The all-human values we share make us equal in being different

Photography: Elitsa Ganeva

Martina is part of the team of the Center for Integration of Refugees and Migrants “St. Anna” at Caritas Sofia. She works as a coordinator to the project “We Play and Learn” through which Caritas employees organize activities with a playful character for children and young people accommodated at reception centers at the State Agency for Refugees. Activities include Bulgarian language lessons, science, arts, sports and preparatory courses in Bulgarian for children of school age.

What was your first meeting with Caritas and why did you start work in the organization?
My first contact with the organization was as a volunteer at the Military Ramp Center, where I taught English to children. I really liked the atmosphere in Caritas. I am glad that when the activities expanded, I was able to apply for the position I am currently performing.

What prompted you to help people seeking and receiving international protection?
Many things have had an impact on my choice. First of all, it was the thought that it could happen to everyone. Unless we help each other, I do not know how we could handle a situation similar to that in which refugees are forced to leave their homeland, home, family, and friends.

What is the most satisfactory in your work?
Personally, there is no bigger reward than that when I visit the refugee centers in Sofia, there are at least ten children rushing towards me and start kissing and embracing me. Those moments when we can give them at least a carefree childhood are the most satisfying to me. Because they really do not know what real childhood is.

What is the hardest thing in your job?
It’s hard when we cannot help. We have a case of a single mother with four children. They are housed in the Ovcha Kupel center. One of the children has autism, it does not receive any medical care at the center. It is very difficult for the mother to cope. We cannot help much on our part. She is still seeking protection, she has no status.

It’s a burden when you know you can’t do anything. You can help diversify the life of this family, be the one with whom you share, but not solve the main problem. The three girls of this woman visit Caritas and they are so fond of the teacher – they are constantly looking for her and accept her as a friend with whom they share everything. They need to communicate and share. It is still more than no help, though we do not solve the general problem.

How is your ordinary working day running?
The working days of all employees at Caritas are very dynamic. We visit all the refugee centers daily to be able to coordinate and monitor what they need, what can be improved. One working day has nothing to do with another.

Last month, for example, we had many trips to the center in Harmanli, because we are launching a new activity there. The Caritas Sofia team has expanded with 16 people who will work there with children, young people, mothers with young children, children with special needs. They will also teach Bulgarian language individually to adults.

It has been a great challenge task because we had first to repair the premises we would use. We have seen a great deal of opposition from local firms who have refused to join repair works in the downtown. We had to grab the brushes and do the painting ourselves. Now the rooms look great. It turned out we had two very good artists in the team. They made the drawings and the place together. So there is already a sheltered space where children can have classes. There is also a room reserved for women only. A place where they will enjoy some time only for themselves. They will participate in art classes, lessons in Bulgarian, English and geography.

Caritas is the first organization to be admitted to the center in Harmanli. The occupants there had not had any activities so far and their days were dully identical. Once we entered the center, their everyday life was filled with various new and interesting things.

Among the 16 newcomers to the Caritas team working in the center of Harmanli, half are refugees residing in the center. One of them has already been granted status, the rest are still seeking protection. They have the right to employment in Bulgaria. We are very happy they are here – they are intelligent young people who have graduated from higher education. Because of the war, they had to leave their native towns. For them, this is a very good opportunity.

What reactions to your job do you see from your family and friends?
Many of my acquaintances say to me, “There is nothing for our grandparents, and you still go to help others.” I am trying to explain that we do not take from our children to give to strangers. Caritas works with a variety of vulnerable groups, including the elderly, children at risk, disadvantaged children. One of our activities involves refugees who are also disadvantaged.

The refugees coming to Bulgaria share the opinion conditions here are tragic. I do not think so – I think a lot of our centers are in a decent condition. In all of them, we cooperate with other non-governmental organizations and we team up with them to improve the conditions.

We try to break the prejudice on both sides, but it is not easy. It would be very good if the media told more about the positive things that are happening. It has never been mentioned about all talented child refugees participating in competitions, about what is happening in the centers, such as positive events and activities under way. It could change the negative attitudes.

Do you think that negative attitudes towards people seeking and receiving international protection could change if there is more opportunity for direct communication?
One of the greatest challenges we face in our work is the integration of refugees. In refugee centers, they live in a closed environment. Then, when they relocate to other addresses, they continue communicating with each other. First, because they do not know the language well, secondly – they are afraid of the local population. They think they are not wanted here, they are not loved and keep secluded in their close circle.

To overcome this, we organize various events that provide the opportunity for direct communication – we believe it is of particular importance for integration. For example, in art lessons at the Center “St. Anna”, we started inviting Bulgarians to communicate with refugees. We have recently organized Solidarity Festival attended by many people. Every year we organize the Baba Martha Hurry event. There is a positive change both among the local population and the refugees.

What is the antidote against fearing the Other?
Getting to know him – that’s the only way. Get closer to him and let him show you that there is nothing terrible about having another culture. As humans – we all look alike.

What motivates you?
It motivates me that with our work we could influence and change someone’s opinion about the refugees as well as the negative opinion of refugees about Bulgaria. A great reward for us is when someone comes to Caritas and – thanks to the positive experience – he or she has decided to stay and live in Bulgaria.

Refugees come to Bulgaria with a negative attitude and their first touch with our country is loaded with stress because most of them go through closed centers. A refugee from Aleppo, Syria, accommodated in such a center told us that for five days he had lived in Lyubimets he had had a very negative experience about Bulgaria. Now he works at Caritas, he is very happy and wants to stay in Bulgaria. A full change.

He is just one of the examples of successful integration. He is now in Harmanli and has found many Bulgarian friends. When he arrived in Bulgaria, he was traumatized and in deep depression. In Syria, he had a wonderful life. We are not aware of this. Most people seeking protection in other countries have left houses, cars, great job, many have received good education. They do not run away because they have achieved nothing but because they want to keep their lives.

What obstacles to the integration of people receiving and seeking international protection have you noticed throughout your work experience?
Women are very difficult to integrate. Men find it easier to find jobs and learn the language faster. I have noticed that women experience difficulty because they are more used to staying at home and taking care of their children. They do not have many opportunities to spend more time with people in the local population. For children, it would be very useful to play with Bulgarian children, for example on the playground.

What are the advantages of integrating more people from different countries in Bulgaria?
You may not be able to travel to the Middle East and get acquainted with the local cultures, so the refugees carry with them their multi-coloration and culture and it would be valuable to us. It opens the mind, it is also useful for our children. They will also want to travel one day and get to know different cultures. They should not be afraid of facing the different.

I believe refugees could contribute a lot with their skills. One of my favorite restaurants in Sofia is an Arabic place. They have great cuisine. The Women’s Market shops are my favorite place to learn about many spices that are new to me. Women are very skillful – they knit and make beautiful jewelry from beads and other materials. In the art classes of Caritas, they show us their talents in this field.

What recommendations would you give to Bulgarian and EU governments, to the media in Bulgaria?
Children are the most important. Once they are integrated, have friends from the local population, then inevitably their parents are also motivated to integrate. Along with the children, they get closer to other parents. It is important for children to successfully integrate into the Bulgarian school.

I would recommend serious consideration about children with special needs. This is a very delicate and painful topic. They are in an extremely unequal position. There are at least 20 children in the Ovcha Kupel center who have special needs – those with diseases or severe traumas from what they have experienced until they arrive here. No one gives care to them.

Attention should also be paid to unaccompanied children. There are no sheltered spaces in the centers, there are no specialists to take care of them. It is even more complicated when an unaccompanied child aged 8 to 14 gets a status and must leave the refugee center. He or she has no right to sign a rent contract, has no right to open a bank account. Nobody knows what’s happening with him or her. In this regard, there is a need for a Center for Unaccompanied Children operating 24/7.

The media, for their part, should commit themselves to raising the public awareness about people seeking protection. To photograph the activities of refugees, their efforts to integrate, to show those children who experience great difficult to get used to Bulgarian schools but visit them and do not quit trying. To show good examples and achievements.

Do you believe that your work with people seeking and receiving international protection has changed your life, overturned or strengthened your views?
Definitely! This job has remodeled a lot of my stereotypes. The culture of refugees was unknown to me and, of course, the strange scares. I now have many friends amongst the refugees – Caritas co-workers and those residing in the centers – and I see that we are no different. They have their cultural peculiarities, we have ours. But each of us has similar goals and values in life – to secure the health of their children and going to school and to provide them with a better life. The all-human values we share make us equal in being different.

Is there a personal story that has excited you very much?
Stories of all women who attend lessons and art classes in the Center “St. Anna” with their children are exciting. They learn to speak Bulgarian in front of our eyes. It is positive for me to see how they are developing, the desire they show to learn the language.

Caritas employees, some of whom are refugees, are a very positive example for all of us. Despite the initial refusals, they have already been granted status and stayed in Bulgaria. Their children attend school and speak Bulgarian perfectly.

We have many positive stories around us. We have a colleague from Afghanistan who is highly qualified. He was a bank manager in his homeland. He has many good technical and computer skills that are useful to us. He is currently one of our most valuable staff. His children go to school and have integrated. Even if one story ends well, we are very happy!