The Refugee Crisis: The Widow of Sofia

hershman3Bulgaria is categorically not a destination favoured by refugees. Most ordinary people – even officials – are openly hostile to foreigners, especially Muslims. Mindful of these attitudes, and a welcome straight out of the Katie Hopkins charm school, most simply bypass Bulgaria and head west via Macedonia. It’s not just that refugees or economic migrants won’t receive handouts, healthcare or any of the other benefits extended to them in Germany and Britain. They may even be badly beaten if they look too obviously foreign in a country which is highly homogeneous

 The other night I left home to take my four-year old to the local park. The first person I saw walking past was a skinhead of about 20 with a black T-shirt emblazoned with a large SS sign, red braces, bovver boots and a goatee. Such a sight in Sofia, although not as commonplace as in Russia, is not that unusual. Swastikas adorn so many street corners that you cease to notice them alongside the occasional hammer and sickle. Still, some people may say – what’s the difference?
Bulgarian xenophobia stems from scant acquaintance with foreigners. My theory has always been that the more outsiders there are in a country, the less hostility they face simply because the indigenous population ends up working with, and living alongside, immigrants whom they come to see as individuals rather than members of a despised group. Foreigners – in particular swathes of unkempt, dark ones – remind Bulgarians of Roma – a group openly despised by most. In a country as poor as Bulgaria, people would be horrified to see their taxes used to prop up visitors, and Muslims at that. After all, most Bulgarians and practically all pensioners, find it impossible to live with dignity.
Of course, 500 years of Ottoman rule didn’t engender much affection among Bulgarians for their Muslim neighbours. (Bulgaria has now erected a fence on its Turkish border to keep out refugees). Attitudes are unlikely to change because politicians, mindful of the views of their constituents, harden their rhetoric. In any case the term political correctness is non-existent in Bulgaria. Only this week a prominent Bulgarian historian (and director of the National Historical Museum) attributed the post-war anti-fascist purges in Bulgaria that led to thousands of deaths in the early years of communism to the influence of “pro-Jewish lobbies in the US and Britain”. Although perhaps not an entirely inaccurate statement, it’s difficult to imagine a figure of comparable influence in the West saying such a thing.
Many years ago I visited Busmantsi, the so-called special centre for the temporary accommodation of foreigners, just outside Sofia. Disregard the innocuous name; be very, very frightened because in Bulgaria such titles spell trouble. It was a hellhole. What perturbed me more than the barbed wire, Fort Knox security and casual punishment beatings was that prisoners were just left in limbo. One elderly lady I interviewed had travelled from Turkmenistan to keep a promise to her late (Bulgarian) husband to visit Sofia. She had been robbed of all her possessions and ID papers on a train. The authorities, unable to establish her identity, put her in Busmantsi. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s still there. Small wonder the Syrians are giving Bulgaria the widest of berths

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