H.E. Ursula Hoefter Zuccoli: Our mission is to help those most in need

The gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider while the number of socially excluded people is also on the rise

The efforts of the international organisations have to be focused on the prevention of migration and providing decent life in the countries of Africa and the Middle East. In my opinion, this is the best and surest solution to the problem, albeit in a long-term perspective, says H.E. Ursula Hoefter Zuccoli, Ambassador of the Sovereign Order of Malta to Bulgaria, in an interview to Europost.

Your Excellency, recently we have marked 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and the Order of Malta. What is the overall assessment of these relations?

On 11 November 1994, the protocol for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and the Sovereign Order of Malta was signed. Over the span of those 25 years, the bilateral relations and humanitarian cooperation have reached admirable levels, we have a lot of common achievements inspired by shared values and friendship between the two countries. I believe that the image of the Order of Malta in Bulgaria is very favourable thanks to the tireless endeavour of my predecessors and especially my late husband who was the ambassador to Bulgaria in the past 12 years and a great friend of your country. When there is no national association of the Order of Malta with numerous members, as is the case in Bulgaria, it is the Embassy that takes over the humanitarian activities. We have made 350 donations, implemented actions and projects in over 170 communities. In 2006, then Grand Master Fra' Andrew Burtie visited Bulgaria and two agreements on cooperation in the fields of healthcare and transport were signed. Many of the Bulgarian presidents and premiers have visited the headquarters of the Order in Rome. A token of these good bilateral relations is the fact that at the beginning of 2019 President Rumen Radev sent an invitation to pay a state visit to Grand Master Fra' Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto. This visit took place on 11-13 December 2019 and was a great success: apart from the meeting with the President there were many other meetings, e.g. with Speaker of Parliament Tsveta Karayancheva, Patriarch Neophyte of Bulgaria, Chief Mufti Mustafa Hadji, Apostolic Nuncio Anselmo Guido Pecorari and Monsignor Hristo Proikov, Chairman of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria. We gave a reception for the diplomatic corps on the occasion of the state visit which was attended by President Rumen Radev. We hope that very soon he will return the visit to the Grand Master who invited him to the headquarters of the Order of Malta in Rome. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, Bulgarian Posts issued a commemorative stamp and the postal service of the Order of Malta did the same. In my opinion, not only the institutions but also the common people who are informed of the Order's activity in Bulgaria are pleased because we don't create problems but offer solutions.

How do you take a decision whom to help and when?

Our guiding principle is to be of help to those who are sorely in need, which is why we prefer to help smaller communities rather than big entities that have easier access to funding. We receive donations and implement projects across the entire country - from the Danube down to Kardzhali. We also receive many requests from friends, mayors, MPs, representatives of church and social institutions. Unfortunately, our resources are limited, especially when it comes to individual needs.

Do you receive feedback from the people and institutions whom you help? Do you monitor if the donations are used as intended?

Our practice in Bulgaria is not to dole out money but instead to buy whatever a hospital or a care home for children really need, for instance, to make repairs or donate food, medications, etc. More often than not we contact those who are in need directly, that is why we don't need feedback, we see that our help has reached the right address. Our donors do trust us because they know that we are guided by the highest Christian values and there's no chance that their donations will not be used as intended.

Would you tell us more about the volunteers of the Order who are working in Bulgaria?

Our volunteers fall into any age bracket, they may have different nationality and confession, but all of them are inspired by the principles of the Order of Malta, i.e. to serve those in need and the forlorn. Most of our volunteers in Bulgaria are young people who believe that to spare time for others helps your own personal growth. The volunteers who organise summer camps for children deprived of parental care later tell us that this experience was very important and life-charging for them. We are working in partnership with the British School Overseas in Sofia and its students enthusiastically join in our projects. The volunteers took part in coping with floods, helped to organise the visit of Pope Francis - giving out water and sandwiches to people in Sofia and Rakovski. They are very enthusiastic and take to heart the Order's causes. Such experience is of vital importance to the young, they understand that not all have the privilege of living at home where food is available every day and so they learn to appreciate more the vital things in life.

What requirements do you set to them and what training do they undergo?

The key requirement is to share the values of the Order of Malta and be ready to follow the instructions of the projects' supervisors. They do not need any special training. In the countries where the Order of Malta has an extensive network embracing many members and organisations, the volunteers take part in civil protection actions, help to cope with emergencies and natural disasters, provide first aid. We have one volunteer, a paramedic, who served on missions in Asia and Africa. You can read more about our volunteers on their site www.omvolunteers.org.

Last year, the Embassy of the Order of Malta made two big donations. Would you tell us about them in more detail?

In 2019, on the occasion of the Grand Master's visit, we made the biggest gifts ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations. These were donations of expensive high-tech medical equipment for two hospitals. The first one is a rehabilitation device for children with cerebral palsy, which was supplied at the initiative of President Rumen Radev as part of the Bulgarian Christmas campaign. This is the first device of this kind in Bulgaria. For many years the Bulgarian hospitals wanted to have it but there were not enough funds. It was brought to “St Sofia's” Specialised Rehabilitation Clinic for treatment of children suffering from cerebral palsy. Thanks to it, the children will have a chance for rehabilitation in a virtual environment and will be able to enhance their mobility through interactive and enjoyable activities. In this way, their treatment will have much better results.

The second donation was meant for “St Sofia's” Special Pulmonary Diseases Clinic, again in the capital. This is a modern ultrasound echography device capable of diagnosing heart and pulmonary diseases and performing biopsy. Patients with complicated diagnoses from all over the country come to this clinic because other hospitals refuse admission. So, at the request of Dr. Rosen Petkov, head of one of the departments, we responded to their need for a modern device which will enable them to treat their patients and to train junior doctors.

In 2011, you started handing out food for homeless and other people in need during winter. Does the number of these people grow, in your opinion?

Much to my regret, this is the current trend - the number of socially excluded people is on the rise. The gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider, homeless people find themselves in a desperate situation for many reasons while the state cannot always help them nor find a proper approach to them.

What is the progress of the project Creative Holiday which focuses on children in need?

In the summer of 2019, the Embassy once again organised creative vacations for disadvantaged children and youths. This project is very important to us because as time goes by we see how badly these children need to break the limitations of their environment and be immersed in the atmosphere of love which our volunteers create. From what they say, we understand that these children need not only food and clothes but most of all love, human warmth and an encouraging word. Thus the summer camps become an exciting and mutually beneficial experience for both the organisers and the children. Currently we are establishing a foundation that will support these youths after they turn 18, when they leave the institutions where they live. We want to help them make their difficult start in life with training courses that will give them the opportunity to find their niche on the labour market.

In how many countries across the globe is the Order of Malta functioning?

We have diplomatic relations with 109 countries as well as with the European Union, we maintain official relations with some other countries and missions in our capacity of a permanent observer, the UN for instance. The aim of our diplomatic service is to work towards more efficient humanitarian diplomacy. The idea is to strive for the decision makers and media to always work for the benefit of vulnerable groups. One of our major goals is to guarantee to the people access to help and encourage the observance of the international law.

Is the Order of Malta engaged in countries like Syria where we witness an extremely severe humanitarian crisis? And if yes, how?

The Order's global organisation Malteser International has been working in Syria since 2011. We maintain a hospital at the Syrian-Turkish border, nine medical centres in Northern and Western Aleppo, a medical oxygen apparatus, two blood banks in Azad an Al Atarib, as well as one mobile surgery unit and one clinic for children with thalassemia, which is genetic anaemia. Our goal in Syria is to facilitate access to primary and secondary healthcare and to restore the medical infrastructure which is half ruined, power is failing and medicines and disposables are in short supply.

The members and volunteers of the Order of Malta render medical help to the refugees arriving to the Italian shores. Do you think that Europeans can give shelter to all people who seek refuge from wars, or just want to ensure a better life for themselves and their children, or we have to make these people return to their countries of origin?

During the last decade, the Order's medical teams have rescued over 200,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea, many shipwreck victims among them. The situation with migrants is very complicated and has many different aspects - from saving lives to providing decent life, to the justified apprehensions of the host countries concerning the available resources and chances for integration. A possible solution is to host the refugees in the countries which are near their native lands in order to enable them to return later and contribute to the restoration of their own states. The efforts of the international organisations have to be focused on the prevention of migration and providing decent life in the countries of Africa and the Middle East. In my opinion, this is the best and surest solution to the problem, albeit in a long-term perspective.

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Ursula Hoefter Zuccoli was born on 6 February 1956 in Volkenschwand, Bavaria, Germany. She graduated from the AMD Akademie Mode & Design in Munich. After graduation, she started work at an haute couture fashion house in Florence where she met her future husband Camillo Zuccoli. In 1983 she started her own business, an haute couture atelier in Munich, but gradually her responsibilities of a mother and wife got the upper hand. Ambassador Hoefter Zuccoli was side by side with her husband during his tenure and knew his work in Bulgaria in detail. That is why after the sudden death of Ambassador Camillo Zuccoli on 3 February 2019 in Rome, the Sovereign Order of Malta asked her to take up his position. From 2005 to 2007, Camillo Zuccoli held the post of Minister-Counsellor at the Embassy of the Sovereign Order of Malta of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta in Bulgaria and from 2007 until his death was its Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.

Ms Zuccoli is fluent in German, English and Italian. She has two children.

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