Syrians Can't Catch a Break in Bulgaria, Either
by Emily Feldman
Ali al-Jasem, 16, arrived with his family in a patch of woods near Turkey’s border with Bulgaria at 6 o’clock on a clear October morning. There were 17 of them, including 13 children and Ali’s grandmother—all Syrians who’d left their home in the city of Aleppo 10 days before, when their nerves could no longer stand the rockets falling from the sky. Now they had almost completely passed through Turkey and were walking together down a road leading into Bulgaria, following the instructions of a smuggler who’d charged $3,500 to bring them to the gateway of Europe.
Six hours later they walked across the border into Bulgaria, where border police intercepted them and delivered them to a makeshift refugee camp. For a full week, they shared an open room with hundreds of other Syrian refugees, until a bribe secured them a fake address in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, and permission to leave the camp. That evening, a bus dropped them off at Sofia’s only mosque. Ali, dazed by his new surroundings, trailed behind his family as they made their way to another refugee camp. Before he could pass through its gates, someone plunged a pocketknife into his back.
The wound was deep enough to damage the rear wall of Ali’s chest. He woke from surgery hours later, unsure what had happened or why. More than a month later, Ali is still recovering.
“In Syria nothing happened to me,” Ali says. “And now I come here and get stabbed.”
The attack on Ali was one of at least seven on refugees and migrants in the country since Nov. 1. Hostile messages directed at refugees, particularly Syrian ones, is both spray-painted on walls around Sofia and sounded by hard-line politicians and regular citizens alike: You are not welcome.
Bulgaria is the European Union’s poorest nation. It was never meant as the final destination for most of the Syrians who began streaming across the border this summer. Most have their sights set on Western and Northern European countries where they hope to start over as their hopes for a speedy end to the civil war back home fade.
Instead, some 5,000 Syrians are mired in Bulgaria’s slow-moving and ill-equipped system for refugees. As their numbers swell, an increasingly xenophobic public is raising its voice—and in some extreme cases, its weapons and fists—against them. For many Syrians and other Muslims escaping conflicts in the region, their reception in Bulgaria—the first predominately Christian nation many encounter on their journey into Europe—is a frightening harbinger of what they may find if they make it farther into the EU.
Ataka, an ultra-nationalist party in Bulgaria, has led the charge against the incoming refugees—primarily Muslims it portrays as “mass murderers” escaping sentencing for crimes back home. Many Bulgarians are unaware of the details of Syria’s war, local journalists and activists say, and Ataka has seized on the chance to define the narrative. The party holds just 23 of 240 seats in Bulgaria’s parliament, but its well-advertised television station blankets the airwaves with an aggressive campaign, making the refugee issue into a constant cause.
When an Algerian man brutally attacked a young Bulgarian woman in early November, the party's anti-refugee rhetoric reached a fever pitch and scores of supporters rallied in the streets. "Is it cynical to react to their crimes?" Magdalena Tasheva, a vocal Ataka MP, said in an interview last week. "They attack girls, trying to rob and rape them."
Tasheva refused to call the Syrians refugees. They are "terrorists" and "illegal immigrants," she said. "These are not the concerns of the Ataka party," she added. "These are the concerns of the people."
Ataka's hard-line campaign seems to be paying off. A recent poll by the Sova Harris Agency found that nearly two-thirds of Bulgarians oppose accepting any new refugees in the country, while just 15 percent were in favor of welcoming asylum seekers. When Bulgaria's state refugee agency began scouting locations for new camps to ease the strain on its overcrowded facilities, people took to the streets to protest. In one small village, a man threatened to light himself on fire, according to reports, if the government built a proposed 4,000-bed facility in his neighborhood.
In the end, the government abandoned its plans. In order to calm what was growing into an ugly situation, the president of the agency, Nikolai Tchirpanliev, decided to drop the search for new locations and instead only expand in areas already accustomed to the presence of refugees. "Bulgarians are generally tolerant," Tchirpanliev says. But "it appears, if it is in their [neighborhood] and on their sidewalks, they are not."
Creeping intolerance has also touched Bulgaria's own Muslim community, which accounts for about 10 percent of the country's majority Eastern Orthodox population. On Nov. 9, for example, a 28-year-old Bulgarian-Turk was nearly beaten to death in an immigrant neighborhood in Sofia. Reports said the assailants mistook the man—now in a coma—for a Syrian refugee. The same month, complaints flowed into the Grand Mufti's office—the country's top authority on Islam—from headscarf-wearing Bulgarians who had also been mistaken for refugees and harassed. One woman, says Ahmed Ahmedov, a spokesman for the Grand Mufti, was screamed off a bus and told to "get out of our country."
"This is absolutely new," Ahmedov says, attributing the spike in hostility toward Muslims to the "xenophobic speech coming out of nationalistic parties."
Ruslan Trad, a Syrian-Bulgarian journalist based in Sofia, has watched the rising intolerance in the country where he was raised with a deep sense of dread. "My father told me he can't believe this is the same country that welcomed him from Syria 30 years ago," he says.
Trad attributes the hostility to misinformation and has devoted much of his blog to educating his fellow Bulgarians. Some readers, he says, have questioned why the Syrian government isn't taking care of its own people. Others, he says, aren't sure where Syria even is. "All of a sudden Syrian refugees appear in the public space and no one has been explaining why they're here," he says. "The people are afraid."
Police now patrol an immigrant section of Sofia where the young Bulgarian woman—a shopkeeper—was assaulted last month. But their presence hasn’t dampened the rising tensions. On a recent evening, I spoke with a Bulgarian woman smoking outside of a clothing shop just a few steps from a group of officers. She says she is “afraid” of all the foreign faces she is noticing around town.
An Iraqi who was standing a few blocks away and has lived in Bulgaria for more than a decade says he is scared too. “I’ve never had problems here, but with recent events, especially with that lady being attacked, a lot of us fear for our safety,” says Ziyat Halil Ibrahim, suggesting that any immigrant could be the target of retaliation.
Asylum seekers in Bulgaria are not permitted to work in their first year, so the government provides each with a monthly stipend of 33 euros (about $45). At Voenna Rampa, a Sofia camp that houses about 830 Syrian asylum seekers where the level of fear is especially high, men gather in groups for safety before heading into town to use the money to buy groceries for their families. “No one goes to the center alone,” says Habib Suleman, a 40-year-old Syrian who has been living in Voenna Rampa for nearly two months with his wife and five children. Mohammad al-Hussein, 30, a teddy bear with a big grin and glasses, says he’s been shoulder-bumped, stared at and stalked. “It’s like they’re looking for a reason to fight,” he says. When Ali was stabbed in the back, he was just outside the gates to Voenna Rampa.
Many residents there simply avoid leaving the camp. A former school, Voenna Rampa was hastily re-opened as a facility for refugees this fall. It has been slammed by human rights groups for poor conditions, including lack of proper bathroom facilities and medical care, and is nearly 120 percent over capacity. In its old classrooms, makeshift walls—sheets tied to sticks with string—separate dozens of families, who eat their meals knee-to-knee and sleep cot-to-cot. Laundry hangs in drafty hallways, food cooks on rigged-up burners, and children who lack access to tutoring or organized activities chase each other through the halls and dusty schoolyard. Women rarely leave the camp at all. They wash clothing, look after their children and cook.
"What is concerning is that there is quite a lack of information on these attacks and it's unclear if [officials] will consider hate as a motivation," says Barbora Cernusakova, a Bulgaria expert from Amnesty International who was recently in the country reporting on xenophobic violence. Amnesty warns that authorities are not doing enough.
In August, when Syrians started turning up at the Bulgarian border en masse, there were just three so-called reception facilities to host them. By mid-September, when about 100 people per day were streaming in, existing camps could no longer bear the burden. Compared with countries like Turkey and Lebanon, which have taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the last three years, Bulgaria—currently hosting about 9,300 asylum seekers and refugees in total—has gotten off relatively easy. Still, the country, accustomed to hosting just 1,000 a year, has been caught off guard.
Emergency funds from the European Commission, the U.S. and other countries, combined with a hiring spree at Bulgaria's refugee agency, are expected to improve conditions at the country's seven camps. But lack of medical, psychological and legal resources remains. In the meantime, the government has beefed up security at the border where a 30-kilometer fence is reportedly underway, and already slowing the influx of refugees.
As the government struggles to get the situation under control, goodwill is playing a critical role. The country's Muslim community and a well-organized group of volunteers have delivered regular rounds of goods directly to the camps. But even these acts of charity have received blowback. The Friends of Refugees, which blossomed from a Facebook page into a professional fund-raising operation, has been accused of "betraying Bulgarians" by critics posting to their page.
One Syrian who's lived in Sofia for 20 years, Abo Alaa, has been spending all his free time driving through the city to help the new refugees however he can. He translates when someone needs to see a doctor and helps the newcomers navigate Bulgarian bureaucracy. When Ali was stabbed on his first night in Sofia, it was Abo Alaa who rushed to the hospital to explain to him and his family what was going on. "I do this kind of stuff all the time," he says.
On Wednesday, Abo Alaa took Ali to the police department to sort through a garbage bag of his bloody belongings that had been collected for evidence. Ali's uncle, Hassan, was waiting in the lobby, ready to escort Ali back through town. "I imagined Bulgaria would be a European country like Germany and Sweden," Hassan says. "If this is Europe, if we go further, what are we going to see?"