Inside A Refugee Camp in Bulgaria
Story by Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross

Wanting to get a closer look at the refugees her guide hates so much, a visitor to Bulgaria tours the immigrant neighborhood and camp.

Refugees in Bulgaria

It was easy to fall in love with Bulgaria and the people as my husband Paul and I bounced from eating the home cooked meals of grandmas to ancient Thracian tombs. As we moved from mountain vistas over fog-swaddled valleys to the intimate workshop of a bagpipe maker, we wandered around with dopey grins and hugged a lot of strangers.

One thing really bothered me, however. Our Bulgarian guide was very bitter about refugees in his country. He had a long list of sticking points. His mother retired from a high-level job "and her pension is less than half of what refugees are given by the government." If refugees "were really fleeing violence and trauma they would have identification papers with them, so why did they have no passports or ID of any kind? Refugees "burned the flag of Bulgaria and had no gratitude." They "ruined formerly lovely neighborhoods by opening kabob places and shisha shops." They "litter the streets" and they "want to do bad things and blow people up like terrorists in Western Europe."

"The only good thing about them is that they consider Bulgaria a poor country and just want to pass through to go to richer countries in Europe. So they don't stay long. Believe me," our guide continued, "if they were really just fleeing violence they would consider this paradise. They would work the fertile land. Eat our good food. Enjoy the beauty."

Shisha in Sofia

"Can you take us to the neighborhood where they live?" I asked. He couldn't understand why I was interested but he drove us there and parked. "This was a beautiful neighborhood in Sofia and look at it now," he groused. On one street, some of the old houses were pastel hued and featured early 20th century or late l9th century architectural trims and design elements. The street was lined with small shops that sold three things: Middle Eastern food, house cleaning products, and water pipes—narguila or shisha, depending upon which name you use.

I asked our guide if we could walk down some other streets and he got impatient and said they were all the same. "You already saw how it is, " he insisted. Refusing to take no for an answer, I walked ahead of the guide, turning down another street.

I couldn't believe that there were so many water pipe shops in such a small area. Did everyone just sit around puffing on scented and flavored tobacco and exhale smoke all day?

I walked into one of the shops and talked to the owner and his friend in whatever garbled languages I could summon. It turned out they were Kurds from Iraq. I did not know if they spoke Bulgarian because our guide resolutely refused to speak to them. I asked if they had been in refugee camps. They said yes and it was very bad. No food. No money. No work. I finally implored our guide to ask how they got money to open a small store. They said the shopkeeper's brother had sent the funds from Iraq.

When our guide walked away, visibly huffing and frowning, I asked if they like Bulgaria. They said the wages are very low, the cops are not nice to them, and some people don't particularly like them. I found them to be extremely friendly and open. "Shukran," I said, thanking them for speaking with me.

Syrian Refugee baker in Bulgaria

I walked out into the street and saw a man who looked either Iraqi or Syrian. It turned out he was the former. I asked if he had a store and he replied, in English, "Bread." "Yes, yes, khubz," I exclaimed, using the Arabic word for bread. "Nimshee nekel," I said in Tunisian Arabic, meaning I was going to eat. I pointed towards his bread shop. A wondrous display of fresh breads was lined up in the window, and inside the bakery a workman with a long wooden spatula tended to the baking breads in a large, rounded, earthen oven.

I pointed to a flatbread that we had eaten when we visited Syria, before the country disintegrated into violence. It was round, and covered in a delicious paste made of herbs, one of which was cumin. Paul took out money to pay and the Iraqi man adamantly refused. I thanked him profusely and left the shop. We savored a large piece of the bread. The guide refused to take a bite.

When he heard me ponder why there were so many water pipe shops he mumbled that smoking shisha is very trendy among young Bulgarians. I smiled. It meant they came into this neighborhood to shop and didn't shun the streets like our guide did.

To the Refugee Camp

Now emboldened by contact with refugees who were open, friendly, and generous, I asked our guide if he could take us to a refugee camp. Surprisingly, he had no objection, but he did say that they wouldn't let us in. We drove across Sofia to the outskirts of town. He pointed to an empty, squat, gray concrete building and said locals called it Paradise Hotel. How could that be? It had no windowpanes and looked like an abandoned construction site. He said that was where illegal immigrants lived. I winced. Paradise Hotel. A cynical name, indeed.

We drove for a few minutes and our guide stopped the car. To our left were a few nondescript, multi-story cement buildings with a lot of windows. To our right were women sitting on a grassy knoll. One or two had their hair covered with scarves. 

"Refugees?" I asked our guide who frowned and said yes.

I waved hello and walked down the gentle slope towards them. They smiled and waved back and beckoned for me to sit next to them on the grass. I did. They indicated that they lived in the buildings. I had expected to find tents and was relieved they had a roof over their heads at night, and a grassy field, sunshine, and fresh air during the day when the weather was good.

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Read this article online at: Inside A Refugee Camp in Bulgaria

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