The home of the Trad family smells like warm exotic dish. Surprisingly, not only Arab dishes have that aroma. Today Khaled Trad, the former Syrian consul born in Homs, is preparing the typical for Northwest Bulgaria dish “peppers with tomatoes” and eggplant for color. Meanwhile, his wife Snejina and his daughter Sabrina are pouring the hot caramel over the dessert. Tonight they will have a dinner with another family - Syrian-Kurds.
“I wouldn’t find any place better than Bulgaria,” Khaled says fondly.
Khaled Trad came to Sofia when he was a student. The love made him stay - he and Snejina have been living already 25 years on the street Pirotska. Yet Trad family has to face the challenge of the disinformation campaign and growing nationalism in Bulgaria.
The Balkan country with long history of Ottoman rule gives a home to more than 200 000 Muslims, more than 10 per cent of the population which is unofficially most of all countries in the European Union.
After refugee crisis had broken out and thousands of Syrians and Iraqis after years of brutal war decided to set off on the risky journey to find a new life in Europe, some of them settled in Bulgaria. With their arrival, the opinion of the Bulgarian majority on their Muslim compatriots suddenly and rapidly changed. Not only the animosity of the majority population arose but among the minority of Turks, Arabs and Syrian community itself the opinions regarding the integration started to differ.
The Muslim community looks united only during the Friday morning prayer in Banyabasi Mosque in the center of Sofia. The ritual is attended by more than 1000 people every week, although, the people have to pray outside the mosque due to the reconstructions.
Five years ago no one in school was paying attention that Sabrina is half-Syrian. Her brother Ruslan, on whose desk one can see a printed slogan saying Stay strong #OpentoSyria” and “Syrians = Human beings – NOT for SALE!, was studying law and enjoying the company of his friends who do not want to see him anymore due to his vocal support of refugees as a journalist.
Trad family has also lost many relatives, therefore, they know too much about the war in Syria to stay intact by the growing hostility against the people fleeing the war. “I am worried about the safety of my family,” Sabrina admits.
They are upset by people like Dinko Vulev, the hard-line nationalist hero of some Bulgarians. He started forming the volunteer squads over the Turkish-Bulgarian border to guard it against the illegal migrants. This famous figure is encouraging everyone who feels like a patriot and Bulgarian to join him to protect the borders. For Channel 3 he explained his stance as follows: “Taliban, jihadists, terrorist that is how I call them because they are this for me. They can give money to those miserable Syrians jihadists and murderers to feed them, but not to the border police.”
With the rising nationalism and the cases of paramilitary volunteer squads watching over the border, the position of Trad family or other people willing to help the refugees, is tough to defend. “The political parties had the influence on how the people accepted the refugees. For them, terminology like radical Islam, radicalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism are the same thing,” Hayri Emin, expert from the international department in the Grand Mufti, says in the interview.
“The political parties had the influence on how the people accepted the refugees. For them, terminology like radical Islam, radicalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism are the same thing.”
The Syrian refugees do not count more than 1500 in the refugee camps in Sofia. Nonetheless, their goal is mostly not to stay in the country. There are two reasons: firstly because of the hostile behavior and secondly, because of the standard of living, Hayri Emin is sharing his opinion.
Jawat “the former refugee” from Iraq
Jawat is walking on Pirotska Street after work. Four years ago, he was an ill refugee from Iraq. Through his experience in the hospital, he succeeded to learn the Bulgarian language “because nobody could understand me there.” He was one of the most popular refugees in the refugee camp of Ovcha Kupel in the outskirts of Sofia. Sabrina Trad that worked there as a volunteer describes that “he was equal with us helping to teach the other refugees to learn the language.”
“The other refugees don’t want to work, don’t want to learn and adapt in the country, so the people are not guilty of not wanting them.”
Jawat from Iraq
Now, a few years later, Jawat is married to another girl from the refugee camp. Although her family moved to Austria, she preferred to stay with him in Sofia to build a new life and family. He already works in one of the coffee houses on Pirotska Street and plans to rent a new apartment, because his family is increasing. Almost in perfect Bulgarian, he presents his view on the hardship of refugees. He has no excuse for them since “the other refugees don’t want to work, don’t want to learn and adapt in the country, so the people are not guilty of not wanting them.”
Unlike others Jawat decided to stay in Bulgaria, he learned the language and integrated into the society well. Yet for some his effort is not enough. Angel Djambazyky, the anti-refugee and nationalist activist and European Parliament representative from VMRO party, appeared in the show of the TV7 called “did we open the gates to the hell by letting migrants?”
On the street of Pirotska, in his opinion, “they are butchering each other with the knives every evening. They are living like primates”, he adds.
Not only the growing nationalism but the different interests of the Muslim community and preferences to remain silent are even worsening the situation for the already integrated and settled Arabs.
“The kingdom of paradoxes…Above all, Yuchbunar is a city within a city. This is a Republic of clowns and a country of martyrs.”
Chavdar Mutafov, 1941
This old street Pirotska starts with the Banyabaşı Mosque build in 1576 and ends with the Flower market. Since XIXth century this place is populated with Macedonians, Jews, and workers. More than half a century is hosting also the Arab community. The Bulgarian writer Chavdar Mutafov calls it Yuchbunar.“The kingdom of paradoxes…Above all, Yuchbunar is a city within a city. This is a Republic of clowns and a country of martyrs,” he wrote in 1941.
Islam has been the integral component of the modern Bulgarian state for centuries. The country is still torn after the long Ottoman rule between the cultures of the Turkey and the old Bulgarian traditions. The Arab community is also not new to Sofia. In 90’s during the first Gulf War many Syrians, Iraqi, Lebanese settled exactly in “the kingdom of paradoxes” on the street Pirotska.
Even by the presence of the long-settled community of Arabs in the neighborhood, they have a hard time to unite over the refugee situation.
Adnan Alahmad came from Hama, Syria, 26 years ago. In 2012 he opened his “Afamya kebab house” on Pirotska street. The Arab black tea is served on the table and Adan started stirring the sugar in his small glass stating: “The Turkish community and Pomaks Bulgarian Muslims-help each other a lot, but not the Arabs, because they think that the refugees come here to take their bread, to defile their name. Because they are here since 20-30 years and they think that they are already Bulgarians and all the others make the situation only worse.”
It seems that the community has another problem apart from an increasing tendency of the society to judge their religion. They transfer their problems from the Middle East at the new place. “The problems like Kurds-Arabs, Sunni-Shia, Pakistani-Afghanistani, Afghanistani–Iraqi are valid also in Sofia”, Ruslan explains.
Ruslan Trad criticizes the Arab community: “They are the basic harm for the refugees - the main traffickers are Arabs, they don’t even care about the refugees. The main people, helping in the refugee camps, are Bulgarians. The most Arabs here, mainly the Syrian community are either with the President, and they decline to accept that there are refugees existing. The other group that does not support the government in Syria - they prefer to be silent.”
“When is a migrant doing something bad, the other part of the Muslim society is starting to judge him: Is this the Islam?-Good, why you judge the religion, look at the person. He doesn’t represent the religion.”
Where is the other tea? I think there is no sugar, demands Adnan and explains how the Iraqi will never help a Syrian. Furthermore: “When is a migrant doing something bad, the other part of the Muslim society starts judging him: “Is this the Islam?” - Good, why you judge the religion, look at the person. He doesn’t represent the religion.”
Despite the positive reactions and the help for each other, uniting over a cause is hard. “Everyone displays some peace flags, but nobody gives a damn about the peace. This is the problem,” Ruslan says.
In Bulgaria, one can say it will be easier to keep out of the conflicts between the different minorities.
Adnan doesn’t feel segregated but he is threathen more from someone in his own community than from the strong statements of the nationalists.
“For four years my restaurant is open and I had no problems with anyone, only one time my window was broke with a stone… I am sure he was an Arab,” he laughs.