One of the most popular first ports of call for new international arrivals to Bulgaria is the "Foreigners in Sofia and Friends'' Facebook group. It supplies indispensable immigration advice, recommendations for restaurants and clubs - and even potential flatmates for their newly rented apartment or new friends for a healthy hike around Vitosha. Most of its 40,000-strong Facebook members, however, know little of its humble past.
It was launched in early 2015 by Italian expat Giuseppe Di Benedetto. Initially, it numbered just a handful of foreigners and Bulgarians returning from their studies or work abroad (the author included). The main purpose was the same as today - organizing get togethers, as well as offering help and advice. Seven years down the road, Mr Di Benedetto - who remains an active administrator of the group - moved things up a gear. With his co-founder, Ukrainian national Anastasia Dehtiarova, entrepreneur and marketing content creator, they launched the Open Bulgaria platform to provide much-needed support and services to the country's growing international community.
A Covid-induced start
The idea of creating a service-oriented platform was not new - Mr Di Benedetto says it appeared shortly after the Facebook group boomed into a lively community in 2015. The following year, he established a foundation called Open Sofia designed to support the international community through cultural events, social meetups and building bridges with relevant NGOs and cultural institutions. At one of these events he met his co-founder, Ms Dehtiarova, who had just moved to Sofia after stints in Italy and Belgium.
"I came because I am an entrepreneur and a business owner, and Bulgaria has very good conditions for people like me. I did not expect to stay so long, but I met Giuseppe, the other co-founder, and decided to stay. Everything we created with him and the rest of the team made me stay," she shares.
The real impetus to launch the dedicated website came when the Covid-19 crisis hit Bulgaria in March 2020. "We decided to develop and release the website faster, to release everything we had in mind alongside articles about the quarantine. The team really saved me from the gloom of the quarantine that year," Ms Dehtiarova says about the Open Sofia platform launched at that time.
Earlier this month, the platform expanded into the rest of Bulgaria and is now called Open Bulgaria. It states that its mission is "to answer the community's questions about every aspect of life in Bulgaria: How do we settle and find a job? What documents should we prepare? Where do we study Bulgarian? What activities are there to enjoy in English? and much much more."
"Since the beginning we knew that if we could make it work in Sofia, we could have been able to scale it up nationwide. It was also the natural and inevitable consequence of having many team members living or studying or working between Sofia and other Bulgarian cities," Mr Di Benedetto says.
All that foreigners might need
"Open Bulgaria serves the international community with information, news, services, and social events. Its goal is to contribute to a multicultural, inclusive, and brighter future for this country," Mr Di Benedetto adds. The platform offers many informative articles, ranging from "top natural hot springs in Bulgaria" through to tips on learning Bulgarian and acquiring a residence permit.
But that is by no means the whole story - in the Services section you can find recommendations for language schools, psychologists and other help internationals might need, while in the job section the platform seeks to advertise job offers suitable for its audience. It also promotes events hosted by its partner NGOs, but also runs gatherings of its own.
It is no surprise that Mr Di Benedetto sought to create a vessel for the community - he himself is a sociologist of communication with a past as an educator, currently working in the field of community management, event organization, and social media. "I have always been interested in the social aspects of communication, in its different forms. A career opportunity in one of the world's biggest IT companies brought me to Bulgaria almost 7 years ago. A very interesting, international, and dynamic environment kept me here, busy and happy," he shares.
From non-profit to business
The creators of Open Bulgaria aim to start making some money from the services they provide in order to make the platform self-sustainable. "Without financial sustainability there is no future in the long run, and no success either, no matter how good the idea and its impact are," Mr Di Benedetto says. "We spent the first years supporting our community and growing a network involving other non-profit organizations and institutions. Now we have started finding ways to develop a budget, offering paid services for companies, organizing corporate events, advertising job openings, and developing business partnerships with service providers," he adds.
For the time being, the organization is carried by the work of 30 volunteers ("whom we consider our biggest asset," Mr Di Benedetto underlines) who author and edit texts and contribute to the platform's content in their respective fields. "We are all professionals - writers, designers, who are really devoted people who can ensure our advertisement carries quality," Ms Dehtiarova adds.
The duo - and their volunteer collaborators - look beyond the project's business potential. They see it as an opportunity to make the environment they live in better. "Our main motivation has been the great value we could create for our community, the positive impact on people's lives and on society in general. That, alongside the incredible amount of things we have learnt on the way, is already self-rewarding and reassures us about being on the right path," Mr Di Benedetto says. "I think Bulgaria is really underrated and people from abroad just don't know how interesting it is here. I wouldn't say it is always easy to settle, but it is not really hard. This is something I wanted to promote - I never felt so welcomed as here, not even in my home country," Ms Dehtiarova says in conclusion.