Keeping a Culture Alive

by: Brian Bushard

The island’s Bulgarian community has created a school in the basement of the First Congregational Church, where once a week around 36 young students meet to learn the language of their parents and their culture.

Gergana Neykova and Virginia Kostadinova wear traditional Bulgarian red string bracelets called Martenitsa on their wrists. The bracelets mark the beginning of spring. They also remind them of the homeland they left more than 10 years ago and the culture they left behind.

For 45 minutes each Saturday morning, Gergana Neykova and Zhaneta Avramova teach 3- and 4-year-olds a handful of Bulgarian songs and stories, often through arts and crafts projects.

When their children were born at Nantucket Cottage Hospital, they worried that they would grow up without a connection to the old ways of life in Bulgaria and assimilate totally into American culture.

In 2015, they formed the Bulgarian Education Center to preserve Bulgarian culture for their children.

One way to do that is by keeping the language alive.

“If they keep up with the language, they will remember it,” Kostadinova said. “But if they only speak Bulgarian at home, then after age 9 or 10, they’ll stop learning Bulgarian. They would understand it when it’s spoken to them, but they wouldn’t really speak it.”

In a room in the basement of the First Congregational Church, Neykova holds a rainbow-colored parachute, which she spins around on a carpet with another teacher, three 2-year-old children and one of their parents. She sings a Bulgarian song about the blossoming of trees in the spring. These children are the youngest in the program, which meets every Saturday.

Neykova moved to Nantucket from Bulgaria in 2005, after she graduated from the University of Forestry in Sofia, the capital and largest city in Bulgaria. Several years later, she met a Bulgarian man on the island, married him and had a daughter. She is now in kindergarten.

Her daughter has been in the program for four years. She talks to her grandparents in Bulgaria over Skype. She has also leaned enough about the language and the Cyrillic alphabet to write them messages.

“She makes a lot of mistakes, but she’s young,” Neykova said. “She just started reading in English in the public school, and in Bulgarian in the Bulgarian school, and she doesn't mix them, which is really good for her brain.”

Her daughter can understand her parents when they speak Bulgarian at home, but often struggles to formulate a grammatically-correct response. Neykova worried that her daughter would lose the ability to speak the language fluently if she were not taking formal classes.

Other Bulgarian parents on the island were feeling the same way. At the time, there were about 200 Bulgarians on the island. That included 50 children born to Bulgarian parents. Now, there are about 80 children with Bulgarian parents on the island. Thirty-five of them are in the school.

“These are our exciting jobs,” Neykova said. “We all have other full-time jobs.”

Kostadinova is a financial advisor at Nantucket Marine. Neykova is an artist and owns Summer Breeze Cleaning Services. School principal and teacher Ralitsa Mitrakieva is a paralegal at Cohen & Cohen Law, and another teacher, Zhaneta Avramova, is a server at Ventuno Restaurant and a substitute teacher at the Nantucket Intermediate School.

Upstairs in the Old North Vestry, Mitrakieva stands in front of a whiteboard as six of her thirdand fourth-grade students read lines

from a story in Bulgarian.

The students’ parents are Bulgarian, but the kids themselves are American, born on Nantucket. English is their first language.

Mitrakieva grew up in Sofia, and started taking English classes when she was in kindergarten. In Bulgaria, learning a foreign language is almost as important as having access to health care, she said.

“It’s a very beautiful country, we saw the best of it, but we left at the right time,” she said, speaking about the group of Bulgarians who have made

Nantucket their home since they first came in 1998.

Bulgaria is not a war-torn or politically corrupt country its citizens are escaping. The Balkan nation on the Black Sea, however, is struggling economically, and people who stay there often have a hard time moving up the economic ladder.

“It’s hard to find a place to apply your skills in Bulgaria. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard. You want to be free to do what you want. If you want to prove what you know, you should be able to do it,” Mitrakieva said.

Kostadinova came to Nantucket in 2005 after living in New York City for two years with her husband. He had a cousin on the island they could live with. She wanted to leave the city. It

Ralitsa Mitrakieva

was too big, she thought, much bigger than Pleven, the town on the Danube River where she grew up.

“We call Nantucket our home, we live here, we have jobs, we have friends here and we have families,” she said.

They had three children together, all born on Nantucket. Their oldest is in fifth grade. Her only experience with foreign languages came from Bulgarian class, she said.

“In Bulgaria, we always learn at least two foreign languages: English or French or German,” she said. “But here, they learn only English. No matter if it’s Bulgarian or Russian or anything else, it’s important for them to be able to switch between two language systems and be more flex-

ible and be able to accommodate different places and situations. Foreign language should be learned earlier in school.”

Avramova joins Neykova in the basement with the younger students. She wears a red string bracelet on her wrist as well. Each year, on the first day of March, it is tradition in Bulgaria to tie a bracelet to your wrist, and keep it on until you see the first blooming tree, a sign that spring is coming.

“There are a lot of (our) traditions that don’t exist here,” Avramova said. Many of the students at the school also take a Bulgarian folk-song and dance class at the Nantucket Community Music Center. Some also attend the ACK Rhythmic Gymnastics Club, which is led by a Bulgarian teacher who was on the country's national rhythmic gymnastics team.

Several weeks ago, Avramova sat down with one of her students after a language class.

“They told me, ‘Today, I feel Bulgarian’,” she said. “She really realized that she is both Bulgarian and American.”

As the students get older, they start learning more about the traditions and history of Bulgaria. Mitrakieva had her students read a passage from a story about Martenitsa, the legendary founder of the red bracelet tradition.

The oldest students in the program are in fourth grade. They started when they were 3 or 4 years old. They can stay in the program until they graduate high school, Mitrakieva said. At that point, they will be awarded a bi-literacy seal from the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science.

With that seal, they would not have to take a foreign language if they choose to attend a Bulgarian university, she said. If they want to live with grandparents or cousins in Bulgaria, they

can do that without a language barrier, she added.

One thing Mitrakieva learned while studying early-childhood education at Veliko Tarnovo University in Bulgaria, is that children learn languages best before the age of 10. After that, it gets harder, she said.

“I keep saying that if we get someone to sign up for even a couple years, it will be very helpful for them,” she said. “Even if they don’t use it that much down the road, they will have their per-

spective of switching to another language. Then they can pick up Spanish or French or whatever language easier.”

The school is open to anyone, but some knowledge of Bulgarian is expected, Mitrakieva said.

“Kids need to have exposure (to their culture),” she said. ///

Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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