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Feature 06 Nov 17

Refugees Seek Media Platform to Change Bulgarian Minds

Faced with an upsurge of hostility from Bulgarian citizens, refugees and activists want to set up a media platform that will show people what they are really like.

Mariya Cheresheva
BIRN
Sofia
Ahmad, Martin and their team in Sofia. Bulgaria. Photo: HITL: Human in the Loop 

Ahmad left his home country of Afghanistan a year ago. Living there as a translator for NATO troops was “no longer safe” for him.

Having no legal way to enter Europe, he entered Bulgaria illegally, where he has been living ever since, and enjoying his new life.

“I just needed a safe place where I can be far away from bad people. For me, Bulgaria is a nice country – my life is much better here,” he told BIRN.

Having now obtained asylum in Bulgaria and moved away from the refugee centre in the Voenna Rampa neighbourhood of Sofia, he wants to help other refugees avoid some of the problems he faced during his first year in Bulgaria.

That is how he met Iva Gumnishka, a Bulgarian activist who works to provide job opportunities for refugees in the country.

Together, they organized a brainstorming meeting at the end of October, which brought together programmers, entrepreneurs, designers and refugees, to develop innovative solutions that could help asylum seekers cope with their new life in Bulgaria.

The idea that won most support from the participating refugees was setting up True News – a web platform to counter the negative narratives about refugees in the media and provide reliable information about the real situation in their home countries.

A team led by two Bulgarian developers, assisted by a group of Afghan refugees, has already developed a prototype for a video-sharing platform, which can be used to share clips on experiences, opinions and news among refugees and their network.

“Most people think refugees are terrorists. But most of us are just people who had wars in our countries and had to leave. We want to wipe the bad image from our faces,” Ahmad said.

A recent poll, carried out by the Sofia-based sociological research centre “Trend”, has confirmed Ahmad’s impressions about the negative attitude of most Bulgarians towards refugees.

About 84 per cent of the 1,004 participants in the poll said their country should not accept any more refugees from the Middle East.

A similar share, 82 per cent, seemed convinced that taking in economic migrants from war-torn regions was not a good idea generally.

Martin Dimitrov, one of the software developers engaged with the project, said the platform would allow asylum seekers to share information about themselves and about their life in the refugee camps, while at the same time showing Bulgarians that they are “just ordinary people”.

The original content, generated by the refugees, would then be monitored and moderated by locals responsible for the site, which would target the general public and the Bulgarian media.

“We need to find a common language. The bad reputation of refugees comes from the fact that usually it’s third parties that are the ones that talk and write about them,” Dimitrov said.

He and Iva Gumnishka believe that such a platform would have much potential and they are currently seeking additional funds and volunteer software developers to bring the idea to life.

Gumnishka acknowledged that such a project contains some risks for the refugees who take part.

“I would be afraid to open it up for comments as this would attract so much hate speech,” she said.

“I am not sure to what extent Bulgarian society is ready for this – but I still hope that the refugees will have a platform where they can express themselves,” she noted.

Ahmad, however, is positive that sharing his own experience and views with Bulgarians could bring about positive change.

“I want to show Bulgarians who am I, and what my goals and ambitions in life are,” he said. “Maybe I can be a very effective person for this community.” 

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