Depleted, Divided and Dispirited - The Syrians of Bulgaria

Novinite Insider | Author: Angel Petrov |January 12, 2017, Thursday // 14:00
Bulgaria: Depleted, Divided and Dispirited - The Syrians of Bulgaria Many Syrians at the opposition protest in February 2015 were holding posters of destruction in their homeland and of Russian President Vladimir Putin, alongside images of his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad. Photos by Kiril Valchev

The following story about the Syrians of Bulgaria appears after the author was awarded funding as part of the BIRN Summer School for Investigative Reporting.

Depleted, Divided and Dispirited - The Syrians of Bulgaria originally appeared on Balkan Insight.

Novinite is republishing the text without abridgment.

The war in Syria has created tensions in Bulgaria's Syrian community, one of the largest in Eastern Europe, and given some members a pretext to seek asylum elsewhere

By Angel Petrov, Sofia

As protests swept Syria in 2011, Abu Kamal’s famous kebab restaurant in the heart of Sofia felt like an outpost of the revolution.

Its mostly Bulgarian clientele would pass under the giant green, white and black flag of the opposition floating above the entrance, while shawarmas were served in bags emblazoned with "Freedom for Syria" in Bulgarian by staff wearing uniforms branded with the same slogan.

Hundreds of protesters, including Abu Kamal, took to the streets to support their countrymen, while Bulgaria’s government responded by declaring the Syrian ambassador "persona non grata".

But five years on, the flag and uniforms are gone, along with Abu Kamal‘s dream that Syria’s revolution would quickly and decisively sweep away decades of tyranny.  "What is there to organise?" he told Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, from the crowded office above his eatery when asked if new protests were planned. "After all, we can only talk, share and get angry."

BIRN has spent several months following the lives of Bulgaria’s large and diverse Syrian population as it struggles to come to terms with war in the homeland and being caught in the middle of an unprecedented exodus of their compatriots.What emerges is a portrait of a well integrated community that has been divided by protests and counter-protests, grown increasingly weary as the conflict has dragged on but also worked hard to help refugees settle in Bulgaria [See the box].

BIRN has also established that the pre-Arab-Spring Syrian population, for which no official statistics exist, was measured in thousands and, according to one academic study, may have been as much as 17,000 -which would make it comfortably the largest in Eastern Europe.

The figure today is likely much lower as hundreds and perhaps thousands joined the flow of refugees to Germany, Sweden and other wealthy countries in Western Europe, according to more than a dozen authoritative sources contacted by BIRN.

A community is born

It was February 5, 2016, and the main entrance to the Russian embassy in Sofia was cordoned off by police. Officers had barred the way to a group of Syrians - one attempted to post a message of protest to Moscow while another waved the flag of the opposition.

A crowd of men, women and children brandished posters denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian government. Many chanted “murderers”. They spoke perfect Bulgarian, as they were not refugees fleeing the war: most had lived in Sofia for decades.  "The protesters you can see here are mostly veterans," Mohamed Usayd Jiniat, 55, one of the organisers of anti-Assad rallies, explained above the din of the crowd. Jiniat is one of the leaders of the Syrian Democratic League (SDL), the self-styled humanitarian wing of the Bulgaria-based opposition to Assad.

Weeks later, sitting in the reception room of their headquarters next to a giant opposition flag, Jiniat  explained that the term "veterans" is used by Syrians in Bulgaria to describe those who arrived back in the days of the Cold War, mostly to study. Jiniat, a stout man with a piecing stare and a taste for oratory,made that journey in 1981 and was among tens of thousands of Arabs who graduated from Bulgarian universities under communism. Official numbers are unavailable but community figures and the embassy in Sofia suggest that up to 9,000 Syrians came to study in that period, either supported by the Ba'ath party, the socialist movement that has ruled from Damascus since 1963, or sent by the Syrian Communist party.

The latter were cared for by the Bulgarian regime, with trade unions, the Bulgarian People’s Women’s Association, or the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party itself footing the bill.

Like other foreign nationals, Syrians were required to leave the country after graduating – unless they married a Bulgarian, which many did. Among those who took this path is Mohamed Ibrahim, 51, who studied physiotherapy in the 1980s and in 2013 took over the Association of Syrians in Bulgaria (ASB), an organisation that has close ties to the regime and pubicly backs Assad."We are integrated Bulgarian citizens," he told BIRN.

These "veterans" were followed later by traders who flocked to Bulgaria as it opened its doors to capitalism in the 1990s and are, somewhat pejoratively, referred to as "salesmen with suitcases".

Retailers, importers of Arab goods, second-hand clothes salesmen and even pizza restaurant owners arrived in substantial numbers from Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.

The community is well integrated and dispersed across Bulgaria. Even the Sofia-based Syrians – estimated to be around a third of the community – are scattered across the city, unlike the Afghani, and North African groups centred on the run-down inner city area near the so-called "Ladies’ Market".

But no census has ever recorded the size of the Syrian population, meaning that estimates vary widely from a few hundred to 17,000 [see box].

Almost all of those contacted by BIRN for this story, including the Syrian embassy, believe the figure is well below 17,000 but nonetheless in the thousands.

Fleeing the country

Ismail Muazen is unsure how many Syrians lived in Bulgaria before the crisis –  but he speaks emotionally  about how the numbers have dropped significantly as many have left to seek asylum.

These Bulgarian-based Syrians joined the tens of thousands of refugees from their homeland who passed through the country since 2011 on their way to Western Europe.

"People who lived here asked for refugee [status] in European countries - Germany, Sweden," said the 46 year old businessman, who arrived from Syria in the 1990s and opened a string of shops selling clothes from Syria and Iraq. He is now a prominent member of anti-Assad group the SDL.  

"A lot of people that I know, who had spent 17 or 18 years here, went there, asked for refugee status and lived peacefully ever after. A lot of families," he told BIRN from the offices of the Syrian Democratic League."I think nearly half of all those who lived here before have disappeared, looking for a better standard of life."

Germany and Sweden appear to be preferred destinations among asylum-seekers: the first because of its open asylum policies, and the second is especially popular with Syrian Kurds in Bulgaria, many of whom have relatives there.

Mohamed Ibrahim, the chairman of the pro-government Syrian organisation ASB, says he understands why his compatriots decided to leave "poor" Bulgaria. "We know such people and they are now in Western Europe and hiding their Bulgarian [residence] documents for years," added Ibrahim, who owns an alternative medicine shop in Sofia.

Salah Alrifai, whose father Ibrahim arrived in Sofia in the 1980s, admits to having toyed with the idea himself. "Nothing stops them [emigrants] from looking for the best place, but considering that there are Syrians literally fleeing death at the moment, the question is one of morals," he explained.

The Syrian Embassy confirmed to BIRN in an official statement that Syrians were leaving Bulgaria to seek asylum in Western Europe partly for economic reasons but also because of Sofia’s refusal to permit dual citizenship.

Syrians have to give up their Syrian citizenship to become Bulgarian citizens, unless they are married to Bulgarians."The current deadlock is a problem for some Syrians here," the embassy wrote. "Their children pay more for the university - they are born here, spend years here, but have to pay more, like foreigners."

BIRN identified a number of Syrians who have made the journey from Bulgaria to Western Europe, but none agreed to be interviewed.

A divided community

War in Syria created a fault line running through the community, leaving friends and acquaintances on either side of the divide.

Those loyal to the Assad government readily refer to their opponents as "Islamists and terrorists", while the other side vehemently questions anyone’s right to support the regime.

Following the outbreak of hostilities, both camps protested on the streets of Sofia and in other cities, vied for influence with the media and ministers and traded verbal blows on Facebook in Bulgarian and Arabic.

"They lash out at us, offend us, call us all sorts of names," said Abu Kamal, 54, whose official name is Mohamed Issa, sucking on a cigarette in the office above his restaurant, his speech punctuated by the noise of his fist thumping his desk. "Interestingly enough, they also use fake names and profiles. They should be open if they are as strong as they pretend to be."

Abu Kamal keeps a model of the clock tower in his native city of Homs as a reminder of a government crackdown on protests in April 2011. Photo: Kiril Valchev

Flitting from café to café in Sofia, Mohamad Albarmawi, 36, runs a Facebook page called Syria Today aimed at "exposing the atrocities happening in Syria" with news in Bulgarian. He told BIRN: "We lived united for many years but we started to divide at the beginning of the revolution."

While he acknowledges there are Syrians in Bulgaria who genuinely support the authorities in Damascus, he says some might be backing them either for money or for fear of "the dictator".

Mohamed Ibrahim, head of the pro-government Association of Syrians in Bulgaria, rejects this categorisation. "We don't protest as Syrians in Bulgaria - we protest as Bulgarian citizens who see there is a problem in Syria [terrorism] which extends beyond its borders," he said. "We are tied to the Syrian state and do not hide it: we are even proud of it."

Ibrahim‘s predecessor at the ASB was Yahiya Sharabati, 56, the first democratically elected chairman of the group who left the post in dramatic circumstances. He had maintained his support for Assad even when protests began, and took an active role in organising counter-demonstrations.

Then in the autumn of 2011, he left for an extended trip to Syria to visit relatives.

On his return in the summer of 2012, he hastily attempted to shut down the ASB and a few days later, on August 7, held a press conference, declaring himself"against the bloody dictatorship of Bashar Assad and supporting the just fight for peace and democracy of the Syrian people". "I was very frightened," he explained to BIRN. "I disappeared from the public eye as I didn’t want my relatives in Syria to suffer."

It is now Assad’s opponents who are undergoing a crisis of defections. As Islamists have become more prominent in the Syrian war, the opposition has become divided over what position the Bulgaria-based community should adopt and protests have become ever more infrequent.

Nidal Algafari, 51, a one-time film and TV director who now dedicates his time to writing and running a PR business, organised the first anti-Assad protest in March 2011 through the Free Syria Association, an organisation created in 2011 but formally registered in 2015. But he says he is disillusioned about the group now and has stepped down as its chairman.

"Syrians are not divided into two parts, but into three," he explained. "Some are supporters of the regime, who are roughly as many as we are, and there is a 'grey area' which cannot be included in either."

The FSA, which is not connected to the Free Syrian Army rebel group which uses the same acronym, was created to unite the opposition and raise awareness of the problems of Syria. "We only later saw that it united nothing," Algafari added. "The public didn't accept us either and we started to die out."

He added that the opposition in Bulgaria has not been able to agree on how the future should look. "What happens to the Ba'ath party? What do we do with Israel? How do we treat Russia, Turkey and the US? The oppositon in Bulgaria wasn't ready and still isn't," he explained.

When he announced a coalition agreement with the regional branch of the Kurdish National Council, urging his compatriots to "think together of Syria’s future", it was boycotted by other Syrians including the FSA‘s splinter group, the Syrian Democratic League.

The SDL’s head Mohamed Usayd Jiniat, however, downplays suggestions of any disagreement. "We are all Syrian. Regardless of whether we are Kurds or Arabs," he says.

The number of protests may be on the decline and the opposition increasingly divided, but Usayd Jiniat still believes the "revolution" is a cause still worth fighting for and is embraced by most Syrians, both in Syria and in Bulgaria."No major revolution failed in history and the Syrian one will be great. It will be greater than the French one," he said. 

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