by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

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

the unbulgarians.jpg

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.

EEA Grants


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Аt 36, Elka Vasileva, whom everyone knows as Nunio (a childhood nickname given to her by her parents that she is particularly proud of because it discerns her from her famous grandmother), is a remarkable woman.

The Bulgarian base named St Clement of Ohrid on the Isle of Livingston in the South Shetlands has been manned by Bulgarian crews since the early 1990s.

Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.

Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

In the summer of 2023, one of the news items that preoccupied Bulgarians for weeks on end was a... banner.

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

Not all people who make a big difference in history, or attempt to make one, are ahead of great governments or armies.

When John Jackson became the first US diplomat in Bulgaria, in 1903, the two nations had known each other for about a century.

When the first issue of Vagabond hit the newsstands, in September 2006, the world and Bulgaria were so different that today it seems as though they were in another geological era.

Sofia, with its numerous parks, is not short of monuments and statues referring to the country's rich history. In the Borisova Garden park for example, busts of freedom fighters, politicians and artists practically line up the alleys.

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which

On 3 October 1918, Bulgarians felt anxious. The country had just emerged from three wars it had fought for "national unification" – meaning, in plain language, incorporating Macedonia and Aegean Thrace into the Bulgarian kingdom.