An American Roma comes home

By • on October 1, 2011

One sunny day,  I was walking around the Roma neighbourhood ‘Iztok’ (East) in the town of Kiustendil. I sat down in the shade of a large parasol at a street cafe to cool down with some cold lemonade – something every child dreamed of 10 years ago. As always, the oddest things in life can come at you out of the blue. ‘This is the American,’ said the girl, who was sitting with me in the thick shade. “What’s an American doing in the middle of a ghetto?,’ I asked myself. ‘This is Georgi, no, Jesse from the US!,’ the girl kept saying. And then I met Jesse or Georgi as they call him here. Every man or woman has an unique life path he or she can talk about at length. But some of us have more unusual stories than others, and Jesse is one of them. His tale must be shared. I could not resist the temptation and moved over to join Jesse’s table.

‘It’s them, that’s them!,’ Jesse kept thinking and his heart was pounding and the blood rushing to his head. He made his way to the group of people on shaky legs. ‘Yes, they are waiting for me, that’s them,’ he happily stretched his arms and here he was, together at last with his closest people…who were also complete strangers to him, who were talking to him first in Bulgarian then in Romani although he could not understand anything. And yet, he was hugging them and kissing them, and so were they in return. ‘This is my mother,’ he told himself. This was the happiest moment of his life. And the tears kept welling up.

This happened more than four years ago at the Sofia airport. Jesse Stuart was then 22 years old, lived in San Diego, California, and was visiting Bulgaria for the first time. More precisely, he was returning to Bulgaria for the first time since 1991. Before leaving for the States, Georgi had been one of the children left behind in the ‘Hisarlaka’ home for abandoned children in Kiustendil; at that time, the six-year-old spoke Bulgarian. Now Jesse speaks only English and not a word of Bulgarian, let alone Romani.

He arrived at the airport hoping that his biological parents would be waiting. The plane landed, Jesse got off and discovered that nobody was waiting for him. He bought cigarettes, and in his disappointment decided to make the most of his stay in Bulgaria: explore Sofia and then take the next flight back to the US.

He was about to leave when he realized he had not gone through all the arrival procedures, such as the passport check. And then he finally got to the arrivals hall. And there he found them waiting for him, with a photo of his. They would stand in front of all incoming passengers and would pass the photo from hand to hand. They recognized him right away and started waving at him. He headed towards them.

Now Jesse is back in Bulgaria, in his native Roma neighbourhood in Kiustendil, sitting out in the narrow muddy ‘Zimnitsa’ Street that has never seen tarmac. Jesse is staying with his parents Darina and Moni and his younger sister Simona, a pupil in the 5th grade, in their shanty-house that does not have proper plumbing or fresh water.

He has two older brothers, but they have families of their own and live apart. It’s his fourth time here. He spends two to three months at a time in Bulgaria and then leaves again. He does not speak Bulgarian or Romani well enough yet; neither do his parents speak English. And yet, miraculously, they understand each other in a mixture of Bulgarian, Romani and English. He even ‘chats’ with his neighbours and they seem to understand each other. ‘My-my, Georgi’s señorita,my-my, very ‘shukar’ (pretty) señoritayou have in America!’ – they tease him looking at a picture of his girlfriend, and he replies with a smile, ‘Yes, but shukar.’ And when the wi-fi at the local public reading room is not working he says ‘absolutely nanay internet!’ In time Georgi began to understand conversations in Bulgarian and in Romani. He was using a Bulgarian-English dictionary as an aide. His problem is that he cannot speak. For now the only person in the neighbourhood he can talk to in the language of Shakespeare is Alexander, who was also interpreting for me as I was interviewing Jesse.

In the ‘land of opportunities’ Jesse is a construction worker. He graduated from college already, but wants to continue his education in architecture. Jesse finds it hard to talk about the woman who raised him there and gave him so much. He was very close to his surrogate mother Sarah. When she saw his picture in the Internet she decided she wanted to take care of him. She flew to Bulgaria, adopted him and then gave him everything a child could ask for: a lot of care, attention and love. She never deprived him of anything she could afford. After the six years he had spent in an orphanage, Georgi had a wonderful childhood: he had the best toys, the most loving mother, the best friends. For four years, Jesse studied violin and played classical music and for nine years he did karate. Sarah was a mechanical engineer and worked for the San Diego city authorities. She was responsible for every piece of mechanical equipment in the city – from theme parks to zoos and garbage collection services. Jesse took on her love for cars. He has had three – ‘Ford Mustang’, a 1970s ‘Datsun’, and ‘Chevrolet Silverado’, but he sold the first two and kept the Chevy for work. Over the years, Sarah prepared him and told him bit by bit everything about his past: that he was adopted, that he is a Roma kid from Bulgaria, that his homeland is Bulgaria, and that in time he should look for his biological parents. She died around 5 years ago from cancer, at the age of 48. In the US, one never keeps adopted children from knowing that they are adopted. They think it is the child’s sacred right to know where he or she comes from. Soon after her death, her husband remarried. ‘He is part of the mafia. He’s no good’ – says Jesse and shows me a picture of his surrogate father who designs and makes knives. One of his creations was featured in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and hangs around Johnny Depp’s neck. When the second wife moved in, Jesse decided to leave his father’s new family and moved out. He now lives by himself and pays a $2100 rent a month. It is interesting how American families break up if one parent dies, especially if it is the mother – they lose their main support.

We left the unsightly part of the neighbourhood and went somewhere more central – where there is tarmac and more cafes. The wail of a clarinet was piercing the silence – somebody was learning how to play it. Jesse seems to be accustomed to the life in the neighbourhood. ‘Where do you see your future, in Bulgaria or in the US?’ I ask. He is going back to the US for several reasons. The first is that he could not bring his car over. Not for lack of trying – he put it on a ferry and got it to Varna (a harbour on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast). A middleman told him that he could get the car cleared and past the customs for 5,000 BGN ($3,500). But when the car arrived they asked for 21,000 ($14,700). ‘They wanted as much as the worth of the car itself. I did not agree and shipped it back to the US. Secondly, I cannot get used to the living conditions in the Roma neighbourhood. The standard is higher in the US. And last but not least, I have a girlfriend, a Mexican girl who is waiting for me there. If she comes here and finds out how people live she will go crazy!’ – Jesse laughs. ‘But when we get married I will bring her here, I will introduce her to my parents and we will throw a wedding party. When I first saw a wedding here I was shocked – so many people, such loud music in the centre of the place, and everybody dancing horo (Bulgarian folk dance) and kiuchek (Turkish folk dance)…’

Jesse will keep coming back once a year to see his relatives and keep in touch, but his life is in the US. His work is there, too, and that is important for him. ‘How did you discover your parents?’ – ‘I do not remember anything of my life here, but some places in the town are still somehow alive in my memory – the garden with the trees in the centre, the old bathhouse, the market, the children’s home, the town hall. In the US I was working on a building site with an American woman whose son was in the Peace Corps and was sent to Bulgaria. He sent his mother pictures that she showed to her co-workers. And it all began at that point.’ Jesse says he saw the pictures and told his co-worker ‘I know this place. I’ve been there. This looks really familiar.’ –‘No, you can’t know that, it’s really far away in Bulgaria, the town is called Kiustendil.’ – ‘True, but my hometown is also called Kiustendil.’ And he told her the story that he knew from his mother Sarah. He asked her to tell her son to try and find out who his parents were and whether he had other relatives. The traces led the Peace Corps volunteer to the Roma ghetto ‘Iztok’ and he contacted the deputy-mayor Stefan Lazarov. Stefan mobilized some resources and got to 22 Zimnitsa Street – located in the ghetto by the river. He found Darina, Jesse’s biological mother, and his biological father Moni and asked them, ‘Is it you who have a son adopted in America?’ – ‘Yes’ – ‘Well, he has been looking for you and wants to meet you.’ Tears and panic followed. ‘We wanted to find him, but did not know where to look or how!’ said a tearful Darina back then.

Jesse tried to reach them on the phone, but the language barrier made real contact impossible and Jesse decided to fly over and meet his parents, brothers, sister and extended family. He was so nervous about not speaking or understanding his family’s language that neither the ghetto, nor the poor living conditions made an impression on him at first. Only later did he start thinking about his day-to-day life here as an adventure and stopped stressing about it. ‘In the US, I always tried to see things from other people’s perspective: to listen to them, and to understand why they think the way they do. This became a habit that has proved very useful here. It makes it easier to see things the way people here see them and adjust to a different lifestyle for as long as I’m here. I don’t know why I feel the need to do this but I do it all the same’ Jesse admits. ‘What is your day like here?’ – ‘Actually, I’m with my family all the time. I spend my time with them. I don’t go out that much. Recently, I took my young nephews to the circus. I really liked it. I went to Sofia a couple of times to run an errand or two. We would drive there, finish what we’ve come for and drive back. I try to make my relatives stay, take a look around, go have dinner somewhere, but they always say ‘no time.’

I made Jesse talk about the Roma community, Roma integration and discrimination. He is embittered by the double standard. ‘I cannot understand why whenever I enter a store with my little nephew everybody stares at me. They think I might steal something. No, I am not going to steal anything. Sometimes I feel like showing them my wallet and telling them, don’t worry, there’s enough money here, I won’t steal from you!’ says Jesse. ‘The Roma are outside the law,’ declares Jesse. I ask him whether he thinks the state can make their existence legal. ‘There’s no way. Nobody cares. People live their own lives. Bulgaria has many problems and the Roma issue is not the most pressing of them. I personally do not see a solution,’ Jesse says pessimistically.

Jesse has spoken with other adopted children from Bulgaria – both Bulgarians and Roma – but they, just like him, spoke only English. All adopted children from Bulgaria have double citizenship. They all know that they have been adopted. He is the only one among them to have gone back to Bulgaria. The rest simply don’t want to have anything to do with their homecountry. ‘They have opportunities in the US. They are also afraid of the language barrier and of causing trouble to their surrogate parents who raised them, or to their biological parents,’ thinks Jesse and adds, ‘I had faith in God and in my family and hoped that everything will be fine and I won’t cause any trouble. I came here with good faith. I am so happy that I now got to know my family.’

Jesse has double citizenship as well. He keeps travelling between Bulgaria and the US. He wants to get a house in Bulgaria so he can enjoy normal living conditions and set it up the way he likes it. He is tired of being split between Bulgaria and the US. He wants to settle somewhere. There are definitely more opportunities in the US, but he has no family there – precisely the reason that made him search for his biological parents in the first place. He was missing the warmth of a home and a family, being with his mother and father and a bunch of merry brothers and sisters. Jesse asked me to put him in touch with someone from the US embassy in Sofia to see if they have a job for him. I did. I haven’t heard of him since. I hope he is all right.