“It’s important to do something in life that has some good effect”, says Dessy, who works at Caritas in the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia. “You could be the first person they meet in Bulgaria who sees them as the real human being that they are, and cares about them and their future.”
We are scooching back to September (2020), a few days after my birthday, and a day or so before I headed off very excitedly for the long Kom Emine trail. Caritas’ office was tucked down a side street just down from the main Mosque of the city, with a small park area outside that filled with people going to prayer five times per day, especially on midday Friday, and at other times hosted a whole load of pigeons.
Caritas is a non-profit organisation aimed at doing social work to help vulnerable people in society. Caritas exists around the world, and is technically a Catholic organisation, but it looks after and includes people of all faiths, as well as those without one.
I climbed the stairs to our socially distanced meeting, in a light, airy room with a cabinet in the corner filled with homemade jewellery and crafts; the products of ‘CaritArt’. CaritArt is a small social enterprise that collects the crafts made during a few different projects – art-focused therapy for those with disabilities, craft making activities to bring together refugee and Bulgarian women, and creative workshops for Roma children.
This is just one of the many activities Caritas runs in Bulgaria, that are often focused on bringing different groups together. But, I was there to talk about refugees in Bulgaria.
Dessy and colleague Boyan explained that most refugees see Bulgaria as a transition country, as they have a goal of getting to Western Europe. Because of this, (people) smuggling and the risks associated with this (e.g. trafficking) is a big issue.
If refugees are found by border police in Bulgaria, they are usually automatically taken to a detention centre, where they are standardly held for 6 months, unless they are classed as obviously ‘vulnerable’. This is despite the fact that detention centres should be a measure of ‘last resort’, as defined by European Law.
One of Caritas’ areas of work is trying to support people in those centres, for example by providing activities or bringing books. Conditions in the centres are described as being extremely bad by several different reporting accounts – not enough food, only receiving a sheet and a pillow case, no books, lack of fresh air, lack of legal advice or translators to learn about their rights, etc.
“If you have children, for example, it’s a disaster”, says Dessy, explaining that one of their aims is to provide books, toys and other resources, and run a few workshops; anything to simply ‘keep them normal’ through this period. Another report stated that ‘most people in detention centres are physically or mentally affected’ by the experience.
Caritas also tries to help people to understand their rights and options – for example the option for settling in Bulgaria as opposed to trying to continue West, which could be very dangerous due to reliance on smugglers.
Dessy explained that one of the motivating things about her job is to try and change peoples impressions of Bulgaria as a country. If the first people they’ve met is border police, and then the institutions, then this impression will be very bad, but she explained, “actually we are a very warm society, on the level of forming a real relationship with a real person. And it’s often more natural for them to settle here than further West, where they might originally have been aiming for, as our culture is much closer to their own.” Through friendship and support, Caritas’ work opens up the option of settling in Bulgaria.
If they decide to try this route, one bonus is that Bulgaria has one of the shortest periods to wait between being approved asylum, and being able to start work – 3 months.
“People from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine… But it’s really really hard to get status approved if they’re from somewhere where there’s not an obvious, declared war. It’s hard to prove why you can’t go back otherwise.”
A woman entered the room briefly to collect something – who Dessy then explained is a Palestinian women who’s been in Sofia for 5 years, and was still waiting for her residency to be approved long term. What if it was finally rejected now? After being fully integrated and at home – with kids at school too?
Many of Caritas’ main ‘success stories’, Dessy and Boyan explained, was to do with integrating people in their society – for example their mentorship program that linked newcomers with locals. As I was leaving, Dessy opened the cabinet of crafts in the corner and offered me to pick one as a gift – made through one of these same integration and mentorship programs. A bonus birthday present with true meaning.
How do refugees and our ‘treatment’ of them, fit into the climate crisis? Recently, especially at the end of 2020, refugees have been a ‘hot topic’, with seemingly two groups of thought. One side is the ‘refugees are a threat and a security issue’ brigade. Another camp is the ‘refugees are human beings who need help and therefore we should help them’.
I am resolutely in the second camp, but I am also learning about what else is, and has been, happening in the background for centuries, which does a better job at getting to the bottom of all this. Why do such huge inequalities exist in the first place? Why is it that the divide between the poorest and richest has only got bigger (apparently the income gap between the global North and South has roughly tripled in size since 1960).
Is it enough to just accept that some people are ‘unlucky’ in the circumstances they are born into, and some are lucky? Or is it that some are rich precisely because of others being poor, and poverty, war and inequality has been deliberately created through political decisions over time? A bit like how the climate crisis has been fuelled by deliberate political cover-ups to protect the interests of the few?
Caritas are a charity doing brilliant work, but like all charities, they shouldn’t need to exist. They are putting a sticking plaster over a much bigger problem, that won’t be solved without this deeper, looking-beneath-the-surface thinking. So much of the world’s problems come back to the political games of power between countries. People like the refugees passing through Bulgaria, those crossing the channel on life rafts, and more hiding in the forests of Croatia, are just casualties of those power battles.
How do we target this level of power? I’m not sure, but I’m working on it…
One of the things I’m doing with this enforced break is trying to think about how the New Story Run can create more impact when it re-starts. Because of that, and because there is also TONNES of planning to do, and other stuff (e.g. trying to get on a few podcasts, pitching for writing in other publications etc), the Blogs will be less frequent over the next few months. Do not worry! All is OK – this will be so I can focus on doing important things like figuring out how to survive when running hundreds of km’s with no water sources, or when it’s minus 40C, and such conundrums!!
For more regular, daily-life updates (including ‘this time last year’ posts, thoughts on training for running adventures, and other stuff) – keep following on Facebook, Instagram (this is the one I update most) or Twitter.
Until next time – huge virtual hugs to you all!