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Dave and Mary Elstrom work in Nova Zagora Bulgaria
Dave and Mary Elstrom work in Nova Zagora Bulgaria
Expat of the Week - Strangers in town
Name: Dave Elstrom
From: St. Paul, Minnesota, US.
THE terrorist attacks of September 11 coincided with Dave Elstrom's meeting for prospective Peace Corps volunteers in Minneapolis and he sees those events as being instrumental in his and his wife's decision to dedicate two years of their lives to voluntary work in Bulgaria. "September 11 made us think what to do with our lives, and what to do to make things better," he said. "We decided it was the right time to start volunteering, rather than put it off until we retired."
They are now both on placement in Nova Zagora, a small town of around 30 000, close to Stara Zagora. Dave's wife Mary is teaching English at a local school and he is working with community economic development as an adviser to the local municipality. His main role is to assist local groups to find funding for their projects and, only nine months into the placement, he has seen some success despite finding progress a little slow. He recently managed to secure funding for a computer lab in a school mainly for Roma children, and has also been helping to set up a day care centre for disabled children in the town - the idea for which came from a doctor with a disabled child. "Now that people know me, they often come and knock on my door to suggest ideas," said Dave. "The doctor was one of those people, and now we're looking at an almost realised project - hopefully with funding for the next 10 years."
The Roma quarter in Nova Zagora is currently without a sewerage system or running water, and, although it would be a massive project, Dave hopes that he may be able to do something to help. "The bad attitude of ethnic Bulgarians towards the Roma is something that I dislike, though of course you can't just tell people that they have to like each other."
In such a small town, the two Americans are quite a novelty for the locals and Dave described it as similar to living in a fish bowl as their movements are constantly observed. If they sit talking in a cafe, it is not unusual for all the other customers to turn and stare at them. At a time when the US is featuring prominently in the world media, it seems that they are also regarded by some as the town's unofficial US representatives. "People definitely bring up the war question and that makes me a little uncomfortable" Dave remarked. "I'm really opposed to the war and I think it's a major mistake, but at the same time if I go into a store and the owner starts complaining about the war to me, it really makes me mad because it's not my fault. I don't blame the people in Nova Zagora for the faults of their Government."
He went on to explain that he's usually polite, and simply lets them know that he's not in favour of the war either, then leaves it at that. Bulgarians are generally surprised by his anti-war stance as they expect all Americans to support the war. Dave observed that people even seem to be a little relieved when they hear that he and his wife are both against the war, though he admitted that some of his Bulgarian acquaintances support it.
As for their personal safety, he said that he feels safer in Nova Zagora than at home. "The murder rate in the US is outrageous compared to Bulgaria, and there's little you can do about terrorism. You just have to keep going forward - I don't feel any more at risk than before the Iraq war or before September 11, and in Bulgaria I feel completely safe, though I sometimes worry about pickpockets in Sofia. Besides, if the terrorists are going to target anywhere, it's probably not going to be Nova Zagora."
Both he and his wife miss their friends and family from home and initially suffered from a sense of feeling like outsiders, but Dave enthused that they're fitting in more and more. He described how, on a recent trip around the country, they were both very tired and said to one another that they wished they were home. "Then we realised that we weren't talking about St. Paul, but about Nova Zagora," said Dave, "that was a weird feeling and it indicated to me that we're feeling much more comfortable here."
They have already built up a network of Bulgarian friends, who have also contributed to their enjoyment of the placement, as does the natural beauty of the country and what Dave described as the wonderful hospitality of Bulgarian people. Their stay in the country will come to an end in July next year, though they have the option to extend it for another year or two. Dave was unsure about whether they'll stay longer, but said that at the moment they're leaning more towards returning home "to the real world of jobs and all that."
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When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.