Taking advantage of work opportunities in Bulgaria: the true story of a Syrian refugee.

Elias now lives in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria – a country that when it first greeted him was not at all prepared to receive and care for him and the many others like him.

Today, he lives in the center of Sofia together with his wife and child. He works for an IT company that has contracts with many companies from the Arab world, and he teaches Arabic languages at the State University in Sofia.

When he can make room in his schedule, he volunteers to help those who nowadays – just like him a few years back – roam across the streets of Sofia with only their backpacks, running from the police, sleeping were they can, waiting for a chance to make another step towards the rich countries of the West, where they can make a living.

 Interview with Mathijs le Rutte, Representative of UNHCR in Bulgaria

Reporter: What is the total numbers of refugees currently staying in Bulgaria?

Mathijs le Rutte: As of 10 February 2017, a total of 3,368 individuals are registered at the registration/reception centres of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR). Of this total, 494 asylum-seekers live at external addresses of their own choice, while the rest reside in the SAR centres. So far in 2017, 142 persons have received either ‘refugee’ or ‘humanitarian’ status. The total for 2016 was 1,352. The exact number of refugees currently staying in Bulgaria is not available, as an unknown number leave for Western Europe.

Reporter: What have been the main challenges that your office encountered in providing support to the refugees living in Bulgaria in the past two years?

Mathijs le Rutte: Normally, UNHCR does not provide material or financial assistance to asylum-seekers or refugees in Bulgaria. UNHCR’s role is to supervise the implementation of refugee laws in Bulgaria, monitor Bulgaria’s compliance with international, regional and national legislation related to asylum-seekers and refugees, provide expertise, advice/support to government and other stakeholders to ensure that asylum-seekers have access to the territory and the asylum procedure, as well as decent reception conditions and support to integrate in Bulgaria.

However, UNHCR works very closely with the government in ensuring that the protection, social and integration needs of asylum-seekers and refugees are duly met by the state which has the primary responsibility to this effect. UNHCR has good working relationships with all relevant government counterparts.

Continued allegations of denial of entry to Bulgaria of third country nationals who attempt to irregularly enter Bulgaria from the ‘green border’, persistently precarious reception conditions, especially the lack of specialised care and support for unaccompanied and separated children, lack of any programme to integrate refugees in Bulgaria are some of the key concerns.

Reporter: Are there any communities of integrated migrants from the Middle East that provide support in Bulgaria to the refugees? If they exist, does the UNHCR cooperate with them?

Mathijs le Rutte: There are communities of Syrian and Iraqi origin (besides others) who have long been residing in Bulgaria. UNHCR is in contact especially with the Syrian community regarding their support to asylum-seekers and refugees in Bulgaria during various time periods.

Reporter: What will be the main priorities in 2017 of your office with respect to the refugees currently living in Bulgaria and those who will enter the country this year?

Mathijs le Rutte: UNHCR and its partners work to support the authorities, and particularly the State Agency for Refugees, Border Police and the Migration Directorate, to ensure access to the asylum procedure for those seeking international protection. This includes the provision of free legal aid, monitor and advocate against the prosecution of irregular entry, and the detention of asylum seekers. We provide training and capacity building for institutions engaged in asylum issues. We work on improving the conditions in the reception centres, and especially the manner in which unaccompanied and separated children are provided with temporary care arrangements. Another priority is the establishment of a programme of support to persons who have been granted international protection in integrating in Bulgaria.

Reporter: How would you characterise the support provided by Bulgarian authorities to the refugees?

Mathijs le Rutte: Recognized refugees in Bulgaria require support in order to commence an integration process. For this to be successful, at the earliest possible stages, there is a need for language courses, accommodation, employment, medical insurance coverage and education for the children. Unfortunately, there is no integration programme for refugees provided by the authorities. An Ordinance on integration adopted in 2016 tasks municipalities with facilitating the integration of refugees. This is optional however and even though there is dedicated EU funding available thus far there has been little interest from the part of the municipalities to take the initiative.

Video - Part II - THE UNCOUNTRIED : Now, a teacher in Sofia

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Reporter: What was your destination?

Elias: Actually, my destination was not Bulgaria, it was… I was thinking to go to Germany, or to Sweden, or to some country where I could have better opportunities. Why I stayed in Bulgaria? I came here and the situation was really bad. We were in a camp, which had really bad conditions.

Reporter: Here in Bulgaria?

Elias: Yes.

Reporter: When was this?

Elias: It was a year ago, in Sofia. We were like 20…

"OK, I speak different languages. Let’s help others who do not speak any languages. I started to help the other refugees…”

Reporter: You came illegally in Bulgaria…

Elias: Yes, of course, there is no other way… No legal way… I told you, we don’t have passports. The only way to come to Europe is illegally. There were no legal ways to come.

I started to think. OK, I speak different languages. Let’s help others who do not speak any languages. I started to help the other refugees. After a week, I was teaching the kids in the camp, I was travelling with some groups just to give support to other refugees, in other camps - you know - outside Sofia and even in Sofia, and that’s how I met her in one of the camps (his wife).

Even right now, my boss at the company, the owner of the company, is one of the supporters of the refugees. I met him in one camp, outside of Sofia.

"But here, working in these companies, you get better chances because they offer better money."

Reporter: He was also a volunteer?

Elias: Yes. After that, after a couple of months, he started to contact me: "Hey, Elias… Let’s… We’re developing programmes (IT), you can help us."

Reporter: He is an IT entrepreneur?

Elias: Yes, and right now I’m working for his company. I think that’s OK.

The situation is changing here. Maybe the camps do not need the same help as they did at the beginning. I thought that it was time to give something back to this country that protected me, at least. And a friend of mine - among the volunteers I met a professor from the university - invited me once to go there and to have contact with the students there. I just started to speak to them. They liked me, they offered me to work with them at the University, as I am native, so…

Reporter: Do you mean to teach them?

Elias: Yes, I am a lecturer in Arabic languages. They knew that I had a good experience in teaching. I taught in Cuba, at the University of Havana, for four years. I like to be a professor, actually. It’s more than IT, than an outsourcing company or this kind of job. But here, working in these companies, you get better chances because they offer better money. And the University… Actually, I’m doing it like a volunteer, because they are not giving good money there. At least, I’m doing this for Bulgarians - not for the government – the people who helped at the beginning.

Reporter: The average Bulgarian, the normal Bulgarian, the citizens on their own, not the state.

Elias: I told you. I don’t want to blame the government, because the situation in the camps is better now than it was at the beginning. When we came in the first wave, we were 10.000. It was a big number for a small country like Bulgaria, a poor country. All the refugees, educated refugees, they go to Germany, or to other countries because of this.

"I think that work - getting a good job - is the easiest way to integrate in any society."

Reporter: You’re saying this although you are well integrated. You have two jobs, you have a family…

Elias: Yes, I have my family here.

Reporter: You still say that.

Elias: Yes, exactly, because I told you - I was not thinking to stay here, but destiny made me stay here, maybe to meet my wife.

Reporter: You met your wife here. Is she a Bulgarian?

Elias: She is half Bulgarian-half Syrian.

One of the reasons for which I remained here is that I saw that there were opportunities to stay and get a good job. Other refugees, they don’t even know that there are opportunities here. The language barrier is sometimes really hard. If one does not speak different languages, it’s harder for them to integrate. I think that work - getting a good job - is the easiest way to integrate in any society.

Reporter: Do you speak Bulgarian now?

Elias: (Laughing) Actually, no. This is… Shame on me.

Reporter: Do you plan to return to Syria at some point?

Elias: Actually...

Reporter: Or do you feel that you’re a Bulgarian now? Do you feel that this is your home?

Elias: Not exactly. Part of me... As I told you, I don’t feel like it’s my country, like I felt when I was in Cuba. I feel like I am more Cuban. Part of me is Cuban, part of me is Syrian.

Reporter: Not a Bulgarian yet?

Elias: Not a Bulgarian yet. Because it’s different. You know, there are like… I’ve never had this feeling that I’m a foreigner. It’s like I am the same person, I am the same guy, but when I speak in Arabic, they feel like "hmm, these Arab guys." But if I speak in Spanish, they start laughing with me, something like "OK, you are welcome here…"

Reporter: How do you explain this?

Elias: It is the propaganda that some media are doing. Not only here, in Bulgaria, I think that in many countries there is a malicious propaganda. They want to show the refugees as being evil, bad people that must not come to Europe.

                                                                                         The End   

            See the first part of the story: VIDEO-INTERVIEW "From Syria to Bulgaria – Part I: Escaping death"


Authored by: Ovidiu Vanghele (interview with Elias, background reporting), Laurențiu Diaconu-Colintineanu (camera), Dani Drăgan (video editing), Andrei Schwartz (interview with Mathijs le Rutte, editing). Paula Căbescu has contributed to post-production related activities.

Our project

The route used by refugees coming from the Middle East to Europe has not closed after the migration peak of 2015. The only thing that has happened is that the number of people reaching the wealthier and opportunity-filled West has dropped, as the route has gotten significantly harder than it was during the more favorable context of a few years back.

Some countries have effectively closed their borders, forcing the refugees to go around or simply blocking thousands of people from continuing their journey towards the European dream.

Assisting the refugees continues to represent a problem for the poor states in the region that lack the necessary resources to shelter them. These countries continue to be confronted with thousands of vulnerable people to whom they have to ensure minimum living conditions.

EurActiv Romania has documented with the financial assistance of the German Marshall Fund the hardships and tragedies of migrants and refugees coming to Europe from the Middle East. We have taken a closer look at the challenges they face, but also at the opportunities that they can access in order to rebuild their lives, at the horrifying stories of their death escaping journeys, but also at extraordinary examples of compassion, at misleading prejudice and misunderstanding of day-to-day realities, and also at exemplary cases of integration and community service.