MEET THE UNBULGARIANS

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Photography project by Free Speech International Foundation searches for diverse identities of foreigners in Bulgaria

What does it mean to be Bulgarian? And what does it take not to qualify as one?

Here are some of the commonplaces spread by the mainstream media. Foreigners are rich, highly marriageable material. Or they are funny people who buy decaying rural houses and settle there, happy to grow tomatoes. They are poor migrants who want to sponge on Bulgaria's social security system. Or they are nice fellows who get drunk on a tiny glass of rakiya. Then there are the terrorists...

Some of the clichés date back to the times of Communism, but others are quite new – understandably, generated by the post-1989 opening up of Bulgaria and its uneasy transition from being one of the most isolated places even in former East bloc standards to being a full member of major international organisations such as the EU and NATO.

As with many other things in Bulgaria, the general attitudes towards foreigners and "being foreign" are split along deep divisive lines. Bulgarians have an issue with accepting that an ethnic Turk or an ethic Gypsy, who was born in this country and whose family has lived here for generations, is a true Bulgarian. At the same time, a Bulgarian who has lived abroad for many years and who happily holds an US, British, German or French citizenship will always remain Bulgarian.

These attitudes are predetermined by one major factor: the difficulties Bulgarians have in articulating their own identity. In this sense, Bulgaria is not very different from countries like France and Germany where the identity debate has been going on for at least 50 years. What does make it different, however, is that in Bulgaria this is all quite new. It is still news. The true debate is yet to begin.

The UnBulgarians project, conducted by the Free Speech International Foundation and supported by the NGO Programme in Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area 2009-2014 aims to address these issues through the images and life stories of ordinary non-Bulgarians who live here. Who are the real people to whom clichés are so eagerly attached? How does an American entrepreneur or a Russian artist living Sofia feel about their second home? Is a Muslim refugee from the Middle East secure enough in the Bulgarian streets? Is it easy to have your small business here if your face is a few shades lighter – or a few shades darker?

The UnBulgarians identifies a wide range of people and asks questions about identity: both their identity at birth and their current identity as people living in Bulgaria.

The project is still in its initial stages, but by late 2015 it will result in a series of exhibitions in Sofia and elsewhere, together with a catalogue with the photographs and the interviews. The Multi-Kulti Collective is a partner to this project.

In this issue of Vagabond, we present two of the UnBulgarians: US entrepreneur Rory Miller and Albanian NGO worker Ehlibejte Mehmetaj.

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