Anastasia Matuszak ’24 is a studio art and psychology major with a minor in theology at the University of Notre Dame. During the summer of 2023, she traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, as part of the Serving (in) Europe program. This opportunity allowed her to volunteer with Caritas Sofia, which helps refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers meet their holistic needs––physical, mental/emotional, social, and spiritual. The Serving (in) Europe program is now taking applications for the summer 2024 term, due November 7, 2023.
This summer, thanks to the generous support of the Nanovic Institute of European Studies through their Serving (in) Europe program, I spent a life-changing and unforgettable two months in Sofia, Bulgaria. Simply getting to live in Sofia for eight weeks was a wonderful cultural experience and backdrop for the volunteer work I did with five other Notre Dame students who were part of the Serving (in) Europe program with Caritas Sofia. We got to know the city’s churches, parks, restaurants, and museums using the metro, buses, and trams. However, what truly made my experience worthwhile and impactful were the people I met and the relationships that flourished as a result.
When I think of Bulgaria, I do not just think back to certain places or events. Instead, I remember the people I met and the many conversations and interactions I had with them.
My service with Caritas Sofia consisted of spending time with refugees from Afghanistan at the Voenna Rampa refugee center, as well as those from Syria and Chechnya at the Ovcha Kupel refugee center and from Syria at the Vrazhdebna refugee center. I also worked with children in the Romani neighborhood of Fakulteta and participated in art therapy activities at Blagoveshtenie, a day community center for people with disabilities. I also became involved with a summer camp program for refugee children, mostly from Ukraine. This was a personally touching experience, as I was born and grew up as a young child in Lviv, Ukraine.
Before arriving in Bulgaria, I did not know what to expect from my time there. The one desire I brought with me was to connect with the people I worked with at some level. I hoped that I would be able to make a positive impact, even if a small one, in their lives.
I also was excited to see what I would learn from an experience so different from anything I had done before. I am so blessed that these intentions were fulfilled to a greater extent than I could have ever hoped during my service there.
When I think of Bulgaria, I do not just think back to certain places or events. Instead, I remember the people I met and the many conversations and interactions I had with them. I remember Ani, a five-year-old Romani girl with an infectious and mischievous smile, who was also the reason I learned one of my first Bulgarian words—“iskam” (which means “I want”). I think about conversations with Mashal, a friendly refugee from Afghanistan with a witty sense of humor. We talked about his journey, Chicago, and so much more. I recently found out that he made it to his relatives in France, which was beyond exciting to hear! I remember the providential way in which I met Liza, a refugee from Ukraine who had moved to Bulgaria for her new job, and the evenings we spent together exploring Sofia and going up Mount Vitosha on a spontaneous trip to a monastery. I think back to Pavlina, who did a beautiful job declaiming poetry during a theatrical performance at Fakulteta. I had wonderful conversations with her through the combination of my limited Bulgarian and the modern gift of Google Translate. She practiced her poem with me excitedly and ensured I got pizza and Pepsi before she performed; she even shared candy with everyone on her birthday. I remember how Stanka would make cards for all of us volunteers when we went to Fakulteta, writing out each of our names in Cyrillic, and how she taught us Bulgarian words as we taught her English words.
I think back to Ruli, a refugee girl from Syria, and her amazing leadership skills as she organized games of dodgeball and tag, all without having a common language with the volunteers, and how she would make hearts with her fingers and blow us kisses whenever we had to leave. I remember drawing pictures together with Anton, laughing at his jokes when he asked me if I had a Jedi's phone number, and drawing pictures of Batman and Star Wars with him at Blagoveshtenie. I think back to jazz concerts and picnics with friends I met at the local Catholic churches—with Ivo, Victoria, Tedi, Thomas, Ani, Anthony, Reni, Domitille and so many more. I remember dinners on rooftop restaurants, babysitting for an American-Irish family, and singing in the choir at the Byzantine Catholic church. I remember finding out about the Byzantine-Carmelite monastery and going there for Divine Liturgy on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. There are so many amazing experiences I had and so many wonderful people I met in Bulgaria that, in some ways, it feels like my two months in Bulgaria were simultaneously as long as a lifetime and yet too short.
The joy and love of life - despite difficulties in the past, hardships in the present, or uncertainties in the future - that each of the people I met had, and shared with me in some way, were incredibly impactful. I am certain I will remember the people I met for the rest of my life, and if I were ever to meet them again, it would be a joyful reunion. Simultaneously, the time I had with them made me appreciate and enter into the present moment, leaning into my relationships with the people in front of me, in a way that I had not done before. The relational nature of human beings across place and time is truly universal, and sometimes it is even more beautiful amid instability and uncertainty. During my time in Sofia, I did not simply volunteer with refugees, Romani people, and people with disabilities. During my time in Sofia, I spent time with people and got to know them as individuals, and they in turn spent time with me as an individual, too. My two months in Bulgaria were an opportunity for me to learn to see the beauty in the temporary and to more fully care about and love my neighbor, regardless of where in the world he or she may be from or for how long or short of a time our paths might cross.