Lost in Lack of Translation: Svetlana, Bulgaria and the Conflict in Ukraine
Novinite is introducing Svetlana Belenets, a Ukrainian national seeking asylum in Bulgaria, and Carl Spate, a Briton who has been helping her along the way and who contacted us to tell their story.
"I sent an email to the Ministry of Interior that Sveta is an illegal immigrant; then sent another one to the State Refugee Agency. She will be illegal after the 1st of March,” Carl tells me angrily on the phone on a Tuesday morning. “If they want to do deportation they should do it. I told her: 'If you want to go home, go home. She will not get into Donbass."
It is the 2nd of March now, and “Sveta” is not an illegal immigrant as of today – her residence permit is valid at least until mid-March when it will be up to the state to decide. Just a week earlier, however, listening to the man talking about her on the phone, I can clearly hear in voice a crack of despair:
“At seventy-two, I have nobody I can turn to… while it’s costing the government nothing.”
Two minutes later, as I hang up sitting in my office, I wonder what is more infuriating to Carl Spate, a retired Englishman who moved to the northern Bulgarian city of Ruse eight years ago and to whom Svetlana Belenets, an ethnic Russian from Ukraine, is the only person he could call “family”: is it the uncertainty about whether Bulgaria will allow them to stay together in the end or the impossibility to understand why it should be so difficult?
Svetlana Belenets is one of the people from Ukraine seeking asylum in Bulgaria,
even though it wasn’t war that took her out of the country initially.
It was a click.
For her, like for some of the dozens of people from Ukraine who have applied for asylum since the conflict erupted, it is lack of Russian interpreters at Bulgaria’s refugee agency that has left her stuck in limbo for nearly a year. Luckily, unlike other people from her country, she has had someone to fight for her.
Carl and Svetlana meet on the Internet in 2012. Talking over time, Svetlana asks her new English acquaintance, already living in Ruse for several years, if he would like to visit her in Donetsk, to which he agrees.
“We've got on from the day we first met. She came in on the metro and I was walking around with a suitcase and she said, you are Carl and I said you are Svetlana and we clicked,” Carl recalls as we are speaking in the late autumn of last year, in the lobby of a hotel in central Sofia, with Svetlana sitting at my left and with him at my right. “It was a meeting of respect.”
After spending a week there in the winter of early 2013 and returning to the Northern Bulgarian town of Ruse where he lives, Carl invites Svetlana by arranging a letter of invitation from the mayor. (The latter step is required by immigration authorities, who reply to him that, being a pensioner, he hasn’t “got any money”.) She arrives in Bulgaria in a few months’ time, staying for over half a year and leaving the country only to get a new visa from the Bulgarian consular service in Odessa. Later, upon her return to Bulgaria for another long stay, the couple will find a way around the need to go to Ukraine for a visa.
Sometime in the winter of 2013, Svetlana goes back to Donetsk and the two lose contact for three months, with Carl repeatedly failing to get through to her home in Donetsk – nobody answers on the other side. He calls her daughter Tanya, whom he has already met in Varna and who lives in Italy, and asks where Svetlana is.
“She said, ‘Mamma is back in Ukraine. I can’t tell you where.’ ‘Why?’ I ask. ‘You talk to mamma. I said I’m going to Ukraine to find her.” After talking to Tanya and using her mediation to exchange a few messages with her mother, he books a ticket to Donetsk for mid-April, 2014, only to find his flight has been cancelled over shelling in Donetsk.
At the time he doesn’t know Svetlana is in a sanatorium,
with a rash all over her, where she is soon to find out her house was half-destroyed by the exchange of shelling between already fiercely opposing factions of pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, caught in what the former call “rebellion” and the latter an “anti-terrorist operation”. She learns from friends of hers what happened to her home; they take care of some of her belongings which they manage to rescue out of the rubble. Svetlana won’t be able to find those people in the aftermath, as the conflict rages on– they probably went to Russia, she suggests. Thus, leaving the sanatorium, and with Carl fervently talking her into setting off for Bulgaria again – It takes him three weeks to do so - she gets on the bus to Varna for another time, perhaps not aware she is leaving her previous life behind. She used to live alone in that house, having divorced her husband more than two decades ago (he passed away soon afterwards).
“When she came with her suicase, she didn’t look well… Soon after we did a second visa I said: “You’re not going home. I won’t let you go home. There’s nothing to go back to.” She had left the area, you need a permission to get in, and you can’t get it.”
After her second visa expires – and the Bulgarian consulates in both Sofia and Ruse refuse to extend it again the Bulgarian consular official in Bucharest helps provide a new one), Carl and Svetlana reach the stage where they decide to get married. There is only one problem ahead of them: She can't get all of her papers out of Ukraine. In theory, she could return to Donetsk; in practice, the conflict in the Donbass region is already at the point where checkpoints established by the Ukrainian army don’t let people enter the area. The airport, once renovated for the Euro 2012 football championship, is already out of service having been destroyed by the battling sides.
In the spring of last year, as Carl and Svetlana are sliding into a dead end, and as the latter is just about to become an illegal immigrant with her renewed visa expiring in days, the Bucharest consular official gives the couple an advice:
Svetlana should apply for asylum.
“She doesn’t want to go back, there’s nothing to go back to,” Carl assures me. “She could also join the university, but she needs papers to go there. We went to Sofia to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and they registered her on the 31st of March this year.” This year meaning 2015.
Svetlana keeps silent for most of the time, but follows our conversation carefully. Her face doesn’t show much of what she thinks or feels, and I have been warned by Carl she is not the kind of “emotional person” giving much voice to her feelings. She used to be a seamstress in Donetsk, held by rebels willing to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, has lived in Carl’s house in Ruse since arriving in Bulgaria, and has been registered as a refugee status candidate since March of last year. As I am beginning to type her story, the refugee agency allows her to stay in Bulgaria by March 01 – a period that earlier this week was extended further to mid-March.
As Carl is commenting on her registration, Svetlana takes several sheets of paper in her hands and puts it in front of me, obviously suggesting I take a look. One is a copy of her registration, which makes her a refugee candidate as of… March 31, 2014: a time she even wasn’t in Bulgaria. The other two are her declaration to the State Agency for Refugees, with which she applies for status (see below) dated March 30, 2014 (“They can’t do anything right,” the couple shrug off the issue when I notice – it should be 2015):
Dear Mr Chairman,
I am hereby asking you to grant me a refugee status in Bulgaria with regard to the fact that I cannot return to Ukraine, to the city of Donetsk, for the reasons that military activities are being conducted there and it has been probibited to enter Donetsk by the Ukrainian authorities. The Ukrainian army is there which is shelling and bombing the city. My home in Donetsk is half-destroyed and it is impossible to live there. I have no more relatives in Donetsk as they have all died. Ukrainian authorities are not planning to put an end to the war in the Donbass..."
"At the checkpoints into the city, the Ukrainian army is there, not letting anyone because of the blockade of the city that has been announced, and there is a humanitarian catastrophe there at the moment. I don't have any other place to turn to but the Bulgarian authorities so that they grant me a refugee status because I have already been here a long time and have visited many times.
In Donetsk there is no work and pensions haven't been paid since last year, because there is war there."
No decision has been taken on Svetlana’s request – for the simple reason even an interview with her has not taken place yet. When it comes to Ukrainian nationals, however, refugee agency rules in Bulgaria are specific.
"As regards the Ukrainian [asylum] requests, the hypothesis of internal displacement is normally weighed and discussed,"
the State Agency for Refugees' interim Chairman, Kircho Kirov, has told Novinite.
The reason is that "the armed conflict doesn't cover the entire teritory of the state."
Kirov has noted that asylum cannot be granted in the cases "when in a part of the country of origin there are no reasons in place for a well-grounded fear of persecution to the foreign national in question, and when there is no real risk for the foreign national in question to face persecution and could freely travel to and gain access to that part of the state."
For Svetlana, however, the application problem has little to do with either her region of origin, which has been severely affected by fighting or – as Daniel Indzhiev, head of the SAR’s Quality of International Asylum Procedures has explained – with “any problem in particular”.
Due to the small numbers of Russian-speaking asylum candidates,
the SAR did not have, for most of 2015, Russian-language interpreters at disposal to carry out an interview with the the applicants. This leaves in limbo some of the fifty people who applied throughout 2014, and the few dozen others who also did so in 2016 according to UNCHR data (the SAR is yet to give its numbers). Contracts have been signed with interpreters as of March 01 this year, and the interviews are already supposed to be underway, Indzhiev asserts me, suggesting Svetlana could even have been interviewed the very same day we are talking with him on the phone. In truth, the same Monday morning of February 29, Svetlana is summoned to the Banya center in Nova Zagora, Eastern Bulgaria, and is given by a man otherwise fluent (in her and Carl’s words) in Russian a note saying they should return to the center on March 15, without being offered any proper explanation.
Months earlier, at the hotel, Carl is angry and has been so since the spring: why there is no interpreter is something he says no-one bothers to explain. “We had to press the refugee agency all the time: When is the interview, when is the interview? No answer. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee [the organization where they sought assistance in their communication with the SAR] did something, they sent for her, just to get the paperwork. Two days it took us, two days to get it stamped! We always come to this hotel, because it is the cheapest. And I’m finding every visit is costing me money.“
Every now and then, once or twice in a month, they have to travel to SAR units, until recently to Sofia, and now to the Banya center in Nova Zagora. It was precisely this that prompted Carl, a woodworker by trade and once quite into horse racing as a hobby, to move to Bulgaria as a pensioner: because living standards were low enough so that he could afford a decent life, unlike in the UK. “I don’t have the money anymore… Once upon a time I was very wealthy, but now I live on a pension so it costs me money to come here [to Sofia]. They don’t appreciate that.”
Making sure he has arranged an interview for Svetlana costs Carl a lot more than the money he has saved, though; over the next several months he spends much of his time making countless calls and sending dozens of messages to the SAR, but says he cannot be put through – and calls me once in several weeks to reiterate that he cannot be put through. With some of the SAR numbers I try to call at the time, this turns out correct.
“To be honest, all of this is getting us both down. I’ve got colonitis. If I get upset and eat I cannot keep the food down. I lost weight. Sveta’s got a pain in her right arm” – to which she reacts by showing where it hurts. Separately, Carl’s horse-racing hobby and other sports have taken a toll on his knee joints, twice replaced on his left leg and once on his right, and he is to undergo another replacement operation on his right knee soon.
I ask if Svetlana has options if she is not granted status -
there are several.
She could be deported, she could return to Donetsk using a route via Moscow (which both consider dangerous); could have her application processed by Romania (the country where she entered the EU all the times traveling to Bulgaria), but would have to relocate there; or she could move in with her daughter’s family in Italy – this idea we had discussed with Carl back in November when he contacted me for the first time; then he mulled the option to get married in Italy. However, Sveta didn’t get the permission to leave the country at the time they were discussing this. Back then the thought was tempting – not so much for her own marriage as to attend her own daughter’s wedding. After the moment passed, the idea started to grow less appealing.
“If it didn't work out for me, there’s always a home for her there. But that's not what a fimily wants. If we want to live with our mother and father we do. But if you want to make our life your own – well, you make your life your own.”
Carl lost one of his boys when it was 14 – and hasn’t talked to his other son, Richard (currently a horse trainer whom Carl says he managed to get up the ladder as a professional jockey) for thirteen years. He makes clear he will make sure if something happens to him, the house will be hers. “Now I’m making my home more for her than it ever was for me.”
I ask Svetlana if there is really nothing to return to in Donetsk. “She can’t get back! They’ll shoot her,” Carl interjects, as he does most of the time on her behalf, looking as if he were preparing all the time for an interview by proxy with the refugee agency employees – one he was advised by a human rights organization he would be allowed to do with the agency, but never was. She could use English to talk to me, but feels much more comfortable with Russian, her mother tongue she speaks alongside Ukrainian. “There is no truce in Eastern Ukraine. They shoot, kill and there is shelling on cities. People can’t enter anymore. Nobody is allowed in. They wouldn’t let me in either.”
“If I could travel do Odessa before and from there on to Donetsk, I can’t do it anymore. After the railway was blown up, there are no trains to the city.”
Carl nods listening to her, always preparing to add something. “Yes, I understand some small words,” he tells me modestly when I ask. “He understands me when I speak Russian,” Svetlana replies then, this time in English, this time shyly smiling, for the first time since we met.
“I was there and I know why all of this is happening,” she tells me when Carl goes off to make for me a copy of her statement to the agency, and starts telling me the story of ethnic Russians in the Donbass willing to split from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation – one that can often be heard among Russians in Bulgaria or other Eastern Ukrainians who are here. She is not hysterical about it – looks rather impassive – but the fear of a possible return is underpinning.
Svetlana can receive no pension from Ukraine, with Kiev authorities initially suspending all payment and then vowing to resume payment after “control is restored”. She can look for work, but virtually doesn’t have many options due to the bypass operation she has had on her heart.
“She couldn’t go home, she’s lost everything. I want Sveta to stay, Sveta wants to stay, what stops the government from giving her papers so we can carry on living our lives and I can have three or four years of happiness? Thank you!”
That last phrase is directed to the waiter delivering a beer; but ironically, it also sounds like invitation to authorities.
“We're going down the legal route and we've still gotten nowhere,”
is one of the last things he tells me finishing their story. Nearly three months later, Svetlana and he are still down the same route, waiting, and even though authorities now pledge to move further with requests of Russian speakers, they are not sure what to expect anymore.
Carl has decided to talk to the media after waiting for months and failing to understand why it should be so difficult – and now would really wish that someone can explain to him. As he has spent much of his evening trying to explain to me, asserting it is important not only for Svetlana or him (“There are a lot of people like me who haven’t contacted someone like you!”) to make their case, the couple look increasingly tired – and also inclined to turn off worrisome thoughts, clinging to good things they have.They show me countless photos of Svetlana’s daughter, her husband and her new extended family, with Carl commenting on them almost as much as she does, and with her correcting him only from time to time.
Over time, as I am say goodbye to them – and as I am about to talk to him on the phone once in a while, up until now, to follow the developments – I realize that, out of the widely neglected stories of Ukrainian asylum seekers on which the media largely turned a blind eye due to the small scale of migration, Svetlana’s might be one of the more hopeful, whatever happens in the future: she has someone to fight for her. Others might be out there who aren’t that lucky; at least here in Bulgaria, they are yet to speak out.
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