Forget white elephants, homemade jam and draughty town halls, the International Women's Club of Sofia is a modern,dynamic force - and they're here to help you settle in
Issue 1, October 2006
by Lucy Cooper; photography by Dragomir Ushev, Aleksandar Osenski Okay, so maybe the homemade jam isn't so far from the truth - "Of course we do tapestry, of course we do cookery classes, we do all the other things that women's organisations do," says IWC president Marianna Hill, but the difference is that, with members from about 50 different nationalities and a constant influx of newcomers, the IWC is always on the move and has a decidedly cosmopolitan feel.
"Women's groups at home are different because they're the same people all the time and at some point you exhaust the potential for meeting new people and learning more about life, about culture and so on," says Marianna, who is originally from Bulgaria,but has spent time living in the UK. "I'm a member of various clubs in England and there are more division lines somehow, whereas here, because there are people coming and going all the time, the spirit remains constant. For the last 15 years, basically, the spirit has stayed the same."
This spirit is one of friendship and inclusion. Members understand how difficult the transition to living in a different culture can be and are there to offer a supportive network for foreign women coming to live in Bulgaria. But the aims of the club go beyond this.
The IWC started in Bulgaria in 1989 as a club for diplomatic women plus some Bulgarians who were fluent in foreign languages. Later, it was re-registered as a charity organisation, with the objective of combining fun with noble causes such as helping the underprivileged. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of these underprivileged groups in Bulgarian society today," Marianna says.
However, seeing how these groups can develop and become self-supporting keeps her optimistic. "They are very good at grasping the concept of taking care of themselves, with a little bit of support at the beginning, and it is satisfying to see how organisations that were initially supported by the IWC are now thriving and achieving their goals and objectives. They're very successful in doing that, which is very gratifying".
Through its Charity Foundation, the IWC runs many fund-raising projects, working mainly with women, the elderly, children living in orphanages and homes for the mentally and physically disabled and ethnic minorities."Our Charity Foundation is in the hands of a wonderful person, Marie Halbherr. Marie is very energetic, she's a godsend," says Marianna. "She's working with so many orphanages. We're trying to make life a bit easier for children who are deprived of a normal home environment."
An example of the IWC's successful charity work is its recent Breast Health Awareness campaign. "The number of deaths from breast cancer in Bulgaria is still unnecessarily high," says Ann Stewart, the IWC's first vice-president. "Whereas in the rest of the world the number of deaths is going down dramatically, in Bulgaria it's still increasing."
This is largely due to the lack of a screening programme.
In September, Ann and the project coordinator Sonia Petrova, last year's IWC president Medi Al-Jebouri, and Katie Hill, wife of the British ambassador, travelled to Shumen in northeastern Bulgaria to deliver a mammography unit to the hospital there. The purchase of the unit was the culmination of four years' hard work and fund-raising efforts by the IWC and should prove invaluable in the fight against breast cancer in Bulgaria.
This combination of charity work, socialising and fun has attracted many women and at present the IWC has about 260 members. Up to 15 percent of these are Bulgarians, who make up "the core" of the club. "Foreigners come and go, but the Bulgarian ladies are the living history, if you want, of the club. They provide the continuity," says Marianna.Otherwise, the members are "predominantly foreign ladies; they are people who come with their husbands, and they have to accept a new culture, they have to live in a different environment."
"I have experienced it myself," she says. "Finding yourself in a new country where you don't necessarily know anybody, you need some place that is like a home away from home, where you can find friends and kindred spirits and people you like whom you can communicate with. That is very important and we offer this to whoever comes to this country."
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers