By Linda Bordoni
Pope Francis is preparing to head to the Eastern periphery of Europe for a three-day apostolic visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
His journey to the two predominantly Orthodox countries with small, but active Catholic minorities, is scheduled to take place from 5 to 7 May.
Both Bulgaria and North Macedonia have high unemployment and poverty rates, high rates of emigration and an ongoing struggle to handle migrants and refugees.
Bulgaria, where Pope Francis will pay a private visit to a refugee camp near Sofia, is grappling with political dissent regarding migration issues. These were triggered in 2015 when large numbers of Syrians, Iraqis and others began trying to reach Central and Western Europe using overland routes rather than by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Reaching out to those most in need – including refugees and migrants - is Caritas Bulgaria which is part of the world family of Caritas Internationalis – the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church.
Vanya Klecherova, communications and fundraising director at Caritas Bulgaria told Vatican News she hopes Pope Francis’ visit will open hearts and foster solidarity and welcome.
Vanya said that Caritas Bulgaria has been working to reduce poverty and promote human dignity for over 25 years implementing social services for people in need.
She explained that the social, health and educational care and services provided by Caritas Bulgaria through its member organisations are in support of the elderly, children and young people with disabilities, children and youth at risk, asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, single mothers, homeless people.
“Last year Caritas Bulgaria helped 5660 people in need”, she said.
Vanya said that in Bulgaria one of the most vulnerable groups of people is that of the elderly, many of whom live in isolated villages with no access to the health and social care that they need. For them, Caritas Bulgaria implements healthcare services thanks to a mobile team of professionals who visit older patients in their homes and a Day Care Centre for elderly people who are lonely.
Another vulnerable group, Vanya continued, is that of homeless people for whom Caritas provides shelters in various towns, mobile healthcare teams and programmes to assist them with food, clothing and social counselling.
“We also help them with the search for employment and to integrate”, she said.
Migrants and refugees
Vanya said that last year around 2500 people sought asylum in Bulgaria, and out of them 712 received international protection.
Caritas, she said, helps them to integrate by teaching them Bulgarian, by helping find employment organize meetings between companies and job-seekers, by help refugees to find housing, or at least temporary accommodation for foreigners.
“There are two centers of this type in Bulgaria and Caritas is the only organization that visits people who are accommodated in these centers”, she said.
Children and young people at risk
For children and young people at risk Caritas carries out various activities to support their education care for children living in poverty, and representatives of vulnerable groups. Various activities are carried out with children and adolescents to prevent drug addiction and human trafficking.
Vanya also specified that for children and young people with disabilities there are Caritas kinesitherapy, work-therapy, psychotherapy, speech therapy, art therapy and other specialised activities. Single mothers are also taken care of with a host of services.
Pope Francis’s visit
Vanya speaks of Pope Francis’ upcoming apostolic visit saying she hopes his meeting with migrants will foster welcome.
“I hope this gesture of the Holy Father will show all of us Bulgarians that we are equal in our vulnerability. So we have to help each other as Christians and good people. This is the only way we can make the world a better place for living”, she said.
She expressed her hope that his presence will move people to mercy and realise that refugees are vulnerable just as we are all vulnerable and that among them there are elderly people, sick people, children without parents, people with disabilities “just like Bulgarians”.
“I hope”, she concluded, “that this meeting with the Pope will open the hearts of people and make them more merciful towards all vulnerable people”.