Keep reading to find B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem Director Alan Schneider’s account of B’nai B’rith’s efforts.
Click here to read a report in Haaretz about the hardships facing refugees and how B’nai B’rith is helping
From Israel to Bulgaria with Love: Leading a humanitarian mission to aid refugees
By Alan Schneider, director, B'nai B'rith Word Center, Jerusalem; founding member, IsraAID
From March 17-20 I led the Israeli contingent of a small Israeli-German fact-finding team to Bulgaria to investigate the situation facing the country as it copes with an unexpected wave of Syrian refugees who entered Bulgaria last year fleeing the death and destruction inflicted by the sectarian war in their home country.
Although this wave of some 12,000 refugees—representing 90 percent of all refugees in the country, and 80 percent of those are Kurdish—is small in comparison to the veritable avalanche of hundreds of thousands who have fled Syria to neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the weight of these refugees on the European Union’s poorest member has taxed its meager budgets and overburdened staff charged with finding housing for the refugees and integrating the refugees who make it to Bulgaria's doorstep.
Our mission was borne not only out of a wish to assist Syrian refugees—as IsraAID has already been doing for some time elsewhere—but also out of a desire to assist the Bulgarian people, to whom the Jewish people owe a debt of gratitude for rescuing the Jewish community inside Bulgaria from the planned Nazi genocide during World War II. Bulgaria is one of Israel's closest strategic allies in Europe. More recently, Bulgaria has taken a courageous position in standing up to Hezbollah terrorism and intimidation by publicly accusing the terrorist organization of perpetrating the 2012 bus bombing at the Burgas airport that killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver.
Our mission was organized by IsraAID, B'nai B'rith's strategic partner in many humanitarian missions over the past decade, and was undertaken in partnership with the German Shai Fund and AJC. Our primary goal was to view the conditions the refugees live under and to meet with relevant governmental and non-governmental representatives to assess together what contribution IsraAID and its partners can make to Bulgaria's efforts to offer safe haven for these refugees.
IsraAID's premise was that its experience providing mental health and psycho-social service (MHPSS) capacity-building for diverse groups responsible for refugee welfare and integration in other countries could be successfully applied to Bulgaria as well. IsraAID has years of hands-on experience in the field, with ongoing training courses taking place in countries such as Japan (in the wake of the earthquake and Tsunami). Our secondary goal was to deliver a modest amount of emergency aid to refugees in consultation with local authorities and volunteers working with them on the ground.
The foundations for our visit were laid over the preceding months by B'nai B'rith Bulgaria President Solomon Bali who utilized relationships developed over many years to organize for the team a concentrated itinerary of meetings with the principal agencies and stake holders and visits to refugee camps. As team leader I also kept Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev advised of our plans (at a meeting in Jerusalem) and did the same with the Bulgarian Ambassador to Israel Dimitar Mihaylov.
My experience in Bulgaria was a humbling one that illustrated the harsh realities of the human toll caused by the strife in Syria and the limits of Bulgaria's ability to effectively cope with the situation without outside assistance.
Our chief interlocutors during the visit were the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees—the arm of the Ministry of Interior directly responsible for refugee affairs—the Bulgarian Red Cross and the Sofia Municipality. At these meetings, and at a session with a diverse set of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) organized by the municipality, we met with many dedicated and talented professionals who admitted to being woefully unprepared, in both physical capacity and relevant training, for the surge of refugees to a country that until then had experienced at the most 2,500 asylum seekers annually. With the Syrian refugees, that number surged to 3,600 in one month alone.
With conditions still very difficult in some camps and with the despair of urban refugees (many of whom have overstayed their half-year welcome at refugee camps and must find local addresses and work) growing as other EU countries close their borders, the Syrian refugees will have to come to terms with the fact that their immediate future is in Bulgaria, not in Western Europe or Germany where they believe a more rosy future would await them.
Despite the apprehension of facing another wave of refugees, state representatives made it clear to us that asylum seekers would not be turned away at the border. The yearnings and frustrations of the refugees who feel trapped in Bulgaria were brought home starkly for our delegation when we visited the Voenna Rampa refugee camp, housed in two big buildings of a former army camp in the outskirts of Sofia, and the Kovachevtsi camp—an Education Ministry-owned facility that for years somewhat ironically hosted the Jewish community's summer camp about 60 kilometers south of the city. All of the refugees we spoke to—Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis and Somalis—expressed a wish to leave the country. The adults have adopted this posture not only regarding themselves but also to prevent their children from studying Bulgarian and continuing their education in the Bulgarian school system—the only one open to them. Many refugees believe if their children begin to attend local schools, it will appear as if they are integrating into Bulgarian society, and that may hurt any chance to leave for more prosperous states in Europe at a later time.
At the same time, we found what I believe to be genuine good rapport between camp staff and refugees and an appreciation that the country is trying to do the best it can in a difficult situation. While conditions at Voenna Rampa were decidedly stark, with dozens of bachelors living all together in a large room divided haphazardly by old sheets, blankets and other materials, we did see that a big investment was being made to improve the outside finish of one of the buildings. The camp commander told me that this was just the first step toward upgrading the inside and outside of both buildings. Kovachevtsi, in a rural setting, was much more livable, and residents told us that they were quite comfortable there.
While at Kovachevtsi there was reluctance to accept the aid packages we brought with us that carried Israeli and Jewish insignia, we encountered no hostility when we met with refugees and introduced ourselves as Israelis. In private encounters, the refugees were very open with us, speaking about the depravations and loses they suffered in Syria and the other countries they came from and about the uncertainty they face in Bulgaria and their wish to continue on to a third country, preferably Germany. More than once, refugees questioned us about the possibility of finding asylum in Israel.
IsraAID's proposed MHPSS support program will help train professionals working with the refugees inside and outside the camps in addition to professionals interested in creating assistance programs for Bulgarians volunteering with the ever-expanding refugee population. The program, which will be led by experienced Israeli and German therapists will include: understanding trauma; inter-personal communication skills; coping strategies and resilience; introduction to refugee issues; utilizing creative arts therapy and self-care for support workers. With the program proposal now vetted by the State Agency, IsraAID is eager to make its mark in Bulgaria to build the competence of those who impact directly on this vulnerable population.