The other day, I was talking to a Bulgarian acquaintance, who lives in my neighbourhood, about issues people with disabilities have in Sofia.
Steering wheelchairs around potholes or vehicles parked on the curb is more than a challenge, especially when you are fully or partially paralysed. Trying to enter an underpass via a so-called ramp, consisting of two metal bars, at a dangerous angle downwards, is really not an option. The same applies to boarding a tram via four steep steps. The impression is that hardly anyone responsible for the city infrastructure or public transport seems to care about issues of this kind too much.
The person I spoke to is neither paralysed, nor in a wheelchair, but an expert in this field, and well aware of this grave issue. We kept on talking, and the subject changed towards minorities. The person said he hated Gypsies and that homosexuality was a “sickness”. What he said about the very few people fighting for the rights of minorities in Bulgaria was even a little too harsh to quote here.
These statements, made by a well-travelled intellectual, were shocking to me. I felt very disappointed after this conversation, with someone I had not expected these kinds of statements from. But it was not the first time this happened.
There are problems in all countries, including in my own. There is racism, xenophobia and homophobia in many countries too. But this is about Bulgaria, the country we all live in. And, in Bulgaria, I see an extremely grave empathy deficit problem. This needs to be worked on. Thoroughly. And promptly.
There are about 325 000 Bulgarians of Romani origin. An EU study, released just last Tuesday, showed the alarming extent of the problems this ethnic group is facing in Bulgaria.
The discrimination against Roma is hard to digest, the poverty and general situation they live in is appalling. Almost everyone I have talked to about this issue has said the same four things over and over: “They stink, they are criminal, they do not want to work and they do not pay for their tram tickets”. All of this is one big lie, especially when applied to everyone belonging to this ethnic group, a lie which might be designed to block the tiniest amount of empathy, which might come up.
There are thousands of refugees in Bulgaria too. Yes, some of them might be what we call economic migrants. A few of them might even be terrorists. Yes, especially the latter is an issue indeed, which needs to be dealt with.
But many, if not most of them, are refugees, who were forced to flee, in order to save their lives and those of their children. Hardly any of them want to stay in Bulgaria, for several reasons, but they are here, for just as many reasons. They deserve help. They even have the legal right to receive help. But what they are getting in Bulgaria is blunt racism. They are being robbed and beaten by police officers, they face angry mobs on the streets, assembled by xenophobic groups and parties.
And then they experience the poor performance of the state, when they are suddenly confined in the so-called “refugee centre” in Harmanli, where the United Nations has described conditions as “appalling” – and the reasons for the confinement of those there turned out to be pretextual. Of course the refugees protested. I would have. Five days ago, the Swiss daily “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” came up with an explanation I agree with: “Bulgaria is overchallenged by the refugee crisis”. But that is only part of it. Giving in to the demands of xenophobic parties is poor. So is the entire approach.
Yes, there is more. On June 18 2016, several hundred gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and their heterosexual supporters took part in the Sofia Pride Parade, which took place at the Knyazheska Garden, next to Sofia University.
Lots of ambassadors hit the stage, showing support for the Bulgarian LGBT community, including those of the US, Israel and lots of countries belonging to the European Union, the organisation Bulgaria was so keen to join only 10 years ago.
Who was missing on that stage? Bulgarian politicians. Because not only do Bulgarian politicians not support gays and lesbians, but they leave them alone, with all their issues, including hate crimes and, yes, discrimination. On top of that, most non-politicians in the Bulgarian population mainly show them intolerance and hate. This has to stop as well.
Christmas is coming up, which might be a good time to reflect on minorities, on ways to improve things for them as well, on empathy deficits and strategies suitable to heal that condition.
If hearing it from an expat is not acceptable, listening to Bulgarians would help. There are quite a few Bulgarians who help refugees, who voice concern about their treatment or that of minorities. Bulgarians organized in NGOs, such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, whose chairman Krassimir Kanev was attacked on the street in Sofia on October 27 2016, for helping those who are too weak to help themselves. They are the ones this country should be listening to.
(Photo, taken in Sofia’s Fakulteta neighbourhood: (c) Imanuel Marcus)