The long march from Syria to Europe

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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Joining Syrian refugees on their long trek to the EU, Boštjan Videmšek discovers how easy it is to lose faith in humanity and how hard to restore it.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Thursday 6 August 2015

By the side of the road leading from the small town of Kanjiža in northern Serbia to the Hungarian border, a large band of 40 or so Syrian refugees – women, children, young men, an elder – had just sat down to rest. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and the group was finally getting some respite from the sun. They were plucking not quite ripe plums from a nearby tree and checking their mobile phones on which they had stored the directions for the fastest and safest route to the border.

This was, of course, only one of the numerous groups making their final bid to penetrate the fortress of the European Union. On the flatlands by the oily and quiet Tisa river where we joined the marchers, life was unfolding according to its ancient, decidedly slow rhythms. Most of the residents have long become accustomed to the endless procession of human suffering. In the last few months, Serbia has been turned into yet another waystation for a human tragedy mere language can hardly describe. It is no exaggeration to say this tragedy is sure to become one of the definitive humanitarian stories of the 21st century.

Horrible, just horrible

A few kilometres away from the border, a man in the group started to speak: “If all goes well, we’ll be there in two and a half hours… We’ve been travelling for weeks, some of us for months.”

His name, he told us, was Rami. He was 27 and hailed from the northwestern Syrian city of Raqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the Islamic State (ISIS). He fled the city soon after it was captured by the members of the radical Sunni militia. He claims he had no choice. He had received word his name had been put on their death list. During the initial months of the Syrian conflict, he had been working as a journalist and had decided to help out one of his American colleagues. He had even been issued a press card by a prominent international newspapers.

This was not something ISIS was likely to forgive.

“It made no difference that I come from one of Raqa’s strongest families. If I were to stay, they would have certainly killed me, no questions asked. The worst of it was that my own cousins were out to get me too,” Rami reflected, as we trudged on along the dusty local thoroughfare. “Almost all of them had joined ISIS. Almost everyone in Raqa had gone over to them, that is why they’re so strong… Raqa will always be their territory. And so there was no one who could protect me.”

Rami’s first destination was Turkey, where he had to stay longer than he originally planned since he got robbed in Istanbul. It took him a long time to earn enough money to continue on his journey. As soon as he was able to, he set off for the Turkish coast. In the meantime, he learned that his father had been killed, while his brother, who also refused to join the Islamic State, had been severely wounded while fighting the Syrian government forces.

In the Turkish port of Bodrum, one of the region’s hubs for human trafficking, Rami met the other members of the group he was currently travelling with. That was two months ago. Since then, they have not once parted company.

As we walked on, Ali, 28, joined our conversation. He was a civil engineer from Azaz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border which has seen heavy fighting between various insurgent groups, after being almost completely razed by government bombers. “In Turkey,the traffickers robbed us on two different occasions, and we also got a lot of trouble from the police,” he told us. “We sailed to the Greek island of Kos in a rubber dinghy. The boat was really small, but somehow everyone you see here managed to fit. It seems incredible that we survived. At least half of these people don’t know how to swim. If the boat had capsized, we would all have died. It was horrible, just horrible!”

 A modern-day odyssey

After arriving at Kos, where the recent heavy influx of refugees has plunged the island into chaos, the band of Syrians took a ferry to Athens. Every day, hundreds of refugees and immigrants enter the Greek capital. The Greek authorities, bogged down on countless other domestic and foreign fronts, had virtually stopped dealing with the problem. Their solution was simply to leave the door wide open. It was little wonder that the flood of refugees immediately headed for the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. A new route to the European Union soon gained prominence, starting in Macedonia and leading through Serbia all the way up to Hungary.

Three weeks ago, Hungary started building a wall measuring 175km in length. Its basic objective is to put a stop to the influx of refugees and immigrants. Yet so far the Hungarians haven’t been very successful at it. In the days we spent on both sides of the border, the situation was quite the contrary. The commencement of the immense construction project has only speeded up the current rate of migration, especially through Macedonia and Serbia, where the authorities understand very well what the erection of such a wall could mean.

In reality, the wall is not so much an actual obstacle for the incoming refugees as it is a clear political statement by the far-right government of Viktor Orbán.

“We made quite a large part of our journey through Greece and Macedonia on foot. It was horrible – it was hot, and we were all so hungry and thirsty… The people there refused to have anything to do with us,” Ali recalled in an effable tone, as if he were describing, say, a lovely view of the sea. “Somewhere in Macedonia, where we were generally treated very badly by the police, they herded us on to some buses which took us to the Serbian border. The entire region was full of refugees.”

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

After a few more days trek, they reached Belgrade. “We all slept in the park. Belgrade, too, is flooded with refugees. But for us, that was actually a good thing, since we managed to get all the information we needed on how to safely cross the Hungarian border,” Ali continued.

In Belgrade, our band of refugees learned there were several viable options for reaching Hungary. The first option was a so-called ‘unaided’ journey, meaning travelling by themselves. The route itself was clearly defined and there was plenty of useful information on how to maximize one’s chances. But since the situation at the border was so unpredictable, this was considered to be the riskiest choice. The alternative was to entrust one’s fate to the professionals, the human traffickers organizing the trip from the cities of northern Vojvodina (like Subotica, Kanjiža, Horgoš) to Hungary and then onward to Austria and Germany. One could even take a taxi from the Hungarian border directly to Vienna, which, according to our sources, would set one back €400. The entire package deal for getting from Serbia to Austria costs somewhere in the neighborhood of €1,500. For the Syrian refugees, the cost of all available options is about three times higher than for the rest. Traffickers consider them to be much wealthier than, for example, Afghans.

To really grasp their predicament, one needs to keep in mind that they are always facing a very real possibility of getting arrested, and that many of them have already spent most of their savings in order to reach Serbia. A large number of them got mugged, either by local criminals, their fellow refugees or even by the police. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of solidarity between different groups of refugees – say between the Syrian and Afghan ones. Sadly, it is quite the contrary.

In Serbia and the wider region, the trafficking sector of the local economy has undergone a considerable boom. The basic set-up is simple, the profits are huge, and the risk is almost non-existent. This is especially so if the traffickers have done their homework and made proper arrangements with the police and the authorities, who are openly aiding refugees in crossing and leaving Serbia as swiftly as possible.

Once you get out in the field and see how things work, it could hardly be more obvious which way the wind blows.

“In Germany, they’re sure to help us” 

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Right after the war started, Ali lost his job in a privately owned company, yet he decided to stick it out in Azaz. In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army gained control of the city for a while, then the Islamic extremists took over. In a flash, the dream of the Syrian revolution became but a tragic memory. What started out as an insurgency against the ruling regime degenerated into a brutal civil war. Countless people started fleeing the devastated country.

“I’m glad that I’m not married and that I don’t have any children. It is so much easier for me this way,” he explained, reflected a common sentiment among young refugees, as we proceeded towards the small Vojvodinian village of Mortanoš, the last notable settlement before the Hungarian border. “Most members of my family had fled to Turkey and decided to stay there. I, on the other hand, am young and I’ve had a good education. I’m going to do everything I can to get a job so I can take care of my parents.”

Where? “I want to go to Germany… In Germany, they’re sure to take us in and help us – after all, we’re refugees, we come from Syria,” he said, with perhaps unfounded optimism.

Like most members of this tattered little group, Ali was growing increasingly cheerful with every step closer to the border. As we entered Mortanoš, the entire group decided to rest. The women sat down on the grass, the children were visibly tired. The men took to discussing the optimal route for this final phase of the Serbian crossing. The local plum trees were quickly being relieved of fruit; it was getting darker by the minute. The refugees knew very well they were approaching the critical part of the journey. Only a little more than 4km were now separating them from the European Union. A gentle breeze picked up over the Pannonian plains.

“What can we do? Like everyone everywhere, we only have one wish. To live in peace. To be safe. Look how lovely this place is. It is so peaceful and quiet. There are fruit trees everywhere,” described Rami enthusiastically. “The people leave us alone, and there is plenty of water. I could certainly live here. You know, right now this seems like a paradise from my dreams.” It was obvious that Rami was getting a little carried away, but how could anyone blame him? With every kilometer, he was becoming less of an attention-starved showman and more of an excited little boy.

Basic human decency

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

At the village’s outer edge, the refugees were approached by a merry-looking elderly fellow, who offered them water from the hose in his garage. The Syrians were visibly confused. As the village dogs’ barking approached a crescendo, they kept exchanging glances. The last few years have made them forget what basic human decency felt like. For them, it had become the exception that proved the rule.

After a few moments, one of the refugees handed out an empty plastic bottle to the old Serbian. Then the others slowly followed suit. Bashful yet profoundly grateful smiles were spreading over their faces as the older man used one hand to pour the water and the other to shoo away the mosquitoes.

“You need to follow the river,” the hospitable local told them in place of a goodbye. “But not up on the banks, you need to go as low down as possible, otherwise the police can spot you. But I haven’t seen them here today…. Here, take some more plums.”

“But you need to be very careful, okay? Good luck to you,” the old man added in parting.

It is very easy to lose one’s faith in humanity. It is infinitely harder to regain it.

As we pushed on, a hush fell over the group. The closer we got to the border, the more the refugees were instinctively huddling together. One of the marching men took hold of his three-year-old daughter and put her on his shoulders. The group’s one elderly man was getting noticeably short of breath but – with the help of a sturdy wooden stick – he somehow still managed to keep pace with the rest. One of the refugees took out a tattered copy of the Quran and started to pray. The sun was slowly setting far away on the horizon. To our right, we could see a stretch of dense boggy forest and the Tisa river. To our left, there was haystack-strewn grassland, a few distant hamlets and the road leading to the official border crossings and further on toward Subotica. The evening light was growing softer as we trekked on to the soundtrack of dogs barking in the distance. Every now and then, we could see a stork touch down in a nearby field. For this particular band of migrants, these were all scenes of Xanadu-like tranquility. A perfect illusion.

“To be honest, I have no idea where we are. I hope we’re on the right track. We really need to hurry. We have to reach Hungary tonight. Once we get across the border we need to avoid being caught by the police. If that happens, we could lose a few weeks,” Rami pointed, his voice growing ever more quiet. “Our group would get broken up, and we also need to avoid getting fingerprinted. That would mean that, even when we reach Germany, they could simply send us back to Hungary at any time. No one here wants to stay in Hungary. Personally, I would much rather stay in Serbia because the people were nicest to us there. Everywhere else we were treated like criminals.”

In Europe, he told me, he is eager to get work – any sort of work at all, as long as it would help him live in peace and safety. Ali, the blue-eyed engineer, felt exactly the same way. Both of them had had their share of the savagery of war. All they wanted was for the people of their new homeland to show a little understanding.

The members of the group weren’t entirely clear on where they needed to veer off into the forest to avoid getting caught by the police. The border itself was rather poorly marked – in some places, there were no noticeable markings at all. And so the group decided to simply follow the tracks left by their predecessors. A trail of discarded objects led them onward. And at the precise moment when their doubts about having chosen the right path were turning critical, two local cyclists drove by down the nearby embankment. Opening their backpacks, the two men distributed a number of plastic water bottles “for the children” and relayed the vital information that the border was now only a 10-minute walk away.

“Simply follow the river all the way. We haven’t seen a single policeman,” one of the cyclists said to encourage them before their imminent ordeal.

Hungarian border patrol

We moved on. In the distance, we could already see the ramp marking the border area where movement is strictly prohibited. Heavy dusk was falling over us, bringing anxiety to the faces of the advancing refugees. The mosquitoes were now out in full force. The women conferred among themselves and decided to make the children put on an additional layer of clothing. The men – many of them had fled their country to another continent with only a small sporty knapsack on their shoulder – were putting the final touches to the group’s strategy. Many of their phones were starting to malfunction.

We crossed the dark Serbian-Hungarian border in complete silence. Only a few steps past the first Hungarian boundary stone the group came to a halt.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Rami put down his backpack and carefully set out on a reconnaissance mission – some hundred meters ahead, he detected a border patrol. He could identify one car and four policemen interrogating a small group of refugees. Two portable toilets were standing next to the police vehicle like some sort of mirage. Business as usual? It was clear that the mere four Hungarian policemen would be unable to stop our group of refugees. We had heard that the border guards often turn a blind eye. Despite the fact that the government had undertaken the huge anti-humanitarian project of putting up the wall, the Hungarian policemen are mostly treating the refugees with fairness and even respect.

But this was, of course, not something the group could definitively rely on. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Anxiety and even plain fear were returning to the refugees’ faces. They had long learned that the combination of borders and uniforms can mean the difference between life and death for them. The anxiety and terror on their faces was thus a matter of pure reflexes, and in such situations, reason is always trailing far behind. The night had fallen, but the moon was mercilessly illuminating the exhausted faces. The refugees quickly slipped into the nearby forest, from which one could hear clear signs of life. As you would expect, our group of refugees wasn’t the only one preparing for the final push into the heart of Europe. We were now on Hungarian soil. All the refugees needed to do to complete this crucial stage on their long journey was to evade the patrol. The children ate a few cookies and plums from their mothers’ backpacks. The rest drank some water. They were all waiting for Rami’s sign.

We bade them farewell.

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Revolution@1: Foreigners without an agenda

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By Mariya Petkova

State-sponsored conspiracy theories have been bad for foreigners in Egypt. But Egyptians must not succumb to xenophobia and must be open to the world.

Thursday 26 January 2012

I was only three years old when the Berlin Wall fell and my country, Bulgaria, started on the road to democracy. I don’t remember much of the totalitarian regime that ruled for 50 years, other than the small red uniform that I had to wear to kindergarten. My parents have made sure that I know what they had to live through. They told me stories of fear, humiliation, and disgust. As much I sympathised with them, I could never fully understand what they felt for the first thirty years of their lives.

Then I came to Egypt, first as a student and then as a journalist. I could see the similarities between Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the communist dictatorship that ruled Bulgaria. I heard stories from Egyptians, read about torture, saw people emigrate because they couldn’t take it anymore, but I still didn’t fully understand their pain. The worst that used to happen to me was my taxi would get  stopped at night by the traffic police at the entrance to Maadi and my having to show my “white” face through the window to get them to expedite the check. Being “white” in Egypt allowed many of the expats to pay little attention to the suffering of their hosts. We were in such a position of privilege, getting treatment that most Egyptians never saw. I can’t remember how many times I heard Egyptian friends tell me that they don’t feel like citizens of their own country. “Egypt does not belong to the Egyptians,” they would say. And it was true. We, the “white” aliens, together with the Egyptian elite, hijacked the country. We had the kind of rights that the normal citizens should have enjoyed.

It came as a shock to many of us foreigners when state TV’s rumours about us being behind the uprising succeeded in  taking hold of the minds of many  Egyptians and we started being targeted on the streets. At the time, I looked at this phenomenon as “the massive loss of clear thinking and normal reasoning” – those were the words I used in my blog entry on 4 February 2011. Now that I think about it, the wild xenophobia that lasted about four or  five days was part of the catharsis of Egyptian people. They finally took us down from that pedestal of the untouchables that we had been sitting on.

For many of us, this was also a chance to get a taste of what billions of “non-white” people experience around the world – fear, persecution and injustice.

I wrote the above passage a week after my arrest by the military police on the day Hosni Mubarak fell (11 February 2011). The article never made it to print because my former Egyptian editor decided it was too dangerous to publish. Since then a lot has happened. What I thought was just four or five days of catharsis, turned out to be a year of chronic paranoia that some Egyptians have succumbed to. Without realising it, I myself have also fallen prey to the collective paranoia.

Every time at a Tahrir checkpoint, I would feel relieved to see the brow of the boy or girl from el-ligan el-sha’bia (the local, ad hoc security that popped up in the absence of the police) twist into a question mark at the sight of the Cyrillic characters in my passport. I would take photos sneakily, hoping no one would ask what I was doing. I would wear the same ragged jeans, worn-out shoes and jacket which I wore every day for the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak. I would almost definitely avoid being with Americans for too long at Tahrir. And just in case, I had prepared a short speech about “little Bulgaria” also suffering historically at the hands of the evil Western powers and having nothing to do with colonialism; oh, and by the way, we share common Ottoman heritage.

I was immensely happy three weeks ago to talk to an Egyptian in Bulgaria who was criticising the hell out of my country in a fancy Sofia restaurant. Ha! After Ahmed’s tirade, I have all the right to sit in Costa and criticise the messy political situation in Egypt, I thought happily.

A bit later, I realised that I had lost all my senses, that I have also fallen victim to the infamous Egyptian state TV broadcasting conspiracy theories about foreign agents and agendas. It seems that I was desperately trying to convince myself that I am not a “a’meela” (foreign agent) and I don’t have a secret agenda when I open my mouth to express an opinion about Egypt in front of an Egyptian.

Along with the regular flood of conspiracy theories and reports about apprehended spies of various nationalities broadcast on Egyptian TV, calls for the censorship of “foreign voices” have intensified and have come from the most unexpected places. Last month, al-Masry al-Youm’s editor-in-chief Magdi el-Galad published quite a lengthy rant in which he attempted to justify the censorship of an opinion piece in the English edition of the paper, Egypt Independent. The article written by Robert Springborg talks about cleavages within the ranks of the Egyptian army, which el-Galad probably considered too dangerous for himself to publish. He chose to mask his spinelessness in fiery “patriotic” words about dying for the Egyptian nation and foiling Springborg’s evil plot to hurt it, about snubbing the Pentagon, and yet forgetting to ask them to take back their $1.3 billion in annual military aid to the Egyptian army.

El-Gallad might be an obvious case, but Mona Abaza, a well-respected AUC professor, is not. A few months before the Egypt Independent affair, she wrote a piece published in al-Ahram and Jadaliyya in which she complains about Western academics flooding “local” Egyptian scholars with requests for assistance researching the Arab Spring. According to her, her Western colleagues come for just a week to visit the country and acquire the legitimacy of experts on the region. “Without sounding xenophobic,” Abaza says, trying to absolve herself of the xenophobia of her words, which do not distinguish between “some” and “all” Westerners.

There are plenty of mediocre Western journalists and scholars who not only do not understand the Middle East but also spread their faulty perceptions to readers in the West. However, there are also many who put a lot of effort into their research (without exploiting “locals”), who had been interested and lived in the region for a long time before the Arab Spring and have utmost respect for its cultures and peoplse. Elliot Colla, for example, who is an editor at Jadaliyya and who taught at my alma mater, is an excellent professor of comparative literature and a translator of Arabic literature. The Guardian has a staff of “Western” (non-local) correspondents in the Middle East such as Jack Shenker and Martin Chulov, who have done a great job covering events in the region. If el-Galad and Abaza were to give it honest consideration, they themselves could add quite a few additional examples.

I agree that Egyptians should tell their own story and I agree that the West should not meddle in the internal affairs of the country or try to set a direction for its transition. But it has to be recognised that the presence and the work of many foreigners on reporting and analysing what is happening in Egypt is of certain benefit to Egyptians. After all, international solidarity did play a role in Egypt’s revolution, and if Egyptians can comment on and criticise Bulgaria and the West, surely the reverse also applies. Limiting, harassing or completely censoring “foreign” voices will not bring any good to the country.

Throughout its 20 years of transition from communism, Bulgaria has rarely received coverage in the Western media and even more rarely positive coverage, which, I admit, can be annoying. But I would rather see more criticism of my country that would move and shake its stagnant system than be happy with the status quo in which some Bulgarians congratulate themselves for not making it every day on to international front pages like bankrupt Greece does.

Happy first anniversary, revolutionary Egypt!


This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

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Rejected by the right, Western Muslims are only left with the left

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By Osama Diab

No Muslim in their right mind would support far-right Christian groups in the West, though they may well symathise with their Muslim equivalents elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

I can still remember the excitement on the faces of many of my Egyptian friends when they learnt that, in 21st-century America, some still believe in abstinence and, despite all the freedom at their disposal, they choose to keep themselves ‘pure’ for their future spouses.

Many young Egyptian dream of an opportunity to start a life in an affluent Western society, but they are always worried about the cultural differences. Muslims are often concerned with what to expect if they tie the knot with a Westerner who might belong to a different faith or even to no organised religion at all, especially when it comes to the thorny question of raising children. Most importantly, many are concerned  about the discrimination they may face or how they may be made to feel like unwanted members of society amidst all the unfortunate events that have unfolded over the past decade, culminating with the recent attacks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which were carried out by a far-right fundamentalist Christian who was angry at Europe for accommodating so many Muslims who, in his view, threaten the continent’s Christian identity.

With so many questions running through the average pious Muslim’s head, it is understandable that many find the idea appealing that some in the West share the same values, especially regarding sexuality, gender roles, abortion, marriage and premarital sex.

However, what many don’t realise is that those who seemingly share the same values would probably belong to the far-right on the political spectrum. They are at best not particularly amused by the fact that they live side by side with Muslims, Arabs and immigrants in general, and some even resort to more violent means of expressing their hatred towards non-white and non-Christian minorities, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the Oslo attacks.

Ironically, Breiviks’s views are in a way identical to those of conservative Muslims, the very same group he and his ilk are fighting. “Ladies should be wives and homemakers, not cops or soldiers, and men should still hold doors open for ladies. Children should not be born out of wedlock. Glorification of homosexuality should be shunned,” wrote the Norwegian terrorist in his 1,500-page manifesto, which he sent by e-mail to a mailing list of about a thousand addresses shortly before he carried out his attacks.

In contrast, those who defend multiculturalism, uphold the rights of minorities including Muslims, and express support for the Palestinian cause, are more left-leaning in their political views.

For conservative Muslims, the dilemma, again, is that these minorities, marginalised or vulnerable groups that leftists defend include – alongside Muslims – homosexuals, women, adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths and atheists. Likewise, for leftists – especially gay rights activists, feminists and atheists – the dilemma is that many of the Muslims they stand up for do not approve of their lifestyle choices or beliefs.

So should a conservative Muslim relate more to the camp that shares her/his values but cannot tolerate their presence, or with the camp that holds a fundamentally different set of morals but sees Muslim as a necessary thread in the colourful fabric of a multicultural society?

The US president, Barack Obama, a radical liberal by US standards, is a sign of shifting allegiances for at least American Muslims. US Muslims, who traditionally voted Republican, overwhelmingly voted for Obama, probably as a reaction to the acts and deeds of the George W Bush administration during their eight-year rule which involved two wide-scale wars against Muslim countries and the growing tension between “them” and “us”, as the former American president liked to put it.

In Sweden, it is believed that 80-90% of Muslims vote left-wing despite the fact that many of them do not hold leftist views. In the UK, Muslims have for long been more likely to vote Labour than Conservative and, despite the war in Iraq which was launched by a Labour government, most Muslims still see the centre-left party as the most friendly to Muslims in Britain.

Voting left is only normal since most far-right wing groups, as well as some more centrist right parties, have long been openly hostile towards Muslims. In May, the far-right group Ataka attacked Bulgarian Muslims performing their Friday prayers in the country’s capital, Sofia. British extremist right-wing white-only parties, such as the British National Party and the National Front, have been hard-line critics of non-European immigrants in general and the Muslim minority in particular, and always adopt programmes that have at their centre the “repatriation” of non-white immigrants.

This implies that most people would agree to make concessions in return for co-existence, especially when they are a vulnerable minority. Since most Muslims approve of liberal politics, despite not necessarily holding liberal views, when they are a minority, they would only be able to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they apply their implicit approval of liberal politics in their Muslim-majority home countries. They should support the treatment of all minorities in Muslim-majority countries the same way they like to be treated as religious minorities in Western democracies.

This is not only common sense, but the Qur’an also confirms this concept. “Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due.”

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Life as an outsider

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Among the most hated people in Europe, Roma are treated as second-class citizens at home and abroad. Nikolaj Nielsen spent some time with members of a Roma family.

8 December 2010

Part one: Being Turkish

Emiliya doesn’t want people to know that she is Roma. She wants people to know that she speaks four languages: that her parents scrubbed toilets and washed cars in Brussels to put her through the Medical University of Varna in Bulgaria; that she is a qualified nurse in Bulgaria and that her degree was transferred and approved by Belgium’s ministry of public health. In Belgium, she is qualified as a midwife. Michel Van Hoegaerden, from the Brabant Medical Committee, signed her transferred degree and dated it March 30, 2009.

©Nikolaj Nielsen

“I say I have a Turkish background. I never say I’m Roma because people think we are all thieves and criminals,” explains Emiliya in French, speaking as she rolls meatballs on a plate of flour in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment in Anderlecht. On the wall in the living room is a framed photo of an unsmiling Emiliya wearing a plain grey jacket over a white shirt. Opposite, a black flat screen Samsung television stands on a cabinet. A child’s white plastic pony with a red saddle lies on its side on the boarded wooden floor. Emiliya and her mother, Leylya, sleep in the kitchen on a foldout couch with a leopard-print quilt. Her older brother, Veudsi, and his wife and four-year old daughter share the bedroom. Everyone’s shoes are neatly arranged outside in the hallway. Five Roma families, all from the Razgrad region of Bulgaria, live in this building. The building’s owner is Turkish and thinks her tenants are as well.

Emiliya joined her parents in Brussels last October. After graduation, she was hoping to find work in her field but for the administrative hurdles in Belgium. She spent five months as an intern with no pay at the hospital in Varna. She could work, but the 300 Leva (€153) a month salary was not enough. Her mother has been pressing her to get her papers regularised in Belgium, to get into the system and obtain a Belgian identity card. “My parents push me to continue with the paperwork, otherwise I would have quit by now,” she says.

Emiliya helps her mother clean the apartments of wealthy Turks in Brussels and earns five to nine euros an hour when on her own. On Thursday evenings, she attends an advanced level French class, which costs her €140 per semester. Last week, she started babysitting a five-month-old baby, whose mother is Turkish and father is a German psychiatrist. She earns seven euros an hour. Altogether, Emiliya’s mother earns around €900 a month. Her brother also has a degree, but in biology, says their mother Leylya, as she pours her daughter an orange soda. He taught for three years in Bulgaria and earned €90 a month. Veudsi now works in a night shop in Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis. His boss is the mother of Emiliya’s babysitting charge.

“When I was little my brother and I would look for metal to sell,” Emiliya says. “My father could not support us all so he left for Belgium.” This was in Senovo, a village of around 1,500 habitants in the Razgrad region of northeastern Bulgaria. About 500 of the villagers are Roma and live apart from the rest of the population. The collapse of Communism 20 years ago has left a legacy of abandoned factories. Over time, some were stripped for scrap, leaving expanses of cracked concrete, where shrubs and gnarled trees have taken over. A large Turkish minority secured many of the key administrative positions throughout the region. There is one Roma at the tax payment office in Razgrad. But he tells everyone he is Turkish, according to Biser Alekov of the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network.

Emiliya’s father, Slavtho, first came to Brussels 10 years ago on a 15-day tourist visa. His wife came a year later and both filed for refugee status. They lived in a dilapidated house in Anderlecht with nearly 30 fellow Roma, and managed to receive limited social benefits. Each family had a room off a long narrow hallway, with just a single toilet between them. Then, in September 2002, the police raided the building at four in the morning. Someone in the house had been running a prostitution ring. A few hours later they were all on a plane bound for Sofia.

“We neither had time to gather our things or our documents,” says Emiliya’s mother. “Slavtho was still in his boxer shorts.” She smiles at the experience now. A week later, Slavtho returned and found work on the black market, washing cars. This time he didn’t report to the Belgian authorities. Leylya again followed him and they eventually earned enough to send their two children to university, housing and feeding them from abroad.

For the past three years, Slavtho has been transporting Roma from Razgrad back and forth to Brussels, a business that pays better than car-washing. He bought himself a blue Mercedes Vito van and says he drove 140,000 km in 2009. It has 303,3017 km on the clock and in around 36 hours another 2,200 km will be added.

Part Two: E 56 autobahn, Austria

Thirty-eight kilometres outside Vienna and the snow begins to fall.  The large flakes melt on impact.

Slavtho pulls into the right lane and slows to 60 km/h. The headlights of oncoming traffic make visibility difficult. He lights his seventh blue label L&M cigarette since Brussels. “I only smoke when I get stressed,” he says in broken French, before shifting down a gear. It’s going to be a long night. For the past 12 hours, Bulgarian and Turkish pop, and the odd 50 Cent track, has been playing non-stop. The compass on the dashboard is stuck on north-east. Wrapped around the base of the gear stick is a worn red wristband with Club F1 in white thread. A wooden American bald eagle and a green necklace with a gold tasselled end dangle from the rear-view mirror. The fuel gauge is broken and the wiper handle has snapped off at the base of the steering wheel. The engine, however, purrs.

Before setting off from Anderlecht early that morning, one of the male passengers from Krivnya, a Roma village near Senovo, made a comment about the tyres. The weight of five Roma, a driver, and a vehicle packed with luggage has had a visible effect. Slavtho double-checked the pressure and then knocked the nearside headlight back into place with the palm of his hand. Satisfied, the passengers boarded, moving bags to reach their seats. Emiliya hugged her father and wished him a safe trip.

Through Belgium, Germany, Austria and finally on the Hungarian side of the border, Slavtho pulls over at a service station for a deserved break. It’s one in the morning and rain and cold sweeps across the asphalt. Slavtho sleeps for an hour. There are still 1,200 km left to cover and another 10 hours before they even reach Romania. At 3.45 am, the van passes Budapest in heavy fog. Finally, the morning light begins to reveal the low-lying Carpathian mountains of Romania.

Not yet seven in the morning, bundled bodies on old bicycles emerge, one by one, from the fog. Their slow but steady peddling looks punishing, their breath visible in the morning cold. In Pecica, Slavtho overtakes a cream-coloured Dacia 1310. Plumes of grey smoke billow from the Dacia’s exhaust and the smell of fuel enters the van. As the fog lifts, the remnants of Soviet-era cities and towns begin to emerge. Concrete apartment blocks dominate. There is rust everywhere and the soil is black.

Almost all the Roma in Brussels come from the Razgrad region in northern Bulgaria and most have no bank account. Travel by plane is generally not an option. Slavtho charges €80 a head from Brussels; €120 return. “Soon Bulgaria will become a full member of the EU. Bulgaria vacation; Brussels work,” he says.

For several years, Bulgarians have been emigrating to other countries in Europe. The low income and high unemployment rate at home, compounded by the financial crisis, have forced many to seek their fortune elsewhere. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, and marginalised and vulnerable groups such as the Roma face even greater challenges. According to a June 2008 Eurobarometer report, an EU-wide public opinion survey shows that nearly a quarter of all Europeans would feel uncomfortable having a Roma as a neighbour. In some countries, like Italy and the Czech Republic, that figure approaches a half. The figure drops to six percent if the ethnic minority is not Roma. Emiliya’s aunt explains that some Roma accept the stigma. Others, like her family, decide to hide it and try to blend into the mainstream.

“I have no pride in the Roma community,” she says. “I am proud of the Roma in my family. Many of us carry the stigma as a burden, others act against the stigma. It’s more comforting to do so, in a sense,” she adds.

The EU promotes the integration of disadvantaged groups into the labour market through its Structural Funds. The funds support projects focusing on education, vocational training, improving infrastructure and social assistance. “It is not acceptable in Europe that there are a people who are stigmatised and excluded,” said EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimir Spidla at a seminar in Brussels for Roma inclusion. But the lack of political will, combined with the corruption of the previous administration in Sofia, marginalised most EU Roma initiatives. Today’s administration inherited a budget deficit and a culture of governance that is largely inefficient and often incompetent. Two months into its mandate, some do not expect significant change.

Bulgaria’s new prime minister, Boyko Borisov, met an informal coalition of five Roma NGOs at the beginning of the year in an attempt to spur public debate, explains Liliya Makaveeva, president of Integro Association, a Roma organisation based in Razgrad. ”We met with the GERB (Bulgaria’s leading party) on March 2 (2009) to develop a charter on Roma integration,” says Makaveeva. “But after the elections no Roma was invited to participate in the party. There is no Roma representation in the government.”

Borisov ran on a platform promising to weed out corruption and shake off Bulgaria’s tarnished reputation. But Bulgaria is currently going through yet another corruption scandal. According to an edition of the English-language weekly The Sofia Echo, a 27-year-old broker and several magistrates in the Supreme Judicial Council were selling high-profile magistrate posts to anyone willing to pay €200,000.

Senovo’s mayor, a Bulgarian named Atanas Tsanev, is trying to improve people’s lives with the limited resources at his disposal. “We get 100,000 Leva (€50,100) per year and half of that goes on salaries and rubbish collection,” he says. Tsanev is forthcoming and frank as he lays out the situation. “The money from this year’s budget was gone by September 9. We are worried. Twenty years ago, things were better. Senovo was the centre of the municipality. Today times have changed, but not improved. Back then everyone was employed at the factory. Our biggest problem is not having enough people working, followed by the lack of funding.”

Tsanev says they received some money from EU funds and were able to lay 5km of road. But Senovo remains a divided village. He’s hoping for another 20,000 Leva (€10,000) to dig a drainage system in Senovo and Krivnia. Emiliya’s house is in the Roma quarter on top of the hill overlooking what the old people call ludogorie, the wild forest. The house is large with a new roof, several bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with modern appliances. Parked across the street is a grey Opel Calibra: “the Ferrari of the gypsies,” points out a local.

In the valley below, the Beli Lom river winds through the Bulgarian quarter where the streets are paved and rubbish is collected regularly. The Roma, in contrast, bury their waste in the fields. Their streets, with the exception of the main road leading into the quarter, are potholed and for the most part broken asphalt. A yellow school bus collects the children to take them to primary school several kilometres away. Many homes have outhouses; some families grow tobacco, while others raise goats. In a small concrete warehouse, a group of Roma women and children are busy cracking walnuts with pin hammers.

Emiliya’s grandfather has lived his entire life in the Roma quarter of the village. He remembers how life used to be. His wife died three years ago. Together they would wake up every day before dawn to milk the cows at a collective farm he helped to set up. He milked 25 cows a day, he says with some pride, until the machines arrived in 1958. Now he receives a small pension that just covers his utility bills.

Emiliya’s second aunt, Yukla, has also lived here her entire life. She is the only Roma in the village that works at Kaolin, a local mine and factory that produces silicon for ceramics and glass applications, where she earns 400 Leva (€200) per month. She was due to retire in December after 32 years’ service. The village is nearly empty and some houses are boarded up. Most Roma have left for Belgium for seasonal work, but will return to improve their homes and put away what savings they can.

Several hundred metres away, a truck carries sand from a pit belonging to Kaolin. As it speeds up the dirt track, it passes four young Roma kicking a football around in the field.

Brugmann University Hospital, Brussels

Emiliya is waiting in the hallway of the human resources department at Brugmann University Hospital in Brussels.

A friend told her that they treat workers without papers. Perhaps they also hire them. She has in her hand a CV and diploma. There are six empty seats but Emiliya prefers to stand. She is nervous. Dutch and French-language notices are pinned to a board. She first came two days ago, but the orange office door was locked. Today, she is determined to speak to someone. To take a chance. She knocks on the door and enters the office. Fifteen minutes later, she exits and follows a human resources assistant to another building. Impressed by her CV and degree, the woman arranges a formal interview the following Friday with the head of recruitment, Françoise Joudart.

“I would be willing to work for free, just to specialise and learn,” says Emiliya as she returns for her interview with Madame Joudart. But Emiliya believes she has no hope of getting work. Why would they hire someone without the proper paperwork when there are Belgians, more qualified than her, she says, looking for the same job? Madame Joudart greets Emiliya with a firm handshake. Twenty minutes later Emiliya leaves disappointed.

In the hallway, Madame Joudart explains the situation. “She has a qualification equivalence and it’s really good. But the problem here is that we have no free positions. We have three people already on our list. We can’t take her as a midwife. We need nurses. Not having papers is not a problem for the hospital. We are a public hospital with a social aspect.”

Emiliya is running late for her 11.00 appointment to clean an apartment in Ixelles. She rushes to the metro, buys her ticket and tries to relax. But she is both anxious and upset. “I know what I am. I know what I want to do. I know this,” she says. Her CV and diploma stick out of her white handbag. Then the metro doors open. Emiliya hurries out, runs up the escalator and disappears into the crowd.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Brussels-based independent journalist. His website is

This article first appeared in the October 2009 edition of The Bulletin. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Nikolaj Nielsen.

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