About two years ago, I met Bozhidara, 7, in Oriahovitsa, a rural village in central Bulgaria. “I play with friends and I have fun all day long. We play jump rope, we play with little cars when our moms buy them.” She has two high-spirited dogs: “sometimes, they jump on me and make me fall.” Bozhidara goes to church regularly. She believes in God. She does not believe that God approves of her father, who is in prison in another country, or her brother, who goes out with girls and drinks alcohol instead of praying, or her grandparents, who medicate with pills (grandma) and alcohol (grandpa), but she believes everyone should make their own decisions. “I want to be a pediatrician. I need to study a lot so I know what do with a kid when they’re sick.” She already knows about the urinary tract, the heart, and especially the liver. “One time, my liver was enlarged,” so the doctor took a look inside with a sonogram machine. Bozhidara could see inside her own body. She was fascinated. “I want to live in Bulgaria and be a doctor.” She is interested in helping people in other countries, too.
In 1963, 1 in 25 Bulgarian children died before age 5. Today, 1 in 200 do, but that’s the national average. Bozhidara lives in a rural village where the risk is higher. Her heritage is Roma, a minority population with “poor infrastructure in their settlements and neighborhoods” resulting in “a high incidence of severe chronic diseases and disabilities,” and disproportionate “suffering from hepatitis, gastrointestinal diseases, and other diseases caused by parasites.”
Bulgaria employs about 30,000 doctors. Fortunately, one is a pediatrician who lives and works in Oriahovitsa. The doctor used modern technology—the sonogram was probably common in Bulgaria by the late 1980s—but the doctor’s local experience with her community, and with parasitic diseases, led to a correct diagnosis and treatment. That’s why Bozhidara is alive and well today.
Mostly, Bozhidara enjoys being a 7 year old kid. She plays with friends, argues with her brother, attends school, and encourages everyone in her family to pay more attention to God.
When asked about her Roma heritage, and whether Roma or Gypsy were acceptable terms, Bozhidara explains why she does not think in those terms. She’s not happy with the fighting and stealing that she sees in others in the community, so she distances herself (except when attending Gypsy weddings, where she can dance, eat traditional foods, even buy used toys at the wedding’s market table).
Her answer to the heritage question: “I speak Bulgarian. I live my whole life in Bulgaria. I am Bulgarian!”
Bozhidara is a young girl who knows who she is, and where she is going. Her identity was shaped, in part, by 2 parents and 4 grandparents. The first known human settlement in Europe is located in Provadia, Bulgaria, 3 hours from Oriahovitsa. Maybe those people from 6,500 years ago are part of Bozhidara, too.