Feature 01 Mar 17

Anti-Refugee Sentiment Traps Syrian Family in Bulgarian Limbo

A once-warm welcome is turning tepid for a Syrian refugee family in Bulgaria.

Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Elin Pelin
Fahim Jaber and Fatima Bataihi with their son Mohamed Jaber in their house in Elin Pelin. Photo: BIRN

The sign on the green door of a small house rented by Fahim Jaber and Fatima Bataihi in the Bulgarian town of Elin Pelin, located some 30 kilometres east of the capital Sofia, says “Welcome”.

Inside the house, the smell of Arabic coffee and freshly-baked cheese manakish – traditional Syrian hors d'oeuvre – greets guests who braved the rain to visit the middle-aged couple from Aleppo in the early hours of February 25.

Jaber and Batahi were warmly greeted when they first arrived in the town of 7,000 in 2016 along with their youngest son. However, the atmosphere in the town changed mid-February after Mayor Ivailo Simeonov from nationalistic coalition VMRO-New Bulgaria announced that they, as Muslims from Syria, would not be welcome. National elections are set to be held in Bulgaria on March 26 amid an apparent growth in right wing populism on the European continent.

The family still hopes to build a life in Elin Pelin alongside their newfound friends. “We want to live alongside Bulgarian society, we want to learn Bulgarian traditions,” Jaber said. “We are the ones who have to integrate and adapt to society.” While he would like to return to Aleppo too, his family’s home was destroyed in the war.

Fahim Jaber. Photo: BIRN

While Elin Pelin is small, the Jaber family is in the national spotlight after Simeonov refused tо register and issue ID documents to Fahim, Fatima and their younger son Ahmed, despite Bulgaria’s State Agency for the Refugees (SAR) granting them humanitarian protection in November.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told BIRN that the mayor’s decision to deny them documents was unlawful. It called upon the Bulgarian Prime Minister Ognyan Gerdzhikov to react. However, the government is yet to make a move.

Cold shower

“My fellow citizens are certain that they would allow anyone to live here against their will,” Simeonov told Bulgarian National Television (BNT) on February 13.

The same day, a few dozen citizens gathered at Elin Pelin’s central square to declare that they did not want to share their hometown with any refugees. Simeonov said that those fleeing war “may look calm and moderate in the beginning, but after them many others, who are aggressive, will arrive.” Protests came as a shock to the couple who were warmly welcomed when they first set foot in the country eight months ago.

“We do not know any of those people,”Jaber said of the protesters he saw on TV. “We have perfect relations with our neighbours”. The couple’s older son Mohamed had moved to Bulgaria before them. “We are very surprised and disappointed,” Jaber said. “Our son told us that Bulgaria is a very nice, democratic place.”

While his experience has changed, he still clings to this belief. “I know this is not representative for the whole Bulgarian people,” he added.

Mohamed Jaber crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border illegally on October 31, 2013, hoping to reach Germany – just like hundreds of thousands of those fleeing the bloody civil in war in Syria. After moving to Hamburg, he returned to Bulgaria, where he felt people were more open. While Mohamed Jaber moved to Sofia, he had made friends in Elin Pelin and decided it would be a good place for his parents. “I am worried because I brought my family here, I told them that it is a calm and safe place. I wanted all of us to be together,” he said.

Fatima Bataihi. Photo: BIRN

The family has started living in fear – perhaps similar to that felt by their small community. “I have not been out of the house since”, Fatima Bataihi said. She recalled seeing a man running towards her while she was shopping. She automatically believed it was the beginning of an act of aggression. “It turned out he was running for something else, not towards me. But I got scared – if he had hit me, how could I defend myself?” she asked.

Many people have apologized to them for the situation, telling them they would like them to remain in the town. Leaving is not on the cards for the couple. “Only radicals and criminals have stayed there. Death and torture,” Bataihi said. She and her husband recently lost a nephew who died in prison.

Fear and Politics in Elin Pelin

As the Jaber family mulls its chances, further protests take place on the main square. This time, around a dozen supporters showing solidarity with the Syrians collect signatures so as to urge the municipality to issue them the necessary documents.

“We have millions of refugees outside Bulgaria. How would we feel, if someone treated them like that? Three million Bulgarians who work around Europe?” Vasil, a factory worker and friend of Mohamed Jaber told BIRN. “This is politics. Politics in Bulgaria messes up the lives of Bulgarian people. Over the past 27 years the Bulgarian people have suffered all kinds of shocks, hunger, poverty. They have learned to live with fear,” he added.

Valentina Saleh, a small business owner from Elin Pelin, linked the tensions to politics, specifically the March 26 elections. “This family has been living here for over six months. Why is VMRO raising the question now, before the election? There are no refugees on the border right now and there is no other way to raise the immigrant question,” she said.

Vladimir Kolev, who organised the action, expressed a similar view. “I am afraid they turned the events in our town into [part of] an electoral campaign,” he said.

Around 30 people, who had gathered on the other side of the square to support their mayor, did not share Kolev’s opinion. Instead, they held a public prayer in the local church to protect their town from “all evil”. However, they were reluctant to talk to media, which they say has portrayed them “as Satanists and savages.” They are certain that the Jaber family will not bring anything good to their community. “We do not know them, and we do not want them,” a local man told BIRN.

“Who will take care of them? They have not come to work. Have you seen an Arab work?” another man, who went by the name Grigor, added. He said that local people are poor and barely have anything to eat, so the state should not take care of Syrians, who do not want to live according to Bulgaria’s laws and customs.

“There is a war in Ukraine, right? Why don’t the Ukrainians come? We will accept them! No problem!” another man shouted.

People’s will vs. Legal Order:

Daniel Stefanov, a spokesperson for UNHCR’s Bulgarian office told BIRN that Simeonov’s decision was unlawful.

“The decision of the mayor of Elin Pelin not to register the refugee family is a breach of the law regarding access to civil registration. It also amounts to an act of discrimination,” Stefanov said.

He conveyed UNHCR’s concern about the wellbeing of the Jaber family, but also about the precedent being set and how it may encourage other municipalities.

By February 22 this year, a total of 773 people had applied for asylum in Bulgaria. Some 232 were granted either refugee or humanitarian protection, SAR data show. In 2016, Bulgaria’s refugee agency granted 1,400 asylum applications out of nearly 20,000.

UNHCR said that no integration program was ever developed after 2013, although the Bulgarian government adopted an ordinance for decentralized integration in 2016. It was ineffective.

“The lack of state program to support the integration of recognised refugees in Bulgaria is already very detrimental to their well-being. The mayor of Elin Pelin has taken this to a new level by actively obstructing integration in violation of the law,” Stefanov noted.

He added that the UNHCR sent a letter to Prime Minister Ognyan Gerdzhikov to inquire about the future of the governmental ordinance. Gerdzhikov is essentially responsible for its implementation. It further asked what the authorities would do to prevent the expansion of calls for hate crimes against refugees and particularly this Syrian family.

The Bulgarian government has not yet released any statement on issues in Elin Pelin. 

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