A refugee from Sudan, he has lived in Bulgaria since 2001. The first time we meet, on the eve of World Refugee Day, passersby stare as we shake hands—a black man and a white woman.
Those who usually stand out in Bulgaria’s generally homogeneous society, veiled women, Roma children, beggars in wheelchairs, attract far less attention.
We are standing in one of Sofia’s most diverse areas, where Orthodox churches, a synagogue, a Catholic church and a mosque stand within metres of one another.
But this was also the site of Nasredin Rabi Abdu’s latest encounter with Bulgarian skinheads. In May, they set on him in the street, attacking him with fists, kicks and a knife.
Passersby watched but looked the other way. Nasredin and his Sudanese friend escaped without serious injuries but the bruises remain—another sign that he is not wanted in Bulgaria. His friend left the country for Western Europe soon after.
Nasredin Rabi Abdu is one of the roughly 4,500 people with refugee and humanitarian status currently residing in Bulgaria. These uprooted people are not economic migrants and unlike them, cannot safely return home, where they face the threat of persecution, torture, or even death.
On arrival in Bulgaria, refugees initially face legal battles, logistical problems and a wretched existence. These obstacles can be overcome with time and a lot of paperwork. Some eventually receive asylum status, learn some Bulgarian and get a job.
International law defines a refugee as “any person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or […] unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Bulgarian law provides different kinds of status to asylum-seekers. Based on the above definition, it sometimes grants refugee status, usually for an indefinite period. More often, they offer humanitarian status.
It is given to people who have been forced to leave their country of origin as a result of threats to their life, security or freedom, because of armed conflict, or because they are in danger of torture or other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment. This status is not indefinite and can be revoked if the circumstances it was granted upon change.
Nasredin Rabi Abdu left Sudan, where he worked in the army, after taking part in a failed plot against the country’s president. Escaping by ship via the Red Sea he tried to enter Bulgaria officially from Turkey. The border policemen turned him and his wife away, he says, after sexually molesting his wife and beating him up.
The second time, the couple took no chances and crossed the border illegally on foot. They walked through the darkness all night. His wife had a miscarriage en route.
When they made it to Sofia, they were granted humanitarian status for three months. But at the end his wife left, deciding she couldn’t live in Bulgaria as a black woman. He hasn’t had contact with her since. He stayed. He has to reapply to renew his status every few years.
The Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees says a total of 15,716 people have sought asylum in the country since 1993. In 2001, the year Nasredin Rabi Abdu came, 2,428 people applied, almost half of whom received humanitarian status, while 15 per cent received refugee status.
After growing steadily through the 1990’s, the number of asylum-seekers peaked in 2002 and has since fallen. Only 1 to 3 per cent of applicants have been recognized as refugees since then, while those receiving humanitarian status made up around 20 per cent of applicants in 2002-4 and 10 per cent in 2005 and 2006.
Most of the asylum-seekers came from Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, Armenia, Serbia and Montenegro and Iran. The only African states among the top ten countries of origin are Nigeria and Algeria.
The 1990s was not the first time Bulgaria was exposed to black people. During the communist era, according to an article by Boyko Boev, a lawyer at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, “We accepted black African students as a show of solidarity in the struggle of their nations against colonialism and world imperialism.”
But this relatively prolonged, albeit limited, exposure clearly did little to alleviate the climate of racism and xenophobia in Bulgaria.
Because of their immediately apparent difference in appearance, black refugees fare worst. For example, Afghan refugees are visually unrecognizable as non-Bulgarians and rarely meet much hostility, Bilyana Zaharieva, a researcher on the Afghan community in Bulgaria, said.
At the construction site where Nasredin Rabi Abdu works, the other workers call him “Bambucha”, after the popular slogan in a Fanta commercial, featuring a happy-go-lucky faintly dark man on a vaguely exotic island backdrop. Even this seemingly innocent likening serves as a reminder of his black skin and “otherness”.
“Even when it doesn’t get to the point of violence, a display of racism and suspicion from all sides is almost a daily occurrence,” journalist Denitsa Kamenova noted in a 2005 academic article on the African community in Bulgaria.
Kamenova noted characteristic “looks of disgust in public transportation (obviously the vicious association ‘black = unclean’), refusal of service in stores or of a ride in a taxi, and the apparently innocent, yet insulting assertion, that all ‘blacks’ look alike and cannot be told apart”.
Nasredin Rabi Abdu laughs off some of his more comic experiences, like the time he was invited to an acquaintance’s hometown to be shown off to friends. They rubbed his arm to see if the “paint” would come off.
Other incidents aren’t so comical. He has been slapped in the face and had ice thrown at him in a club for no known reason apart from his skin.
In its 2006 report on the rights of migrants in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee noted: “There is almost no black immigrant who hasn’t been a victim of physical violence or verbal harassment during his stay in Bulgaria”.
Some 75 per cent of black immigrants said they had been attacked by skinheads at least once, according to the Committee’s 2004 study, cited in the same report.
The second time I see him, at the rented apartment he shares with his girlfriend and another Sudanese refugee, Nasredin shows me the marks on his jacket sleeve from the time when a skinhead tried to stab him with a broken beer bottle.
His Bulgarian girlfriend is eight months pregnant. Since the pregnancy, people’s remarks have become more aggressive. “They ask me, ‘Why are you with this negro, this monkey—are there no Bulgarian men left?’” his partner says.
A slight fall noted in racially motivated violent crimes, noted in the Helsinki report, seems to have had little to do with a growth in tolerance or decisive counter-action on the part of the authorities.
It reflected the “cautious behavior adopted by the majority of the black immigrants, resulting from the bitter experience of previous incidents,” the report suggested. Such behaviour includes avoiding public transportation or crowded public places.
Nasredin Rabi Abdu likes going out to clubs, dividing Sofia’s nightspots into two categories—those that black people can go to without being harassed and those frequented by skinheads looking for a fight.
The Helsinki Committee report also noted that perpetrators of racist crimes are rarely brought to justice, which “creates a feeling of insecurity and a lack of trust in the will and capacity of the authorities to fight such crimes.”
“Here, there is no law,” Nasredin Rabi Abdu asserts. “There is no one to tell people this is bad, or this is good … if somebody beats up a ‘nigger’.”
The Committee’s study found that 85 per cent of black immigrants were the subject of xenophobic statements and acts committed by the police. It also identified a “disproportional” number of identity checks on black immigrants carried out by the police.
The police disagree. In a public discussion organized by the Helsinki Committee earlier this year, a representative of the Migration Directorate of the Police Service said he was unaware of any cases of human rights violations or of different attitudes to Asians and blacks on the part of the police. “We will continue not to divide people by race, religion or other characteristics,” the representative asserted.
As I leave their flat, Nasredin Rabi Abdu accompanies me to the taxi downstairs. With a bag of trash in one hand, he uses the other to check his pocket, making sure his ID card is on him.
He is not that scared of the skinheads and the police harassment but as he awaits the birth of his first child, he worries how it will be treated. “We want to give him a short name, a name that is neither Bulgarian nor Sudanese,” he says.
“We will teach him about Christianity and Islam but he can choose what he wants to be when he grows up,” he adds. “That doesn’t matter so much anyway. We only want him to be a good person.”
Nasredin Rabi Abdu and his pregnant Bulgarian girlfrind.