interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Celebrating diversity in Bulgaria is not easy

stana iliev.jpg

With a German mother and a Bulgarian father, Stana Iliev, who was born and raised in East Berlin, feels she never had any real connection to Bulgaria except for the obligatory "This is very tasty" and "I can't eat any more." Before she came here on a longer-term basis, Stana's impressions were limited to rusty monkey bars in the Mladost One project in Sofia and the Good Night Children TV show on Bulgarian television.

But that's past now. In 2008, she came to this country, initially for three months to finish a diploma paper. She made friends quickly, a major reason to be unable to leave. She learned the language and developed a relationship with Bulgaria that made her "want to explore more." She did. She started working for humanitarian organisations such as the Bulgarian Red Cross, and soon she found out that in Bulgaria everyone takes everything personally. The more Stana identified herself with being half-Bulgarian, the oftener she would speak up and not be content with what is going on in Bulgarian society. Today she is involved in LGBTI and women's rights as well as general anti-xenophobic initiatives often involving migrants and refugees – on both a professional and a voluntary basis.
The attitude of the majority of Bulgarians towards foreigners and minorities, like in any other country, is complex and varies. The benchmarks foreigners are judged by are poverty and "otherness." Bulgarians can be very welcoming towards Westerners such as myself. On the other hand, prejudice against and rejection of people who are different or poor is very disturbing. This doesn’t only go for refugees but also for national ethnic and religious minorities, and for people with different sexual orientation or gender identities.

There is the old saying by John Acton: Liberty provokes diversity, and diversity preserves liberty. We should be extremely concerned about the extremist movements and citizens should start speaking out about that. The most dangerous thing is apathy. At the end of the day, integration happens on an individual level. As individuals we have to start with ourselves and decide to find the points of intersection with others instead of concentrating on the differences. Transformation starts from within and then reaches the minds and hearts of communities, cities and countries. I believe there is a necessary connection between inner transformation and finding effective alternatives to discrimination and violence.

What are the most pressing issues regarding immigrants, including refugees, in Bulgaria?

In the past year, like in all of Europe, there has been a rise in racism and xenophobia. Against the background of the ongoing economic crisis and the shaky political situation, this is not surprising. Prejudice and fear flourish in an atmosphere of misinformation, poor media ethics and bad integration politics.

The only way to tackle this is to understand that integration is a twoway street. It is not assimilation and not segregation like most people seem to think. Real integration needs advocacy, education, access and innovative employment policies.

The new Bulgarian Integration Strategy that is being reworked at the moment needs to become much bolder and practical. Measures should include support for grass root initiatives and capacity-building for community actions. It should not be another pretty policy paper like so many, where in the end the funds are being absorbed in administration and huge machineries, and the end product is not worth the effort.

What do you think of the new barbed-wire fence on the border with Turkey?

The huge influx of predominantly Syrian refugees in the past year has been a big challenge to Bulgaria. The EU refugee policy, in my opinion, needs some serious rethinking. Establishing a Fortress Europe is by no means the answer to the situation. The EC program on solidarity and management of migration flows has spent 1.8 million euros. Almost 50 percent of that has gone to enforcing protection of Schengen's outer borders with the rest going to aid, integration and repatriation.

In Bulgaria, the dichotomy is especially striking. Just about 8 percent of the total amount Bulgaria was allocated under the SOLID Programme was for activities funded by the Refugee Fund, whereas almost 74 percent was given to the External Borders Fund.

Furthermore, the policies of the EU include tight cooperation with third countries to "keep people out." Sadly, some of those are countries with known poor human rights records. In my opinion, many of the current refugee policies, including the Dublin Agreement, are designed to leave poor border countries like Bulgaria do the EU’s "dirty work."

This is unacceptable and has terrible consequences. You cannot prevent people from seek safety and peace. Refugees are forced to take higher and higher risks and embark on increasingly dangerous routes, facing open sea and violence on the way.
Let's face it. Bulgaria is a transit country. The hype and fearmongering of the Bulgarian media, however, has been very dangerous. At present, there are only around 4,000 registered refugees in the Bulgaria, either with humanitarian or refugee status. I think Bulgaria has the capacity to integrate a much larger number, reaping the benefits from the fresh human resources.

Is Bulgaria a cosmopolitan country? Do Bulgarians want it to become more cosmopolitan?

Yes, we are citizens of the world. In the past year Sofia has seen a big increase in international attention and visitors. Actually I find it very obvious that large chunks of the Bulgarian people are thirsty for change, innovation and new cultural input.

In terms of being "cosmopolitan" I also think that understanding that emigration is one of the biggest tools for social critique is also very important. Young, well-educated people cannot find their place in their own country. This is not only an economic problem but also a social problem. That is why I welcome the development of civil society. I welcome activism, people waking up from apathy and developing a sense of ownership of their social and political situation. There is a change in the air and an atmosphere of departure, especially in Sofia. I would wish for the countryside communities to also become more active and to be the leaders of their own development.

What about Bulgarians' national identity? How do Bulgarians see themselves in Europe and the world?

I believe Bulgaria’s self-identification is an ongoing process. There is national pride, the struggle to reprocess history in an ever-changing political framework, and of course its new status in Europe.

Sometimes it seems as if Bulgaria has both an inferiority and a superiority complex at the same time.

We have the grand national pride. We quickly produce explanations about how the country is actually the cradle of civilisation, a country of untouchable heroes and the nicest people on earth. And then we put a comma and a "but," and then we go on bashing our countrymen’s mentality and Bulgaria's position as the pariah of modern Europe.

Still, I have big hopes for Bulgaria. I think if we were a little braver and stopped waiting for the EU to come to rescue we could be a fantastic example of Europe's new cosmopolitism.


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