January 2020 (Eva Magazine)
This is a story as old as Sofia and her:
An artist was drawing on the pavement …a girl on a unicycle*
If we are to rephrase Vesselin Hanchev’s poem and replace Paris with Sofia and the girl’s flowers with a unicycle, we’ll be telling Galina’s story in a few verses. It started more than 20 years ago in an orphanage far away from the capital of Bulgaria. The early stages of the democratic transformation of the country had generously spilled its gifts in the shape of cheap goods and fake brands, Roma camps and dancing bears were a common sight in big cities, the political crisis, called “The Winter of Videnov”, as well as hyperinflation were yet to be endured, rallies on the cities ‘streets were taking place every day…Private entrepreneurship was suffocating under the pressure of corrupt practices, imposed by the governing forces and no one was uttering a word about social policies. There were a good ten years to go before Kate Blewett came to the village of Mogilino and shot the outrageous BBC documentary “The Hidden Children of Bulgaria” and this started a chain reaction of events leading to the closure of orphanages. There were also ten years to go before Bulgaria joined the European Union. There were fifteen years to go before Bulgarians could freely join the international working market without restrictions. Those were the circumstances which the Ryom-Røjbek family from Denmark met when they arrived in Bulgaria to adopt their first child. Galina’s future parents knocked on the doors of the Yambol orphanage, a town they’d never before even heard of, in a country they knew very few things of. The doors were wide open, and dozens of children gathered in front of them, hoping that this time it would be their turn. This was the moment when four-year-old Galina saw her adopting parents for the first time. Her memories of those moments are not clear; they are vague and dream-like, emotion-like, heavy burden-like.
I remember nudging my way so that I could reach the entrance of the orphanage. All children were like that – we had to challenge everyone else in order to get the attention we craved for so much. During that period of time many of the orphaned kids from the central regions of Bulgaria were given for adoption abroad and I was one of the lucky ones.
During that time there was an unofficial division between the children in the orphanage – the so called “perfect” kids who were meant for adoption right away and “difficult children” – those with special educational needs or disabilities. There were also those who were somewhere in between, almost hanging between two worlds. Depending on reviews they were often placed in one of these groups or another. In such an environment the rivalry between the children and their immense desire to stand out from the others and be noticed was at the basis of the future development of their characters and a trace that would mark them forever.
I remember very clearly when they told me that my parents were coming to get me. I was, for the first time in my life, overwhelmed with joy and elation, so normal for the end of waiting that had lasted for years in a row. A feeling of victory. I just wanted to leave everything behind and run away.
Before they left Bulgaria, the Ryom-Røjbek family and their newly-adopted daughter spent a week in Sofia. Those few days were like an introduction into the world. For a child that had spent four years behind the walls of an orphanage, the streets of the Bulgarian capital were a real challenge. She was not prepared for the outside world’s obstacles. She didn’t have an instinct of self-preservation. She was almost attacked by a dancing bear. Her parents managed to pull away the girl, who excitedly rushed towards the animal, а minute before the bear fell down on her. At this moment they knew they were faced with the difficult task of explaining to their young daughter general things about life, bravery, fear and the boundaries of communications.
It was a big challenge also because Galina was eager to catch up with everything she’d missed from life up until that moment.
I remember rushing towards the plane. I was nudging my way among all passengers, wishing to board the airplane first. I knew that what was waiting for me was better than anything I’d ever experienced. And I was so eager to dive into this world of new possibilities!
Her arrival in Denmark set completely new values to her emotional appreciation of childhood. She knew for the first time what it was to be part of a family. She now remembers the friendly faces of her grandparents, meeting her cousins for the first time, the feeling of family warmth. The first family bonds were built.
Despite the newly-gained feeling of harmony Denmark welcomed her with, Galina continued to feel anger inside during the first years of the adoption. She processed her emotions with the help of her fists, making holes on the walls in her room. She was fighting her schoolmates. She was asking herself every day: “What made my biological mother abandon me – was she poor, was she sick, was she hurt…and is she still alive?” Her constant support were her adopting parents who never gave up on her daughter in spite of the demons that chased her. They were sincere to her since the very beginning. They helped her search for information for herself through the adoption papers they had. At the age of ten, Galina was completely free to make a research of all the available information she had on her origin. She need to gain access to that information in order to learn more about her own character, her behavior, her reactions in specific situations.
Due to the fact I had the freedom to explore my own origin, I am now completely OK to talk about this subject. There are a lot of people in my situation who know nothing about where they come from and face challenges in their self-identification and the way they communicate with other people.
The desire to race with time was part of Galina’s growing up. She always wanted to shine, to do something unique, to be noticed by everyone. The stigma from her childhood made her experience losses very hard and in order not to let negative emotion become part of her life again, she worked on her character to become a winner – in school activities, in sports competitions, in relationships with people. In her teenage years she was busy a hundred per cent of the time – she achieved excellent results in school, she practiced painting and music, she was interested in Biology and the human anatomy, and she also worked at the local horse farm, where she learnt to ride and also helped people with disabilities ride horses. She practiced sports gymnastics. During that time she had already found her unique tool of self-expression – the unicycle – and was preparing herself to participate in a national and a world championship. Doing all these things, she was able to get rid of the negative emotions that were still haunting her.
“Most of my friends were doing one or two things simultaneously, but I had to be occupied physically and emotionally all the time. If someone told me: You can’t play football, I would brace myself up and showed them that I could and could do so better than themselves. I was always trying to be perfect, in every aspect of my life.”
Her return to the country she was born in happened by chance. With the passing of time she learnt that a lot of the information in the adoption papers was not genuine and there were many things that remained a mystery. She spent a lot of time online, trying to find traces of her past. And the moment came when she no longer wanted to dig up the past and chose just to move on. When she graduated her four-year studies of contemporary circus art in Copenhagen, she started something like a world tour, taking part in street performances with her unicycle. She started in Africa where she was faced with the philosophy of social circus for the first time, whose purpose is to give underprivileged children a better chance for social inclusion. Her work with underprivileged children in Nairobi, Kenya made her realize one more time that she came from a very different world from the one she inhabited now and that there were many children who weren’t lucky enough to be adopted in a loving family. She found satisfaction in passing her knowledge to those who really needed it. She traveled Australia, Japan, the United States, Canada, continuing to do so. After the end of her journeys, she came back to Copenhagen and continued her social work as a circus artist, taking part in integration programs for refugees. She found out that the point of constantly gaining new skills was not for her to stand out, but to pay them forward, to help other people become part of a larger community. At that moment of revelation she took the decision to go back to Bulgaria.
In 2015 I heard that the process of closing down orphanages in Bulgaria had already started. It was the last chance for me to find out the truth about myself. I had the support of my family and in September 2016 I arrived in Yambol. Unfortunately, the doors of the orphanage were closed. I managed to enter a few days later, arranging with the director a performance with my unicycle for the kids inside. I remember it was terribly hot. They let me walk in the building. I recognized some objects from my childhood. The rest of the story remains a mystery to me to this day.
Galina came back to Sofia with the intention to return to her home a few days later. Through some Danish acquaintances though, she received an invitation to shoot an advertisement on the Bulgarian seaside and she happily agreed, as it was connected to her unicycle activities. An adventure began, where she met unique people and experienced extreme things that would change her whole attitude and spark her curiosity in Bulgarian culture and people. Her new friends introduced her to the founder of the International festival for contemporary circus Mini Art Fest, Geo Kalev. The pair of them exchanged experience and information and realized that they could mutually benefit from each other. Galina decided to stay for two more weeks and pass her knowledge, but the two weeks somehow turned into two months which turned into two years..and so it goes…
Being a perfectionist is still part of Galina’s life. She knows there are two ways of doing something – the easy way and the right way. And she always chooses the second way. She invests enough time and energy in all her projects. Such is the case of the Social Circus for Hope, which is about to be set up in Bulgaria as part of her Mini Art Foundation, after the model of the social circus she traveled the world with. Here, as in her similar activities worldwide, she will help underprivileged children be integrated in real environment. She will teach them circus tricks, explaining the philosophy behind all of them. She will reveal to them how to use juggling in order to better their mathematics skills. She will assist them in becoming part of a community where helping each other matters the most. Galina has already been doing this in the Waldorf School in Sofia, which is part of the school system she graduated at in Denmark. During the past year her story became popular on different platforms, such as TEDxSofia. During the past three years her friends and fans meet her on Sofia streets together with her constant companion, the unicycle, which was the main reason behind her return to Bulgaria. This is a long-term project, it seems.
You may ask: “How did her adopting parents react to her decision to stay in her homeland?”
They supported me, of course. There was a little resistance at the beginning, but it was typical for parents who just missed their daughter’s presence. A year and a half later and after two visits to Bulgaria the picture is quite different. And Bulgaria has changed so much since the time I almost died in a dancing bear’s paws. Today life here is different and they are aware of that. They can see that I have so many more opportunities than I could have, living in Denmark. They respect my choice. This has nothing to do with my origin.
Galina’s story is yet to be told. No, she won’t be washed away by the rain on the pavement, as it happens in Vesselin Hanchev’s poem, but will continue searching for her home in all possible ways. Because home is not a space with four walls and a roof, it is not something you find in your biological parents or in the people who just pass by your life. Home is the place where you are allowed to follow your dreams. Even if this place happens to be a unicycle!
*A poem by Bulgarian poet Vesselin Hanchev