I am happy to see in the eyes of my students that they are happy to understand the Bulgarian language

Photography: Elitsa Ganeva

Vladislav is part of the team of the Center for Integration of Refugees and Migrants “St. Anna” at Caritas Sofia, he teaches Bulgarian language to people seeking and receiving protection.

What was your first meeting with Caritas and why did you start work with the organization?
My first meeting with Caritas was in Italy. During one of my trips in March, there was terrible cold in Milan. I could not even imagine that it was possible to survive at such a time. Under the central station pillars, I saw people with red sweaters going around and distributing warm food, hot beverages and food vouchers to homeless people. It left me a great impression that in this cold somebody has decided to use his leisure time with such an initiative to help people in need. That was my first touch with Caritas.

Later, when I received an invitation to join the organization’s activities in Bulgaria, what motivated me to start working there was Caritas co-workers’ efforts to help change stereotypes about refugees. Another strong motivation is the cause for more people to speak the language I love very much.

What does your work at Caritas involve?
I teach Bulgarian language to both children and adults. I mainly work with several groups – one for mothers with children under 5-6 years, my evening group for adults. In the afternoon, I have activities with children who will go to school and those who are already in Bulgarian schools but need additional help.

What is the most satisfying thing about your work?
We feel satisfied the moment when I see in the eyes of my students the happiness that they finally understand the Bulgarian language. As well as realizing that all of us who work in Caritas do our work with a lot of love. They feel when something is done by force and when it is done with all your heart, I would not say I can see it in everyone, but in most of them – yes, it’s my motivation to continue working.

What is the hardest thing in your job?
The difficulty is to motivate people to learn the language. Something obligatory can never make one person do something voluntarily. Students should have the desire to learn it because only then will they be able to integrate into Bulgarian society and live peacefully.

There are people willing to start work and need urgently to learn Bulgarian. Those who have decided to work have realized how important it is to know the language so they can communicate with others. They know they have arrived into a new cultural environment and need to know the local language to get along. This type of motivation is most common among men.

In women, they have different motivation. They can easily cope with learning the words they will need when shopping, for example, but want to be able to communicate with nurseries, kindergartens and schools, with teachers and other parents.

What reactions do you face with your family and friends about your job?
Nearly 20 years I have worked in the field of marketing and communication, and a few years ago I decided to go back to my primary education. I turned to teaching because of the opportunity to work on the Suggestopedia method. It gives me pleasure. Since I made this move, I have seen no negative reaction from my relatives. They know I’m doing this for my cause and my personal convictions. I have all the support of my friends and family.

What are the worst prejudices you have faces, both from your immediate working environment and on the part of society in our country?
There are lots of them. “Do you really work with refugees? Haven’t they sent them on plane back to their countries?” Or “Aren’t you afraid? Are you visiting the centers?” – these are things I hear all the time. The most humorous question was from a friend who asked me if I had taken an international passport – Why? Because to get to Maria Luisa Boulevard you have to go through the checkpoint. Indeed, I myself had prejudices in terms of what is the state of registration and reception centers. When I first entered the center in Vrazdebna, I found out that all my worries were unfounded.

Refugees, for their part, also have their prejudices. They share a stereotype that it is worse here than elsewhere in the European Union. I know where we are in the EU, but I think that once we can live in peace, they can too. They know what problems they would have there – they can be deported at any moment, but this stereotype for Bulgaria is deeply rooted in them and they repeat it as a mantra. No money, no housing … But in Germany, no one is waiting for you and does not give you anything. The same things that can happen to them there, can also happen here in Bulgaria. It is enough to be willing to find the right path. I think this stereotype hinders their integration with us.

In your opinion, how can you change the stereotypes/negative attitudes towards people seeking and receiving international protection?
I think that the Bulgarians should have more observations and up-to-date information about what is happening. For example, the idea that Bulgaria is full of refugees is instilled at the moment, which is not true. The same is true for Germany. I constantly talk to friends who live there. I was recently talking to a lady who lives in Berlin and I asked her what the situation was there and she told me, “Property prices soared here because the Englishmen are leaving the island after Brexit.” These are the problems there. There are refugees, but not coming in flocks, nether forming Arab ghettos, as some say. It’s all about getting people to obtain real information – as it is.

One of my students told me that the downtown area in the village of Banya is very nice. This is inconsistent with the information that all refugee centers in Bulgaria are in poor condition. On the contrary, she described it as a wonderful place. If we get the truth as it is, it will be easier for all of us.

Is there a personal story that has excited you very much?
I see every day how the refugees come in smiling, despite that they are jobless, homeless and on Caritas aid, which will not last too long. They might even wake up on the street at some point but they are still positive. You see they have not given up, which gives me hope they will continue.

I was impressed by an Iraqi family with 3 children. They were returned to Bulgaria from Germany. They were visiting the language courses and had a quick progress. They suddenly stopped coming, refused their status and returned to Iraq. Their explanation was it was very expensive in Bulgaria and they won’t do. To this day, I cannot explain what made them leave. I saw how the father and the three children were advancing with the language, but they did not give themselves a chance.

Which, in your opinion, is the main obstacle to the integration of people seeking and receiving international protection?
Surely the problem is the language, another obstacle is the stereotypes rooted in the society, as well as those in the refugees themselves. The other day we were learning different phrases that would be useful when searching for a home. One of the students asked me how she could search for a home. I said there are several online resources. The answer was “Yes, but do they rent to refugees?” It reveals that they have earlier come across such a problem. Indeed, it is very difficult for landlords to trust refugees and give them a rented apartment, but it is still a lack of awareness. I do not see what the problem is about whether you rent it to an Arabian or someone else if he can pay the price you ask.

All other students of mine, outside Caritas, are foreigners from all over the world – I do not see any problem with any of these refugees. Even on the contrary, they feel Bulgaria as a welcoming state and believe it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have heard it from them.

Another problem is that some of the people who have received or are seeking protection are locked within their family and the narrow circle of their acquaintances, which hinders them. They manage to find work only for their compatriots – they do not get the best attitude, but they still think that Bulgaria is isolating them.

What recommendations would you give to Bulgarian governance, EU decision makers or media leaders?
In my opinion, both the media and the state should work to show the true face of the refugees. The fact that they are no different from us and even if we have different language and culture does not mean that we cannot live together.

Until we show the faces of people who remain in Bulgaria, we will continue to lose them as a valuable resource. Some of them are young people, about 30 years old. They are the potential for this country. An economy may develop in sectors where Bulgarians are reluctant to work. Most refugees come from farming countries, they can safely handle such work. I’m not saying they do not have to work in their own field of specialty, but there may be such specialists among them. And it is not true that only low-educated people come here. There are also low educated, people who come with their profession.

I have a guy in my evening class who is a teacher of philosophy. What kind of work can we find for him? They offer me here only a low skill job. The other day I asked him, “Do you want to teach Arabic?” And he said he wants to. It’s better than going to the station to carry bags at night. Not that it is an offensive job, but for a person who has the potential and knowledge in a given field, why should he do that?

I have also a confectioner in my class who owned a patisserie at Aleppo. He has no money to start his own business here. There is a hairdresser who is a very good specialist. There are many cooks, not just good cooks, but chefs. These are people who can contribute with their skills.

Do you think that your work with people seeking and receiving international protection has changed your life, overturned or strengthened your views?
I’m sure what I do matters. In the beginning, starting work here, I wanted to observe this in myself – whether I will continue to have this inner desire to do so. And yes, I have this desire!

What do you hope to change by taking part in Caritas activities in support of people seeking and receiving international protection?

There are certain things I do not like in the behavior of some students and I would like to change them. For example, the constant need for someone to convince them that it is important to attend the training. I do not like such an attitude or receive messages such as “I will not come today because it is raining” or 5 minutes after we have started the class messaging me they won’t attend because they are tired. For me this is disrespectful to the work of all of us. Otherwise they are very kind – never forget to thank you. This feature is part of their culture.

During my first lesson, when I got into class, each of my students gave me a hand, and on my way out everyone thanked me with a handshake. When I got home, I thought, “What did I do to deserve such a welcome?” But then I realized it was part of their culture. I notice it every day – they have no problem in this respect. But when they do not respect classes, it makes me sad and I want to change it. If a rain is the problem between us, I cannot make the weather sunny so they can come.

I want people to have free choice, to be aware of this choice and to stand up for it. We all come together to work for a cause and to make people seeking and receiving protection feel better, but they should also want it.