Children Raising Children - Poverty and Parenthood in Bulgaria

They say there is nothing better than becoming a parent, and the feeling of fulfillment derived from a life brought into this world. It is said that our most formative words are those of Mom and Dad. A bond unmatched.

Yet it is the case that even in the relatively-advanced countries of the European Union, new generations of children fall through the cracks caused by poverty linked to young parenthood. I read an article (in German) which pointed out that that most common nationality in which underage marriage occurs in Germany is among immigrants from Bulgaria. This stands uncomfortably in line with Bulgaria’s lingering status as the poorest country in the EU. Lack of education begets - or even ensures - poverty, and poverty combined with an ill-prepared parenthood can be a recipe for the devastated prospects of any young child. 

I was born to such circumstances - and by exploring my own difficult early path through life (as the child of young parents who were not in a position to offer me the security that parenthood should mandate), I will attempt to draw attention to a glaring issue. One which underpins poverty in some corners of the European Union.  

 

From Trakia to Wiesbaden

My parents were 16 and 19 years old respectively when I was born, and they were not ready to have children. My early formation would bear some consequences of this.

I grew up in the city of Plovdiv, Trakia district. I attended elementary school as normal, but my experience was hardly positive. My father took me to school, but he didn’t drive and he didn't realize that we had an exact starting time of 7:30 (for all classes). He took me instead at 8:30 - and for an entire year, the teachers scolded me for my tardiness. My father is a very good man, he would do anything for his children - but he was not good at raising us. Moreover, my parents worked late and I, aged 12, took care of my eight-year-old brother until they would return at 10pm. While my friends were playing football outside, we stayed at home. Sunday became the only day we could break this routine. As we grew, expenses started to increase and times got harder. My parents bought a house with the help of a loan - but after a difficult financial period, they were no longer able to make the monthly repayment. Our home was regularly visited by bank officials and private bailiffs. Finally, after a series of several missed payments on the loan, our home was seized. I had turned 16 years old by then, and I started helping the household with money - what little I could find. Then I received an offer to go to Germany for work.

So I moved. For the chance for a better life. But the worst years of my life would follow. 

At age 17, I began to work in German construction, surrounded by colleagues (men) in their 40s and 50s. I felt terribly out of place, as the realization sank in that this was my life, while others my age were in school. Over time, my parents and my brother joined me in Germany. Our life was not much more comfortable than in Bulgaria - and in our new home, we did not manage to integrate very well. It did not help that my parents had arrived with no plan: they didn't know where and how to register us for a school or a course. They just came.

My father was unable to find a job because he didn't know any German. For my part, I soon became used to hard work. I tried to attend German integration courses, but I had to interrupt them because of my need to work. I dropped the course three times. I still did not have a complete secondary education and worked in construction for 8 euros an hour. I also struggled to get along with my workmates. My colleagues were mostly monolingual Kurdish speakers. I am a Bulgarian with Turkish roots -  I speak both Bulgarian and Turkish well, but no Kurdish. Difficulties with integration followed.

 

Struggling to adapt

After some time, I decided to leave and look for another job - and immediately faced another problem. My boss was my landlord, and once I shared my ambition to leave work, he kicked us out of our apartment. My family and I went to live with relatives, around 400 km away. Having already abandoned Bulgaria, we were now forced to abandon Wiesbaden (state of Hesse) and move to Ahlen (Nord-Westfalen). It felt like having to start all over again.

I started to work again and for 3 months, everything seemed fine. But after settling into an apartment, we received a notice to leave, because the owner of the apartment intended to offer it to his own relatives (unironically, from Turkey). So we were forced to begin looking for accommodation - with the help of acquaintances - in Wiesbaden once more.

Back in Wiesbaden, we found an apartment for a short time. Our unfamiliarity with German social support worked against us - we did not even know that in Germany there are institutions like Wohnungsamt, which support accommodation-seekers and provide other social assistance. 

I began to start working as a construction worker again. Now, however, there was a difference: my brother also helped me - he started an Ausbildung, a form of education that allows children to pursue paid work, and continue school at the same time (for a period). He began to speak German well, and he helped us learn about different human rights institutions. I came to have more time, and I was resolved to take full advantage of it. I attended German courses again, I began to integrate, and I began to see things with different eyes. 

But still I laboured under the illusion that there could not be children like me. Unfortunately, from my most recent visit to Bulgaria (in April of 2023), I saw that the problems which faced me as a child are far from uncommon. 

 

Child poverty, and the phenomenon of young parenthood in my native Bulgaria

Young people in Bulgaria - children still - start having a family in the mistaken belief that this does not affect them, proceeding to share their fate on social networks with pride. Unknowingly, they contribute to a society low on prospects, rampant with child poverty, and an exclusionary society which does not have room for them. It remains a trend that families with limited means or without extensive education, may have comparatively more children than a couple with better social and economic resources - continuing the presence of a sector of society born without prospects. 

It is those of us who no longer wish to see children beg or work on construction sites who wish to see societies to all in their power to remedy the problem. 

Bulgarian immigrant society is growing in EU countries like Germany. Ironic, since the population of Bulgaria itself is falling. It is the social problems the likes of which persisted throughout my childhood (and which are not being resolved to this day), which are causing the Bulgarian population to crumble and its citizens to migrate (despite Bulgaria having been a stable member of the European Union for 16 years in 2023). Young parenthood is perhaps only a symptom, but a symptom which persists.

The problem exists with the help of traditional influence - matchmaking and the early marriage of young couples. Marriages are often directed by the parents of the children, with the young couples themselves largely blind to what awaits them. The problem persists especially in the Roma and Bulgarian Turk communities, of which I am part. It will not stop - especially as existing social services are vulnerable to exploitation, some are silent when offered even a token bribe from parents of betrothed children who are getting married. So the marriages continue - there are many video examples available on Youtube.

 

Finding a solution

In my opinion, Bulgaria should implement a strict but decisive deterrent on traditional family structures which risk causing children to marry and raise children without hope nor prospects. 

The country needs to spearhead the development of social services with the resources to intervene if a family is unable to provide for its children - services like Germany’s Jugentamt may be an example for Bulgaria: a system well-positioned to take children into care the children are at risk of poverty. Jugentamt is serious about its work - when it comes to child safety, they do not hesitate to work together with the police and other law enforcement agencies. In my opinion, these actions are the best that can be taken: while drastic, they at least provide a future for children who might have been left to live in environments which could not offer a life for them. While in Bulgaria these issues are not taken seriously, it is important to draw attention to the issue - which is vast in scale. It has been suggested by Bulgaria’s Ombudsman that up to twenty percent of children in Bulgaria are not attending school.

It is a hard fact that economically-deprived parents can sometimes not cope with raising their own children. From experience, I can attest that it is very difficult for a person coming from a poor family to develop and succeed professionally. From an early age, they may suffer hindered self esteem and personal development - and the scale of the issue cannot be underestimated. 

Perhaps, for now, there is little to be done other than to alert the world to the depth of the issue - but by facing this problem now, we will offer an opportunity-filled future to today's children and Europe will be a better place to live for all its citizens. 

Urgent steps must be taken within the EU to ensure that each and every child born in this part of the world should have an equal and opportune chance at life. Let us do what we can to prevent children from raising children. 

Let it be adults who do so instead.



References

  1. “Kinderehen in Deutschland: Hauptherkunftsland ist Bulgarien” - nordbayern.de https://www.nordbayern.de/politik/kinderehen-in-deutschland-hauptherkunftsland-ist-bulgarien-1.9620701 
  2. “Die ärmste Region der EU” - deutschlandfunk.de https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/bulgarien-die-aermste-region-der-eu-100.html 
  3. Wohnungsvermittlung” - Wiesbaden.de https://www.wiesbaden.de/vv/produkte/51/wohnen/141010100000009070.php
  4. “Von Willkommenskultur kaum eine Spur” - deutschlandfunk.de https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/zuwanderung-aus-rumaenien-und-bulgarien-von-100.html 
  5. “Bulgarian population shrunk over 10% in a decade” - Euractiv.com https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/bulgarian-population-shrunk-over-10-in-a-decade/ 
  6. “Exploring migration causes: why people migrate” - europarl.europa.eu https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/world/20200624STO81906/exploring-migration-causes-why-people-migrate 
  7. “Ombudsfrau: 20 Prozent der bulgarischen Kinder gehen nicht zur Schule” - bnr.bg https://bnr.bg/de/post/100678573/ombudsfrau-20-%20prozent-der-bulgarischen-kinder-gehen-nicht-zur-%20schule 
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