, an old woman dressed in mismatched sweaters, a skirt, and tennis shoes had once been a lawyer and spoke four languages. She had fled Greece as a teenager when the Civil War ravaged her country after WWII, and earned her law degree in Bulgaria. Without citizenship, she wasn’t allowed to buy a house, and by the time she had earned her papers, her income had dried up, forcing her to pay for a low-income rental alone on the outskirts of town.
From person to person, each story carried its own power, and I started to realize that just being there—which felt like nothing—was way more significant than I could have imagined.
On my last day at the Sofian soup collective, a woman approached me after the meal. She wouldn’t stop thanking me, and I started to get uncomfortable with what I considered unjust praise. An interpreter stepped in and explained that the lady and her son lived day to day on what they could find. Sometimes that meant going three days without eating. When they did find food, she would give it to her son. She said she felt weak all the time, but the sacrifice was worth it—he was her only child, after all.
She wasn’t shy to tell us that she was suffering, and that she wanted the world to know it.
After a few tears she said one more thank you. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I couldn’t understand what this one was for, but picking up on my confusion she followed up. “Thank you for listening. Thank you for treating me like a human.”
I guess even when you feel completely over your head, showing up can go a long way.
Bulgaria Fact: The country does not use the Euro as its currency, but rather the Lev.
Bulgarian Word: Kade (kuh-day) which means where.