Lora Todorova: Afghan refugees in Bulgaria need human attitude

An interview with the Caritas Sofia’s expert on Afghan refugees about problems they face in Bulgaria, conditions of women in Afghanistan, humanitarian crisis in the country and the role women could and should play in the country, ruled by the Taliban

Vladimir Mitev, Malgorzata-Kulbaczewska-FIgat

Lora Todorova works in the department Migration and integration of the Sofia-based Caritas NGO. She works with Persian-speaking refugees. She has a B.A. in Iranian Studies and an M.A. in Iranian and Indian Studies from the University of Sofia. Currently, she does a Ph.D. research on the topic “Projection of Contemporary Persian Literature onto Iranian Screen Art: Readings, Sociocultural Contexts and Interpretive Patterns” at the University of Sofia.

Cross-border Talks approaches Lora Todorova in the context of humanitarian crisis and rising conservatism in Afghanistan, following the takeover of power by the Taliban back in summer 2021. We were willing to find out more about the social and humanitarian issues that are related with Afghan refugees in Bulgaria, including with the situation of Afghan women.

Lora Todorova (photo: Dessislava Petkova)

Ms. Todorova, you have been dealing with Afghan refugees in Bulgaria and you are aware of their difficulties in their countries, on the road to Europe and here. To what extent do Afghan refugees manage to integrate in contemporary Bulgarian society? Do they have a chance for decent work and social existence as well as life in dignity and respect? What are the greatest obstacles they face while trying to be part of Bulgarian society?

I have been working for almost three years now in the Migration and Integration Department of Caritas Sofia. The focus of my work is precisely the successful integration of refugees and migrants from Afghanistan and Iran. The department where I work deals with so-called “Case management”, which is the process of organizing and coordinating a network of formal and informal activities, services and support arranged to improve the well-being of refugees and migrants in the country. 

From my professional experience so far, I can state that refugees from Afghanistan, and not only them, face a number of difficulties and tribulations when leaving their homeland for Europe. As a result, some of them end up in Bulgaria – accidentally or not. Many of them do not stay long in the country, heading quickly to Western Europe, but a part of them, although not numerous, chooses Bulgaria as their second home. Coming here, the refugees from Afghanistan are confronted with an absolutely new and unfamiliar world. Those of them who are determined to stay in the country are travelling a long and obstacle-filled road, driven by their desire for a decent life and a brighter future for themselves and their children. 

As for the extent of their integration, in my opinion it is a long and two-way process, sometimes lasting for years. I dare to compare them to a newborn who has yet to learn to talk and walk. How successful integration is, depends on the person on the other side. On their motivation, attitudes, background, desire and will. From my modest experience so far, I can boldly state that although they have gone through a number of turbulences, some of the Afghan refugees in our country have managed to successfully integrate into the country and modern Bulgarian society. These people, although not many in number, are a worthy example.

They speak Bulgarian language, attend schools and universities, work alongside us in various sectors, some of them have successful businesses. Their children go to kindergarten and school, they get acquainted with Bulgarian culture and our way of life, they travel around the country, they establish social contacts and make friends in the Bulgarian people. 

I have used the words obstacles and difficulties several times so far. There are many that they face when trying to be a part of Bulgarian modern society. In the first place, they do not speak Bulgarian, which is of fundamental importance for their further development in the country. Then, I must mention the lack of orientation (civil, social, cultural and career), the lack of employment, social contacts outside their local community, their level of education, their emotional health and others of no less importance.

The situation in Afghanistan following the international security forces’ withdrawal led to acute social crisis, famine, poverty and increased conservatism imposed by the new government or strengthened after the Western withdrawal. What are the descriptions of this crisis by the Afghan refugees and their families, which you interact with?

NATO and Allied countries have been establishing a presence in the territory of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. After nearly three years of negotiations with the Taliban, the US announced the withdrawal of its troops in April 2021. The actual withdrawal of NATO and allied troops ended in August 2021. As a result, the Taliban established full control of the country, formed a caretaker government on 7 September 2021 and reestablished the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

What followed are severe shortages of food, water, medicine.

The country is currently in a pre-refugee crisis and the number of vulnerable and at-risk people is increasing. Parents are forced to sell their children out of hunger.

Some of the Afghan refugees and families I work with describe the crisis in the country as a tragedy for all the peaceful Afghan people, and the situation as extremely volatile. They describe it as a humanitarian tragedy that violates the basic human rights and freedoms of the civilian population. It is expressed in a lack of security for the people, growing poverty, a food crisis, lack of access to education, employment, social and health services. All the things that are essential for the normal functioning of human life.

To what extent do Afghan families and especially Afghan kids, which live in Bulgaria manage to overcome experiences of violence and stagnation? What do Bulgarians need to understand with regards to refugees and Afghan refugees in particular, so that mutual engagement and common life becomes possible on maximally equal terms?

It is a fact that the number of unaccompanied Afghan children who have sought asylum in the country is now rising dramatically. Among the Afghan refugees who have sought asylum in Bulgaria, the number of refugee children is the highest. I am talking about unaccompanied minors who have gone through a number of hardships on their way to Europe. They have experienced encounters with smugglers, low-paid black labour, illegal border crossings and many others.

According to statistics published on the website of the State Agency for Refugees under the Council of Ministers, the number of unaccompanied minors who sought protection in Bulgaria in the period from 01.01.2022 to 30.04.2022 is a total of 869. Of these, 51 are boys up to the age of thirteen, 354 are between the ages of fourteen and fifteen and 464 are between the ages of 16-17. In comparison, there are no girls. According to the same published statistics, Afghanistan ranks first among countries of origin in terms of the number of applications submitted for the period 01.01.2022 – 30.04.2022 with a total number of 2,810. But there’s more. Afghanistan holds the first place in the number of applications filed in Bulgaria from 01.01.1993 – 30.04.2022 with a total number of 39 249 applications for international protection. 

The extent to which Afghan families, and children in particular, are able to overcome their experiences is also strictly individual.

Currently, the Migration and Integration Department of Caritas Sofia is working on the project “Support for the Future”, funded by the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2014 – 2022 under the Home Affairs Programme. The project aims to contribute to the improvement of the conditions and national capacity for the reception of international protection seekers with a focus on unaccompanied minors. It provides services to asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors in the Safe Zones of the Registration and Reception Centres of the State Agency for Refugees in Sofia and Harmanli. The comprehensive activities of the project include access to services with special focus on unaccompanied minors, child development, non-formal education, career orientation, personal development, active participation and cultural orientation. 

Concerning the Bulgarians, I believe that the Bulgarian people must continue to show humanity in terms of the reception and integration of Afghan refugees, bearing in mind that the crisis in Afghanistan is a real tragedy for these people. In this context, I think it is appropriate to quote one of my favourite Persian poets, Saadi Shirazi and his Bani Adam (Adam’s Children).

“Human beings are body parts of each other,

In creation they are indeed of one essence.

If a body part is afflicted with pain,

Other body parts uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain,

The name of human you shall not retain.”

To what extent the refugee women experienced discrimination before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and how did their situation change under the Taliban government? What was their reaction to the transfer of power and new attitudes towards women?

Significant progress has been made in Afghanistan since 2001 on women’s and girls’ rights, gender equality. Women and girls had access to education, health care, the right to move freely, to associate, to work, to participate in sports and, above all, to participate in the civil and political life of the country. However, following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the return to power of the Taliban, many of them are losing these rights. They cannot return to their jobs, to school, to university. Women are being excluded from public life and locked in their homes.

There are no women in the caretaker government of the Taliban, which was announced on 7 September 2021. Further proof of their isolation from the social and political life of the country. Since the formation of the government, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been disbanded and protests in support of women’s rights in Afghanistan have been dispersed. Existing concerns about the repeal of the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women were also realized. Under this law sanctions were imposed on individuals in cases of child and forced marriage, domestic violence and other abuses committed against Afghan women and girls. Currently, a large number of women and girls in Afghanistan are deprived of their basic freedoms and rights achieved over the past 20 years. 

I have been following events throughout, from the US announcement of troop withdrawal in April 2021 to the completed withdrawal of NATO and allies in August and the retaking of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the Taliban.

The Afghan women and men with whom I was in contact during this period expressed their deep disappointment, horror, sadness, and real concern for their loved ones, relatives, acquaintances and compatriots on Afghan soil, who are their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives.

What do you think is the working solution or right balance between rights and social conservatism with regards to women in traditional societies such as Afghanistan?

I will venture to express my opinion in my capacity as a dilettante. In my opinion, women should have the right to participate fully in the national political, social and civil life of countries such as Afghanistan. I believe that the presence of women in government is a must. As through their elected representatives, their fundamental human rights and freedoms should be protected and their voice heard.

Do the refugees think of returning to Afghanistan in the future? And if yes, what Afghanistan do they dream of or would like to see upon arrival?

Of course – who does not want to lead a decent life in their homeland? But, based on what I see, I think that, unfortunately, they cannot, for the moment, imagine an Afghanistan that they could return to.

One that would guarantee their safety, basic human rights and freedoms. Such as access to education, employment, healthcare, freedom from gender-based violence and full participation in the social, political and civic life of the country.

Photo: Afghan children (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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