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Bulgarian Tile Projects Have Roots in Berkeley: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday September 07, 2004

Sally Hindman has made a name for herself in Berkeley as the homeless advocate who co-founded Street Spirit. But if all goes according to plan, her biggest legacy could be in Varna, Bulgaria. 

Hindman first traveled to the Black Sea port town two years ago to adopt an orphaned Roma (“Gypsy”) child, but in the finest tradition of Berkeley do-gooders she threw her arms around the entire town. 

While spending nearly five months in Varna waiting for officials to process the adoption of her now 3-year-old daughter Sylvia, Hindman followed through on her planned tile wall art project for local Roma youth, assisted the local Jewish community win international grants to rebuild its synagogue left in disrepair since World War II and immersed herself in the city’s history, including its role as a chief point of departure to Palestine for European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. 

Now, armed with a grant from the U.S. embassy in Bulgaria, but still in need of additional funding, Hindman is planning a return trip early next year to oversee construction of a second tile wall she hopes can honor the city’s Jewish past and create a better future for all its residents. 

“I want it to facilitate healing around the past and put forth a vision for creating a tolerant community,” she said. 

The centerpiece of the wall will be a memorial to the victims of the Ship Salvador, which on Dec. 4, 1940 departed Varna for Palestine with 321 refugees and sank in the Marmara Sea off the coast of Turkey. Two hundred and one passengers drowned, 66 of whom are believed to have been orphans. 

“Every time I visited that little gypsy child, I kept imagining the boatload of people escaping in the middle of winter. Especially since my husband was a little Jewish child,” she said.  

When it comes to treatment of Jews, Bulgaria scores fairly well for an eastern European country. Nearly all of the country’s estimated 50,000 Jews avoided concentration camps, thanks largely to energetic support of Bulgarian society against the Nazi’s puppet regime. 

But like nearly all countries in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria’s Roma minority, which a 1992 census placed at 312,000, suffers from ingrained prejudice and has seen its standard of living drop precipitously since the country emerged from Soviet domination. 

“In Bulgaria, Roma never get a fair chance for jobs or education,” said Sani Rifati, president of Voice of Roma, a charitable organization based in Sebastopol, Calif. “With employment no longer guaranteed, they’re the first ones fired and the last ones hired.” 

Inevitably, he added, many Roma women decide they can’t care for their babies and give them to orphanages, the fate Sylvia suffered prior to her adoption by Hindman. 

Hindman said she witnessed local disdain for both minority groups during her first stint in Bulgaria. She watched a police officer beat a Roma man on a train and she tore down posters of hook-nosed Jews that served as an advertisement for a joke book about Jews. 

Even before her journey to Varna, though, she had drawn parallels between the two groups, which contributed to her and her husband’s decision to adopt a Roma.  

“We wanted to reconnect with Eastern Europe and with my husband’s roots there,” she said. “We thought we might have something to offer a Roma child.” 

Sylvia knows who her “mommy” is. The rambunctious girl, who competed gamely for Hindman’s attention during a recent interview, will accompany her mother in Varna and attend nursery school in her home town. 

While Sylvia enjoys a homecoming, Hindman will be hard at work pulling off the tile project. She hopes the wall will be both a work of art and a vehicle for Roma, Jewish and ethnic Bulgarian children to learn about each other and move beyond centuries-old prejudices. 

Before she begins the project, Hindman is working to raise $2,000 in donations to pay for Roma youth facilitators to lead tolerance workshops where Roma and Jewish youth will discuss the discrimination they face. 

Each of the Jewish children participating in the project will design a tile with the name of a victim of the Ship Salvador. Hindman tracked down all the names by searching archives at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. 

The rest of the wall, including its size and shape will be decided by a committee of Varna residents. 

Hindman’s last tile wall was built by 250 Roma youth, many of whom were orphans, and funded in part by the Gavroche Association, a Varna-based organization that cares for homeless youth. The young artists painted tiles demonstrating their future dreams and the final work now stands on permanent exhibit at the Varna Children’s Museum. 

The future location of the proposed project rests with the Varna City Council, said Hindman, who said she would lobby for high-visibility space. 

“This wall is a pledge for a tolerant city,” she said. “It’s a statement that this is our past but it’s never going to happen again.” 


Donations for the tile wall project can sent to “Shalom Varna Tile Project—Bulgaria” Central and Eastern European Program, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 847A Second Ave., New York, NY, 10017.