The Immigration Crisis at Home and Abroad (The Case of Bulgaria)

Syrian refugee family in Bulgaria
SOFIA, BULGARIA. (February 2017) As a result of Germany providing better health insurance, education, and higher living standards, most refugees only stay in Bulgaria for a short period of time. This Syrian six-member family was welcomed at the First Baptist Church of Sofia, Bulgaria. I learned later that the Bulgarian Government did not give permission to the Church to continue to provide personal assistance to this family.

Since the peak of the fighting in the summer of 2012, as rebel groups rose to fight their authoritarian leader, Bashar Al- Assad, the headlines of newspapers all over the world have been scattered with the words “migration crisis.”  This influx of the media’s widespread influence has shown to have a direct correlation with a new wave of prejudice, xenophobia, and nationalism in the Western European societies and beyond.

This trend grew as a direct result of millions of Syrians, leaving everything they knew and loved behind, fleeing for asylum to countries like Germany, France, Greece, and Italy.  Inevitably, what was originally a provincial conflict, manifested into a global concern – affecting economies and cultures in both positive and negative ways.

My experience with the “migration crisis” has a specific face in mind, a gleaming with positivity face.  It is the face of my new Syrian acquaintance Amer Baroudi, who I had the opportunity to converse with during my travels to Bulgaria earlier this year.  Amer’s smile was lighting up any room he walked into.  At first glance, he seemed to be just like any other young adult in his mid-twenties – smart, full of energy, and relentless in the face of ambition.  However, the truth is that life story of Baroudi is embodying the colliding issues of a Syrian fleeing war and the hope of a young generation for a better life in Europe.

“Many people do not understand how critical the situation in Syria is now,” explained to me Baroudi. “There are daily killings and bombings in my country. What kind of future can one build in such an environment?”

Living in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, Amer is working on his university degree – he studied architecture at the University of Damascus and now he attends the New Bulgarian University of Sofia.  In addition to his architectural skills, the hard-working Syrian speaks multiple languages, including English, and already started his own business.  His search for a new home began in the late 2013, following the terrorists raiding and bombing of his father’s business in Syria.  After the attack and left with nothing, the young student fled to Saudi Arabia. By interrupting his education, the options of where to go or claim asylum appeared unpromising until he was accepted and continued his education at the New Bulgarian University in Bulgaria’s capital.

The life story of Amer is one that I learned and partially witnessed, but his story is not an exception among many similar stories of an entire generation of refugees from war-devastated societies.  Further, the reaction of the Bulgarian public opinion is also not an exception among the public opinions of the European Union societies.  Many of the Bulgarian citizens confront politicians and reporters with not very sensitive questions, such as, “Why are the refugees coming to our country?” or “They are all just taking our hard-earned money!” In reality, these opinions are far from the truth.  After volunteering for the Bulgarian Red Cross and organizing a social media campaign for better integration of the newcomers, Amer has seen and experienced very different circumstances.   “The rooms [designated for the refugees] are small and overcrowded,” he shares his sincere views.  “It is almost like a prison in my opinion. The Bulgarian community should be more open-minded, should accept the refugees at their borders and give them at least a chance to be integrated,”

These images of crowded rooms, packed with refugees I “brought with me” back to States.  I was discussing my recent findings with Dr. Amparo Palacios-Lopez, an economist in the Data Development Group of The World Bank and a longtime friend from the very socially active Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC.  Amparo brought to my attention a counter- point challenge for the integration of the refugees in Europe:  “Specifically in Europe, where many of the asylum seekers are migrating from Africa and the Middle East, – the way they look, their customs and culture, it’s all different from what the Europeans are used to.”  Dr. Palacios-Lopez is correct, and many other sociologists agree with the view that the escalation of discrimination and prejudice only seem to be a “natural reaction” of the society to very different Diasporas. 

The International Media reacted differently to this cultural shift.

According to research done by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stories of refugees often considered a “threat to the society” (to the welfare system, or even a cultural threat) are the most reported by the media of Italy, Spain, and Great Britain.  To the contrary, overall the Swedish press was the most positive towards refugees and migrants, while the coverage in the United Kingdom was the most negative, and the most polarized.

This mainstream media personification of a refugee does not go without consequences.  One self-described neo-Nazi on the district council told The New York Times that by allowing the mass exodus, the German people face “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risked becoming “a gray mishmash.”

In many countries, the powerful influence of the media has led to the rise of discrimination, but this is particularly true, in some Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, where the influence of the media has a particular correlation to the negative influence on the public opinion.

The reasons for that are not difficult to find in a society marked by an economic crisis and growing fear of Islam.  Denitza Kamenova, one of the representatives of the Bulgarian Media was correct to criticize the mass media: “The media discourse on migration and migrants becomes more and more stigmatized, stereotyped and stamped by a securitarian approach towards the other.”

While some Western societies see the charity as a necessity to overcome this catastrophe, others, have adopted infectious beliefs and has executed them in forms of violence and segregation through small-scale populist and vigilante movements.  Some examples include the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose referendum separated the United Kingdom from the European Union, and France’s National Front Party, who saw a near victory in the 2017 presidential race.  Ultimately, it is these types of parties equipped with nationalistic slogans, which are prospering in an atmosphere of fear and capitalizing on the spread of racism and hate.

At an address to the United Nations in November 2016, the Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Anastasia Crickley argued against the onset of “hateful rhetoric”, saying that nowadays our divided societies are being taken advantage of for economic and “political gain.”

Although an ocean away and affected by a different type of immigration disputes, the political and social discourse of the society in the United States does not stay neutral and is charged and divided with opinions “for” and “against” the immigration.  Majority of Americans, although isolated from the immediate “physical” problems, still feel similar repercussions and solidarity with their European allies. “Whoever the U.S. media coverage reaches in Europe, it has the same effect – those who agree with President Trump’s antagonistic racist policies use it as justification for their views, and those who disagree with Trump’s immigration policies view them with disdain,” Sandra Auman, a former cultural affairs officer at the European Union Delegation shared with me her politically charged views.

The Balkan state Bulgaria is no exception.  According to a Human Rights Report authored by the U.S. State Department, this small country, bordering Turkey, has the least recognized human rights for refugees in Europe.  Along with negative political propaganda labeling the foreigners as “terrorists” and “criminals,” there are multiple reports of police and civilian vigilante violence against migrants and asylum seekers, including assaults, beatings, and humiliation, particularly at the country’s south-east border with Turkey.

Largely due to being one of the poorest and most corrupt states in the European Union, the citizens of Bulgaria do not feel as if they have the economic and political stability to support the Syrian and the rest of the Middle East migrants.  Still, as an EU member, they are legally required to follow the EU requirements for processing asylum-seekers. Instead, although the government provides the bare minimum for clean processing centers, they fail to provide any integration, educational, or professional training programs, according to a report done by the Human Rights Watch.

For majority of the refugees, Bulgaria is just an intermediate stop.  As my new friend, Baroudi was talking about Western Europe: “Over there – one can get better health insurance for their kids, better education, and have overall much higher living standards.” 

To help us understand the situation better come the polls.  According to polls done by Eurostat, Germany has the highest migrant quota at 27,500 persons, 500,000 asylum claims, and 140,910 approved asylum applications.  The numbers for Bulgaria in the same categories are incomparably smaller.  In comparison to Germany, Bulgaria has a migrant quota of less than 300, and 50,000 asylum claims.  In addition, the standards of leaving and the funding in Bulgaria are much bleaker.

 “If I was in the situation where I have lost everything, I would definitely risk my life for the best scenario for me and my family’s future,” explained Baroudi.  I will not blame him for his desire to leave.  Bulgaria has become known with its strict border patrol and large wall on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, its vigilante racist citizens, and ultimately being just a short stop for the migrants on their journey to the Western and Northern parts of Europe.

There are voices, here, at home about the moral obligations of the concerned citizens, community leaders, government officials to solve the global refugee crises.  Serena Parekh, associate professor of philosophy at Northwestern University explains in her book, The Cultural Obligation of Journalism: “For some (multiculturalism) means treating each cultural community as a world unto itself and involves cultural relativism.  For others, including myself, it means that no culture is perfect and that it benefits from a critical dialogue with others, and involves a rejection of relativism.”

This idea of integrating other people into their societies has seemingly been the hardest concept for the Europeans to grasp.  There are some more optimistic views.  One International Relations student at the Sofia University, Teodora Tayana- Shalvardijeva describes the harsh criticism of Bulgaria’s response to the overflow of migrants as “undeserved.”  According to Tayana, every country has their migrants to handle, but there will always be “exceptions reported in the news, such as prejudice and crime.”  Unlike the United States, which is “one united country,” for Teddy and her university colleagues, it is difficult to imagine a consolidated European Union “with a combined governance.” but they are still optimistic that when the time comes, the European states will “help each other in any possible way.”

I would like to believe in the unity of the European states in the time of crisis with the optimism of my European friends.  The statistics of the United Nations Refugee Agency take us in another direction and remind us that today Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Syrian Arab Republic together, account for the highest percentage of refugee and asylum-seekers in the world.  A current 67.5 million persons displaced from their homes due to civil war, terrorism, and famine. Yet, in the midst of all this poverty, starvation, and death – where will these millions of people go?  Moreover, who will be able to provide the funds and organize the educational and employment programs for them?  It is because of our growing globalized world, through the mediums of the internet and social media, our words and actions are no longer isolated nor limited to our communities.

We are interconnected.  This increases the necessity for our social responsibility – even on the smallest of scales.

Bulgaria is just one of the many countries facing adversity today.  After talking to so many different people from both sides of the ocean, I am left with mix feelings and emotions about the refugee crisis and the collective moral obligation of the society and the individual responsibilities of its citizens.  It became evident to me that along with world leaders, journalists play a much bigger role in our biases and perceptions of the crises.

It is, under those circumstances, I was sharing my thoughts with another Church friend –Dr. Laura Canfield, Esq., a human rights advocate.  I cannot agree more with Laura, that as informed citizens, we must seek to understand the policy of any government on immigration.  As accountable citizens, we must ensure that our government and the governments of other countries treat individuals — citizens, immigrants and those seeking to immigrate — with due process.  “As human beings,’ Laura concluded, “we should carefully seek out, listen to individual stories of immigrants, and use that information to show mercy and seek justice in our world. 

The story of Amer Baroudi is a typical one.  His story is one of the many affected and disenfranchised by the Syrian Civil War.  For me – Amer’s story became a story of revelation for my call of duty.

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The reality of the Cultural Iceberg: A comparison between American and Italian cultures

BABa in Bulgaria

Having grown up in Italy and then moving to the United States, some of the biggest differences between the two countries and their cultures were not so obvious to me. The cultures of both countries have served key roles in my personal development and my understanding of how the world works.  When visiting my Neapolitan friend over the summer in Luxembourg last year, I complemented him on his pure heritage. He laughed at my ignorance, “Yes, I’m proud to be an Italian, but everyone is always ‘pulling your leg’ with ‘pasta, pizza, and cappuccino!’ These are stereotypes one could not escape.” Once, he said this, it was probably when I realized for the first time the “tip of the cultural iceberg” of Gary Weaver and his brilliant parallel between the invisible mountain of ice and the lack of deep understanding in our perceptions of cultural differences.

Being from the United States one tends to identify as a “kind of mutt” – you have a father from ‘there,’ and a mother from ‘here;’ or you were born in one place, but raised somewhere else.  We identify as ‘Americans,’ but deal with a constant ‘identity crisis,’ which is highlighted when asked, “Where are you from?” America is indeed a mixing pot, and New York City is probably the epicenter of it all.

There is a lot to compare between the culture of the New York City and the culture of the Italian state – for example the Italian immigrants, the Italian architecture of some of the buildings, the Italian art in the numerous art museums, and last, but not least – the Italian food.  Like most things that require deep understanding, there is more to it than the eye can see on the surface of things.  The Cultural Iceberg Theory explains a different way of observing, analyzing and thinking and provokes the reader, the viewer, the researcher or simply the outsider to take a deeper look at any different culture then his own and to attempt to pass and overcome the obvious stereotypes and perceptions.

For example, using the metaphor of an iceberg, one should picture the unknown proportions of an iceberg and how much one could see and how much one actually can’t see. Above the water the tiny tip of the iceberg serves as the perceived characteristics of a culture while below the water, the unseen iceberg, serves to show that there is a much larger picture of a covered with water ice mountain.  For example, characteristics that represent the ‘above the iceberg reality’ are language, art, religion, music, dance, sports, national costumes, food; while ‘below the iceberg’ would be the place for the culture’s core values such as ideas about family, education, history, or cosmology, and concepts of beauty, motivation to work, decision making processes, physical space, friendship, love, murder, or handling of emotions.  Just like in my case, the differences couldn’t be less obvious for two countries experiencing often so much misunderstanding of each other, such as the United States and Italy.

As the world is becoming more global, these misconceptions are also becoming more prevalent, as most countries are adopting and customizing food and culture from other countries in attempts to adapt to a more global society.  However, this way of thinking has become the basis of what tends to define American culture – exactly like American-Chinese food is completely different from traditional Chinese food, so is the American-Italian food from traditional Italian food.  And Italy is clearly more than its food. There are habits that diverge Italians from Americans such as splitting the bill vs. separating checks, eating three course meals vs. just one dish, or greeting people with kisses vs. handshakes.

As an illustration, I remember the girls I would study abroad with would be extremely “creeped out” by the forwardness of Italian men. Their spontaneous ‘romanticism,’ which was a gesture that has been completely condemned through prudency in American culture, was compelled for misunderstanding.

Culture and habits are passed from generation to generation, and develop throughout history based on lessons and influences from parents, teachers, laws, and social norms. Unless one is fully submerged into a culture, it’s difficult to understand these core values from just a few days in a country.  One tends to first experience “culture shock” – a personal disorientation through the exposure of a new custom or culture. Eventually though, with enough time, these core values are understood through observation, experience, and a bit of reflection. Just like an American might be astonished by the fact that a 30-year-old Italian is still living with his parents, what comes off as bizarre to us, is completely normal to them.

Understanding and growing from the experience starts with recognizing our own personal icebergs – what we portray through our clothing, how we act, and what we say vs. how it reflects on our core values, our prejudices, or our aspirations. Then follows, accepting discrepancy and acknowledging another person’s core values. And finally, it requires meditating and enjoying one’s growth.  The influence of culture on the elements of communication need to be explicitly explored rather than taken for granted or ignored.

So, yes, it is difficult for people from two different worlds, such as the United States and Italy to understand each other, but it is not impossible.  Let us look harder for the nine-tenths of the culture which is hidden from the view and may be there in the valleys of the ‘deep culture’ we will find the things that unite us, not the things that divide us.  It is up to us not to build “Walls” between our customs and cultures, but instead to build “Bridges” on our common values, connecting people and ideas.