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Racism, poverty mark Covid-19 blocked Sofia

"Dimitrina?" I have not heard from her for more than a month, which is unusual.


"Po-chi-na?" I type the word phonetically in an online translation tool. "What?"

"Почина. Me, Dimitrina sister. Bye."

I met Dimitrina on 19 October 2018. She had fallen asleep standing up against the wall of Second Hospital in Sofia, on the corner of Slivnitsa and Hristo Botev Boulevards. A woman with bright fuchsia sneakers the sort teenage girls wear and two blood-red scars on her nose.

Twenty-eight-year-old Dimitrina had a good command of English. Her one-year-old daughter, Vaska, was in the hospital. Dimitrina used to work in Sweden, but when Vaska's health deteriorated, her family called her back to Sofia. However, in Bulgaria her distinct Roma features made it next to impossible to find a job.

I called Dimitrina the following day. Dimitrina said the doctors had decided to put Vaska in hospital. We did not meet: she was living in Orlandovtsi, a poor, ghetto-like neighbourhood, and it would take her too long to come to central Sofia. There was nobody to look after the baby. After the umpteenth fight, her partner had left her because of all the trouble with the child.

When we met again a couple of months later, a boy, Assim, was with her. Both mother and son looked smart. They were going to the hospital to visit Vaska.

"He's small for his age," Dimitrina said about the ten year-old, "but he is so sweet." Assim adored his mother. I asked whether he went to school. "Of course he does," Dimitrina said. "Every day. School is the most important thing in life." Assim was eyeing my bike, so I offered him to ride it. He whispered to his mother he did not want to.

Assim and Vaska had different fathers. Neither of them looked after their children and Dimitrina's mother did not help, either.

In March 2019, after city authorities demolished some illegal houses in Orlandovtsi, Dimitrina and Assim moved to a shelter house. Dimitrina would often called me from there; the noises of a yelling TV and of children playing invariably in the background. She sounded happy.

Vaska was still in the hospital. Dimitrina was worried: "She's alone in a room. She has lost a lot of weight. The doctors say they don't know what is wrong with her." Dimitrina gave all the money she had to the staff so they would give Vaska the care she needed.

Dimitrina dreamt of living in London. "There are jobs, so many jobs." In London she could give her children a future. "A proper education. A proper hospital." But as Dimitrina did not have an address, she was unable to obtain a passport. Besides, passports cost money.

Despite her dire situation, Dimitrina had to leave the shelter by the end of May. She moved in with her mother, Albena, who lived in a council home. Albena sweeps the streets, a part of city initiative aimed to provide jobs to the Roma. She starts work at 6 am and finishes at 3 pm.

In the autumn of 2019, as Dimitrina was recovering from illness, her mother had kicked her out of the council home. After a short stay with her brother, she was kicked out again. "They always take my money and when it is gone, they kick me out. And money goes out quickly."

She and Assim had moved to Lyulin, Sofia's largest neighbourhood of prefabricated blocks. When we met, the Bulgarian summer had burnt their skin dark-brown. They carried a rucksack, a handbag and a duffle bag, where all their belongings were packed. Assim had to give up the bike I bought him. Dimitrina kept her personal belongings, mainly documents and photographs, in a small silver box. When I gave her 80 leva, she said she would carry too much money. "At night I keep this box under my pillow. So many times I have been stolen from."

Dimitrina hid her swollen eyes behind a pair of sunglasses. Assim did not utter a single word as he was submerged in a game on his smartphone. Both were shivering and looked like they had a cold: they had spent the night in a friend's rundown place. All night, it had rained inside.

The following day, the three of us had lunch at the KFC restaurant on Lion's Bridge.

Dimitrina said a prayer, but Assim attacked the fries and seemed embarrassed by her when her prayer took too long.

A group of children was at the table beside ours. They were Roma, like Dimitrina and Assim, but looked middle-class. Their parents probably owned stands at the nearby market. The girls stared at Dimitrina, appearing bemused.

As Dimitrina kept on harping, I wondered whether she was near a nervous breakdown. Did people actually treat her badly because of her ramblings?

As soon as we finished eating, Dimitrina told Assim to clean his chair and swept the table clean. Then she wrapped up the leftovers for next day's breakfast.

On the following day, I met Dimitrina at a bench at Lion's Bridge. We agreed that on Monday morning I would accompany her to the housing office. While we were saying our goodbye, she, for some reason, started ripping the cords from her tracksuit bottoms.

She did not appear on the Monday morning, and she did not pick her phone.

During the months that followed, Dimitrina and Assim were still living rough, but she was vague on their whereabouts. I helped them to have a nice Christmas but I never found out whether they actually celebrated.

On 25 February 2020, Dimitrina called me from the hospital. I was at work, in Brussels, so I said I would call her back. "But I am in the hospital!" Her voice expressed her astonishment about my indifference. I repeated that I would call her back.

I did not.

"Почина." After Dimitrina's sister hanged down the phone, I contacted a translator. I was Dimitrina's foreign friend, the only person she could practice her English with and someone who could help her realise her dream. But I had let her down instead.

The translator called her mother, Albena, to ask about Dimitrina's last days and what I could do for Assim and Vaska. Albena told the translator that Dimitrina died of stomach cancer, at her place, as the doctors had decided that she would not survive transportation.

Dimitrina Varbanova died on 15 March, two days after Bulgaria declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. The official cause of death was bronchopneumonia. She was not tested for Covid-19. However, her brother died of Covid-19, two days later.

Dimitrina has been buried in the cemetery of Dolna Banya village, east of Sofia. Albena did not organise a funeral service in church. She had to borrow money for Dimitrina's modest grave.

Assim and Vaska are now with their grandmother.


*Mike Diliën, who has lectured and done research in Spain, Italy and Argentina, works for Belgian national health insurance

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