In Smolyan we requested to stay with Valentin, a CouchSurfing host who had great references. We later learned that he runs an organization that is helping with youth development in his community. He built the Young Improvers for Youth Development (YIYD) center from scratch with many volunteers to provide a safe youth space.
Inside Valentin's amazing YIYD center
On the side, he facilitate projects funded by the EU Erasmus+ program. When we arrived there were already a group of Turkish and Macedonian with disabilities doing a project together. We helped out with anything we could. That included partying during the culture nights!
After that project was done, the next group started arriving for a Human Rights (HR) training course. There were about 30 participants from all over Europe, and now including two New Zealanders. Valentin kindly allowed us to volunteer and we also participated representing NZ.
These courses are available for all European residents, with most costs covered such as travel, hotel and food. A lot of focus is on training and youth development, cultural exchanges and networking. Erasmus+ projects are eligible for residents aged over 30.
Before everyone arrived we helped prepare and set up the conference room. Our first arrivals were the Portuguese ladies Bia and Lili (with whom we became good friends).
Luca from Italy was our trainer
The course was packed with a full schedule (and enough time to attend the Jazz Festival - see Instagram). Most activities involved discussions, sharing opinions and "no right or wrong" answers. There were a lot of activities involving the many aspects of human rights. The United Nation's HR charter was referenced many times. We had opportunities to talk to the local government, Smolyan's Islam teacher and Bulgaria's head of NATO. Topics ranged from immigration, religion, youth employment and other hot issues.
We had several activities where we discussed the troubles people have through discrimination. The refugee border crisis simulation was eye opening for some of us. Even though we had come together to learn about HR, some of the participants went power mad during the simulation as border officers. Perhaps they got into their role really well. Death threats, ill treatment of the vulnerable and other HR violations were observed.
Some of us really got into the role during the refugee border simulation
We had an activity where everyone had a role that was typically discriminated in society (such as being a Roma, disabled, HIV positive, LGBT, women, and more…). Through one question at a time, if the answer was yes, we stepped forward. Some of the questions were:
- Can I get any job I want?
- Will my life be negatively affected if I'm featured in the media?
- Is my home comfortable to live in?
- Can I have at least one holiday a year?
- Could I afford new clothes every 3 months?
After going through all the questions, we looked around to see the disparity between the people in front and back. The obvious question was: are these basic human rights?
Those at the front were able to answer "yes" to most of the questions
Some said those were privileges, some argued those are basic rights. A question was raised asking "can society work with everyone at the front?". We thought so, but some people could not imagine what a world without discrimination would be. A utopia or something too similar to communism. Maybe they haven't experienced discrimination themselves.
The situations (adapted to questions) used in the activity
With our 17 months (so far) journey we were able to share a unique topic to the group. We added a bit of colour to the discussion about LGBT rights in the places we have travelled through. From China to the central Asian countries, through the Middle East and now the Balkans. Since being a part of the EU in 2006, Bulgaria has made some progress in improving the rights of the LGBT community. They have had more than 10 years of pride in the capital and nearby Balkan countries are following.
We felt proud that one of the Bulgarian volunteers looked past the stereotype and tried to find out more about the LGBT community. Sometimes all it takes is to know one person, to understand their community's struggle. The key message we tried to promote was that we're all human beings and being a minority group we cannot win any rights in a democracy without support from the majority.
_Our Portuguese friends loaned us their certificate for the pho_to
Agree to Disagree
The training course was at a hotel that was in a residential area. Several participants were here to party, almost like a "21st" party. Some nights the noise was too loud in the conference room so the parties had to be shut down (it was 2am!). That night we overheard a civil conversation from outside our room. It was about having the rights to party versus being respectful to others wanting to sleep. Obviously HR were interpreted differently and since there were no right or wrong answers, there were no winners. So the party moved to another room so the locals weren't disturbed but neighbouring rooms in the hotel were.
Having good discussions with our pairs
The hotel's balcony is really close to residential apartments
Mix it up
We were a diverse group of participants: Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Albania, Italy, Greece, Poland, Romania, Portugal, Turkey and New Zealand. The different views on HR meant we all couldn't agree on everything. It's difficult to know what HR means to every individual, so a diverse opinion fostered good discussions.
One of the take home message was:
Human Rights and it's protection starts from... you!
Participants from different nationalities having a grand time together
It was without a doubt a time well spent helping out (and being a part of) in this training course. We learned a lot about HR and the daily struggle to uphold its values. With the different people we met and talked to, there certainly is a long way to go for HR to be guaranteed by every society. Some might consider them a privilege, or that it's the law of God that "such and such" are prohibited. Some minority groups may only be concerned that their own rights are protected while they infringe on other groups human rights. Perhaps some rights aren't possible for everyone until there is a significant shift in society, they were born this way, or if they work hard they'll get there seems to be an ongoing prevailing attitude even among today's youth in some areas of the world.