Why you should care

Because she’s building a movement to lift up the European Union’s poorest country.

When Petya Kertikova picks up trash on the street and throws it into the bin, people stare at the woman whose face they recognize from TV. “They think I’m crazy,” she says. Two years ago, the 30-year-old left Chicago to return to her native Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union. Her homecoming is all about improving the country any way she can — a mission that extends from rubbish to the nation’s TV screens. Kertikova is the creator of The Returnees, a TV show featuring the stories of successful Bulgarians who lived abroad but returned home to make a difference. People like her.

“I want to show the ones who still live abroad how important their experience and their perspective is to change our country, and I want the Bulgarians who have stayed to see that there are people who believe in the future here,” she says.

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Young women wearing the traditional Pomack dress and men socialize in a cafe in Ribnovo, Bulgaria.

Source Sean Gallup/Getty

Judging from the statistics, that’s a mighty mission: In no other country in the world is the population projected to shrink as rapidly as in Bulgaria. Just a few months ago, it fell under 7 million, according to the government, although experts believe the figure might be even lower. According to the United Nations, Bulgaria’s population will drop by 23 percent between 2017 and 2050 — a bigger long-term trend than today’s war-torn countries like Syria. As in other Western countries, low birth rates and an aging society are big factors, but what sets Bulgaria apart is its massive migration flow.

Villages and smaller cities have been abandoned, and corruption is rampant. The minimum wage is about $320 per month. “The trend,” says Cvetan Davidkov, an economics professor at the University of Sofia, “is that well-educated Bulgarians choose to leave because even if their jobs abroad are worse, their income is better.”

It is hard to readapt to a Balkan country still in transition, where very often ‘unwritten’ rules apply.

Daniela Krustanova, a reporter and editor at Trud Daily

According to an estimate by the Open Society Institute, 1.1 million Bulgarians lived and worked abroad as of 2017; about 250,000 are in the U.S., according to the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, while the rest are mostly in the European Union and Canada.

While there are no official figures, successful Bulgarians appear to be increasingly returning. Kertikova has featured more than 70 of them, from doctors and artists to entrepreneurs and engineers. The main criteria, she says, is that they’re in some way contributing to the economy, to changing society and advancing the country to catch up with the rest of the EU. Some are homesick and driven by nostalgia, some return because they see new opportunities arise in the growing startup scene and IT sector. “This trend has been especially pronounced over the past five to 10 years,” says Daniel Penev, a journalist and marketing professional whose upcoming book is called The People Changing Bulgaria.

To tell their stories, Kertikova works on the weekend; her main job is as a newscaster. But perseverance, good time management and stamina have always been her strengths.

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Kertikova at the Youth Olympic Games in Lignano, Italy, in 2005.

Kertikova was 17 when she earned a place at the Youth Olympics in Italy, where she came fourth in the middle-distance 3,000-meter running competition and was discovered by a coach at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

She’d never intended to leave Bulgaria, but she couldn’t pass on the opportunity. Her childhood in the former capital of Ruse, a faltering city on the Danube River, was tough: Her father had left to work abroad and help fund her sister’s medical studies, leaving Kertikova and her sister with her mother, a high school literature and Bulgarian language teacher who made $280 a month at the time.

Kertikova says when she arrived in Dallas, she ate sunflower seeds for dinner until she received her scholarship money.

Despite graduating with a degree in broadcast journalism from SMU in 2011, she couldn’t find a suitable job in Bulgaria. She returned to the U.S., where she worked at Bulgarian International Television in Chicago, home to one of the largest Bulgarian communities in the U.S. She learned about the importance of the rule of law and respecting one’s environment — things she had missed at home.

But she also grew homesick. When she returned to spend Christmas with her mother in 2016, she took note of how much Bulgaria had changed. Although it was still the poorest member of the EU, people’s lives were improving. In Sofia, the capital, a startup scene had developed, and many students no longer believed that leaving would be their only shot at success.

When she returned, she quickly found a job with a private TV station and created The Returnees, which she trademarked in her name after other stations tried to copy it.

“It enjoys great interest,” says Daniela Krustanova, a reporter and editor at Trud newspaper and a close friend of Kertikova. The show is authentic, Krustanova says, because it openly addresses the negative sides of returning to a struggling economy. “It is hard to readapt to a Balkan country still in transition, where very often ‘unwritten’ rules apply,” she says.

Boris Petrov, an engineer who co-founded the ‘Internet of Things’ startup RiLabs, was among those interviewed by Kertikova. He studied in Germany, had led a team of engineers for Siemens in Switzerland and returned home two years ago because he saw rapid changes. “It’s a golden time to start a company,” he says, while admitting that, due to corruption and inefficient politics, Bulgaria is still the “Wild West” of the EU.

Kertikova herself gets a little flustered when she speaks about rampant corruption that persists in Bulgaria, and how slowly change happens. Penev, who features Kertikova in his book, highlights her professionalism and can-do attitude. But he adds, “She will have to be very, very patient and preserve her energy, despite the constant complaints of some people that the situation in Bulgaria is hopeless and that one’s best option is to leave.”

For the most part, Kertikova tries to focus on the positive. She’s reaffirmed by the messages she gets on social media from Bulgarians who have lived abroad for so many years that they couldn’t imagine returning home. The Returnees plants the idea in their heads. “And even if it’s just one person I can inspire — this person makes a difference.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Petya Kertikova

  • What are you currently reading? Tobacco, a novel about a number of characters connected to a major tobacco factory, and their selfishness and moral decay. It’s a criticism of capitalist Bulgaria in the years leading up to the Communists’ seizure of power. It still feels relevant today, and it’s probably the third time I’m reading it.
  • What do you worry about? All sorts of things, but lately my mind is occupied by the fear of what are we going to give to the next generations: Garbage and tons of plastic in the ocean and a problematic and dangerous climate.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Running.
  • Who’s your hero? Mimi, a 6-year-old girl who passed away from leukemia recently, but who had kept fighting.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To become more patient and not be like a firework.

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