Ivodor Kovachev: “Forget what you have been and let’s see what you can be!”
With these words Ivodor Kovachev, founder of Mission Salvation Foundation and leader of the project “The way of the new beginning”, often addresses the prisoners. Already 18 years now, people with bulky criminal files are sharing with him their internal struggles and contradictions, uncover their souls and their most cherished secrets, looking for hope and meaning in life.
Mr. Kovachev, what is the idea and goal of the project “The way of the new beginning”?
The title “The way of the new beginning” gives a hint about our basic conviction and belief that when we talk about new beginning it corresponds to the idea about second or third chance. Each chance is a new beginning. The idea of the project is by doing what we are doing and continue in it about the sentenced is to give them a chance to decide to live again, to put a beginning of their lives in a different setting, different conditions and with a different value system.
Do you believe that people with criminal past, with hardened heart can get to such a transformation? What do your many years of experience and practice show?
Do I believe that they have the right for a second chance, if they can start all over again? If I don’t believe it I would do nothing, I wouldn’t get out of my bed to make whatever effort in this direction. Do I believe that most of them would accept the challenge and start all over again? No, I don’t. The experience shows that a small number of them make such decision and open new door, start a new beginning. And my focus is exactly on them and I am ready to give everything for them. They give meaning to my efforts.
In the project these people are defined like vulnerable group. Hardly ever society will perceive them as such because many people consider that prisoners don’t have the right of a second chance. Why do you think they are vulnerable?
I don’t believe they were born criminals and that is the destiny of their lives. I don’t believe they need to inherit the karma of some fabricated past life and that’s why they deserve the fate they have. I believe they are in the situation they are because in the past they happen to be in the wrong environment, in the wrong time. This caught them unprepared and they and they did the things they did. If they’ve had the right environment and a good value system laid down as a foundation, I think they would’ve never gotten into their present situation. New beginning means to lay a new foundation. New construction doesn’t mean renovation of something old, but to completely tear down the old and lay a new foundation. What I am trying to do is to tell them: “Forget what you have been in the past and let’s see what you can be!”
Which is the right way in order to get to them and to challenge them to place this new beginning?
There are many different ways. One of them is by winning them as friends and touching their spiritual make up. The other way is to really impress them with what you are and to gain their respect. And the most important is, after gaining their trust and respect, to take them to a place of transformation, which comes as a result of the decision: “I want to be like this man”. That is why our facilitators make every effort to get down to their level in order not to appear as someone that wants to force something upon them but rather be people who understand their condition and by no means discriminate them, in spite of the awareness that some inmates have done horrible things. If we are able to receive them as people I think we are going to be a lot closer to this new beginning. I’d go back to your question about society that is disposed that they have the right to have a new beginning or second chance. Out of my experience I can tell that it is so. Recently a lady called and said she wanted to give clothes to the Mission. My wife confirmed that we need this kind of help because we work with prisoners and we could help them. However, when the woman heard this on the phone, she responded: “Oh, no way! I don’t want to help them!” Then my wife told her that we will direct the help to the wives and mother, who we work with but she replied she would call again if she ever decides to do it. So, in most cases, this is the mindset of society. People don’t understand that if you are behind bars and you are getting more exasperation and rejection, one has no chance to get out of this place and continues to be the person he is. If you are shown some kindness and goodness, there is chance to realize that you are also human being and you can live in a better way.
How in reality are you trying to assist them through the project “The way of the new beginning”?
I have attended at many of the seminars which we started in the prison. The facilitators whom we selected are not only professionals in their area of expertise but also people with values. What I hope and see already taken place is that facilitators themselves impress the prisoners as people. Most of the trainers have experienced the new beginning in their own lives. Since they were not born in rich families and climbed to the present position on their own, and it is all because they didn’t compromise their values and had a goal in front of them. This personal example wins the inmates. From this point on he is ready to listen to what they teach him. And these are extremely practical things – how to manage their personal finances, how to be good stewards of what they own. The course on entrepreneurship helps them to self-define where are they at – do they want to be entrepreneurs or clerks, it teaches them how with little means to start a small or medium size business, how to invest the resources they have in order to get some profit. There are also classes on applied arts which helps them to relief their souls. I’ve also attended at the music workshops. They have formed a band with a drum, guitar, accordion and clarinet. Some of the inmates are learning how to play the instrument, others already can and Angel, who teaches them, synchronizes them. They also sing, which by itself is a great advancement. It was a miracle to have people, who has never sung and consider it to be a sign of weakness. However, at this time we’ve got nearly ten people who agreed to become part of it. At the music workshops besides playing, they make records and learn some songs. One of them is Vasil Naidenov’s song “Frankly, everything is alright with me”. I can how the setting itself creates a positive atmosphere. Without exaggeration, I can assure you that they come out of these classes empowered, that they can be something different then the pickpocket, the thief or the man with criminal habits.
What is the interest, do they want to get involved in the courses?
Some of them begin simply out of curiosity, without having no idea that they are going to use what they are learning. I know most of them and I am sure that they are quite critical toward any initiative inside the prison. But when I talk to them after the training they are exceptionally positive. I omitted to mention the courses on leadership. Many of them are leaders, however in the wrong direction and for wrong causes. What I try to impart in them is leadership in the context of positive results, uniting a group of people who can make something good in society.
What is the role of the volunteers?
We’ve got two kinds of volunteers. With one of them we’ve been working for years with the inmates and they haven’t had criminal past but want to help such people. The other group are people who have been through prison, served their time, undergone the transformation and want to devote the rest of their lives helping people like the old selves, before they have changed. Almost every week in personal meetings and every month in group meetings with the volunteers, I meet them and they share their experience, they’ve been through, trying to get an advice concerning some future situations they need to resolve. The volunteers who’ve been through prison have a great reputation amongst the inmates, at this point. I greatly stake on them because the inmates pay attention to them. Just as when an ex-drug addict speaks to a man, who is an addict at the moment and the later is attentive to hear, so a man who’s been in prison can get a lot more effective results.
You’ve got serious experience under your belt. Could you share from your practice so far some good examples of people taken the new way?
There are many examples and some of them are quite popular, who in the past have been defined as mark people from the criminal world. For example, Michael Kapustin who I worked with for about 9 years. He made a radical decision from now on to live in a different way. The two Ukrainians from the Lukanov’s case. They were the and were given a life sentence. They served 7 years and then were discharged. I guess that the time I spent with them in prison was beneficial for them because at present they’ve got decent families and they are away from the criminal life style. I don’t know how much of that life they have had in the past but now they certainly are not living it. There are examples of people who are sentenced for different cases connected with the organized crime. At present, I work with some of them part of the so called group of the “Killers”, the group of the “Impudent”. Or at least, this is what they are charged with. I am not interested in their past but can definitely tell that something good is taking place in their lives. I say that with no hesitation because I meet with them every week, with some of them twice a week and I can confirm these positive changes. A good example for man, who is already out of prison, is an Iranian citizen, Ali Dini. He has a horrible past with kidnappings, murders, drug trafficking. He is now 4 years out of prison and I worked with him for 4 years while still in it. At the moment, he is the gem amongst the fruits of positive changes.
What support do you provide for those who are already out of prison?
It depends on their needs. If it is a home we try to find one and for certain period of time we cover the rent and other expenses. If it food – we provide it, if cloths – we supply them. This is the least we can do. Naturally, there should be resources – you can’t do it without. We are almost always on the edge in order to make this support possible. However, the main thing we provide is a new environment, new relationships, and new friendships. The volunteers get involved and actively work with them, meet with them. They don’t leave them alone.
How do you help the families of the prisoners?
At present we work with a few families. If the wives need jobs we refer and recommend them to employees. They could also be included in the list for paying their bills because when the father is in prison it is quite difficult for the wife to take responsibility and cover alone all the expenses at the end of the month. We care for the children. Very often we provide for them free of charge spot at our cultural and educational center “The Palace of The Happy People”, where they can learn different things in the area of culture and art. Something they could never afford on their own. We also counsel the growing ups, especially when they are at the teen age. We meet with them. My children also set aside time to spend with them.
Which government institutions do you partner with?
We partner with the Ministry of Justice and its different departments, with the administration of Sofia prison which in the last few years is very positive towards all that we do in the prison, and the administration of the prisoner’s camp in Kazichene. I think that from the side of these institutions we are getting all support we need.