Friday, December 21, 2012

National pride

The image is a painting by present-day Bulgarian artist Ognian Kouzmanov. As far as I know, it has not been inspired by actual people or events.

Bulgaria is infamous for violating the most basic human rights of foreigners seeking refuge or immigration. It still keeps the detention facility featured in my post Prison by any other name published in 2010. In the same year, an innocent pregnant young woman from Armenia was released from the said prison only after a hunger strike, plus a nationwide solidarity campaign.

A year later, in August 2011, I learned from other Bulgarian bloggers about the outrageous treatment of a mixed family by Bulgarian authorities. The case became widely known in Bulgarian public space, but because I am not sure the family would want international publicity, I shall keep them anonymous in this post and have used an artwork instead of their photos for illustration.

A young Nigerian Christian man, after coming to Bulgaria with the intention to seek refuge, found love and married to a Bulgarian woman. His record was clear, so you could think that he would easily become a legal immigrant. However, Bulgarian bureaucrats had a different opinion and refused to legalize his stay in Bulgaria for no apparent reason. So they forced the man to return to Nigeria, separating the young couple.

This absurd situation lasted more than a year. The wife, pregnant by the time of her husband's expulsion, gave birth to a girl which the father could not touch. Finally, she decided to reunite the family by moving to Nigeria with her daughter. There was another little problem - the young mother could not afford the plane tickets. At this point, her blogger friends started a fundraising campaign.

I contributed something which my family budget could bear and wrote a post on Aug. 22, 2011 to alert the readers of my Bulgarian blog. As days were passing, blogger Svetla Encheva, who knew the family personally and had initiated the campaign, wrote that concerned people would do well to donate urgently because plane tickets were expected to double their prices in late September. Thinking of some other couples which all the gold on Earth could not reunite, I decided that our family budget could bear another small donation. Svetla with other activists and friends organized  a fundraising party, an event still uncommon in Bulgaria.

For all this time, not a word about this story appeared in my English blog which you are reading. While I generally avoid appeals for donations here, I have made some exceptions. For example, in early 2010 I wrote a post about how to support Haitian earthquake survivors (though I actually have heavy doubts that money is what Haitians need). However, I decided that the separated family would not be one of these exceptions. The reason was a strange feeling of national pride. I thought that we Bulgarian citizens had been unable to force our government respect the basic rights of people like  this father and his loved ones. If we had proven unable also to collect about 2000 leva (EUR 1000) in real time to reunite the family in exile, this would be eternal shame and solid proof that Bulgarian civil society is nonexistent and the country is just a spot on the map to be avoided at any cost.

The money finally were collected and the mother flew to Nigeria with her baby. Svetla wrote in her post, "First, I miss ... (the mother's name)... Second, I am not sure whether I did the right thing by advising her to depart to Nigeria, instead of encouraging her to continue the struggle here. It was easier for me to raise funds for her travel expenses than to watch her literally collapsing... The fact that we succeeded in reuniting a Bulgarian family outside Bulgaria does not mean that the problem has been solved. Because Bulgarian government continues to separate with impunity families that include Bulgarian citizens..."

I felt proud that we had collected the money. However, similarly to Svetla, I didn't feel quite well about this dubious happy end because it did not solve the principal problem, neither for mixed families in general nor for this family in particular. I was also unhappy that the young mother had been forced to choose between her husband and her country. I was unhappy that the little girl, a EU citizen by birth, had to go to a place like Nigeria, the homeland of murder victim "Adam", in order to be with her dad. Though in this case Nigeria turned out to be more civilized than Bulgaria - it allowed the foreign-born spouse to stay with the native partner. I wondered, what happens to mixed families if bureaucrats of both countries refuse to let the foreigner stay? Where should such families live - on Mars? With an effort to be optimistic, I wrote, "Let's hope that we shall have an occasion to help the family return to Bulgaria one day!"

After that, I often wondered what was happening to them. The mother's e-mail had become known to me during the fundraising, but I didn't want to invade her privacy and preferred to check Svetla's blog for updates. Finally, in July, I saw what I wanted: a post reporting that the family was finally back in Bulgaria and the father had obtained a legal status. Of course they are likely to have further troubles with bureaucracy. Moreover, people like this father and his daughter are in the role of trailblazers forced to endure and fight the racism of our backward society. But for now, we have a true happy end and I hope that after all they will have a good life in Bulgaria.

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