‘We decided to go to Bulgaria, although we knew nothing about the country. We didn’t know there were no jobs for the Bulgarians or what they say about foreigners here,’ says Ami, 20, a Syrian of Kurdish background who doesn’t want his real name to be used.
Ami and his family are housed in the Vrazdebna refugee reception centre in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Although the centre has a capacity of 310, it currently hosts more than 400 asylum-seekers.
Ami’s mother makes us some tea and sits nearby with a welcoming smile. There are 20 people sleeping in the room, two in each bed. In the corner is a cooking area. Shoes are arranged in front of the door which has no handle but is instead held closed with string.
Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU member states, has not traditionally been a popular destination for asylum-seekers. However, the country has witnessed an unprecedented surge in refugees over the past few months. The majority enter via Turkey, fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria.
More than 8, 000 asylum-seekers entered Bulgaria this year, compared to an average of 1, 000 in the past. The country is not prepared to cope with such an influx and faces a challenge to adequately accommodate the refugees. Many live in squalid conditions in improvised camps without regular food, warmth or access to health care.
Ami and his family have been in Bulgaria since September after they illegally crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border at night. Ami embarked on the gruelling journey with his parents, six brothers and sisters and his 70-year-old grandmother. He feared she might not survive the ‘dark forest’ border crossing.
Ami lived in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli where he studied geological engineering. His sister, who is sitting in the corner with a textbook on her knees, studied information technology whilst Ami’s brother studied English Philology. ‘We all want to continue our studies,’ Ami tells me.
He complains he is not used to showering so rarely. There are only a few boilers in the building and more than a hundred people waiting for each. Ami recently started studying Bulgarian. I ask him, ‘How are you?’ and he replies in Bulgarian with a smile, ‘Not so good.’
Latifa, 24, is a housewife from Damascus. ‘Everybody loves me here,’ Latifa tells me. With her cheerful temperament and the kindness she shows towards the children and younger girls, she is the life and soul of the camp. Latifa is here with her twins and her husband. She came through the same forest as Ami with three other families. They paid $450 per person.
When she is not taking care of her children, Latifa spends every minute helping the mother of a one-week-old baby. The baby girl, born in a local hospital, sleeps in a room which has been set aside as a nursery. In contrast with the other grey, overcrowded rooms, this space is cozy with bright colors and toys on the shelves. There are children running all over the camp. There are currently 2135 children living in Bulgarian refugee centers, many of whom are orphans as a result of the war.
In most camps there would be no stable food supply without the help of volunteers. The refugees depend on donations or a €33 monthly subsidy. Some mothers’ breast milk has stopped because of the stress. Organizations like the Red Cross and Humanitarian Help for the Refugees organize donations with the help of a network of hundreds of volunteers.
‘It’s tough because the shelters are not suitable and their capacity has been surpassed,’ says Sabrina Trad, a volunteer working for Humanitarian Help for the Refugees. ‘Some measures have been taken to improve conditions, but it’s hard because the camps are full,’ says Sabrina.
Bulgaria has never faced a humanitarian crisis like this
Half Bulgarian, half Syrian, Sabrina highlights the provincial camps as the real problem. One of them, a former military base, is located in the southeastern city of Harmanli. In November 100 people threatened to go on hunger strike in protest at the camp’s living conditions, where approximately 1, 000 refugees are being held.
Recently, Nikolay Chirpanliev, head of the National Agency for Refugees announced €800 000 had been pledged by the EU, €817 320 by the Bulgarian government, €1 million from the Czech Republic and $3.6 million from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Chirpanliev promised to improve conditions quickly.
Sabrina’s brother, Ruslan Trad, is a young Bulgarian journalist. He highlights the fact that Bulgaria has never before faced a humanitarian crisis on such a large scale. ‘It is important for Bulgaria to respond to this situation and deal with the political forces at work,’ says Ruslan. ‘There will be more refugees coming. And there’s no suitable places which can provide decent living quarters. This could develop into a crisis,’ he adds.
According to observers, nationalist movements are taking advantage of the situation to build support. In November, Volen Siderov, the leader of the nationalist party, Ataka, called for Bulgaria to expel all illegal immigrants.
Ruslan Trad says attitudes towards refugees in Bulgaria are divergent. He suggests that although the majority of Bulgarians seem to be negatively disposed towards refugees, there are ‘dozens of volunteers who devote time and resources to support them.’
Ami’s family is awaiting a decision on their refugee status which should come in the next few months. They don’t know if anyone in the camp has been granted official refugee status. In truth, very few have and it’s not something they want to shout about.
The refugees find themselves trapped in a strange limbo. ‘Every month here is like a year. Time passes slowly,’ says Ami. ‘We don’t want to go back to living in awful conditions, so Western Europe is a better place to go.’ Asked about the future Latifa says all she wants is a ‘good life’. Ami will not be making it to Western Europe and Latifa will not have her ‘good life’ until the EU comes to terms with what is rapidly growing into a refugee crisis.
This article is part of Cafébabel's 2014 series on Syria. The rest of the articles are currently being translated and will soon be available in English.