Diversity on the Other Side of the Wall: Muslims in Sofia

Project Overview

An intensive seven-day workshop for Senior Fellows that challenged participants’ notions of coexistence and multiculturalism in Bulgaria, with a focus on the Muslim presence in Sofia.

Identifying the Problem

Ina noticed that in the West, the discourse surrounding Islam and Muslims has a fairly entrenched, extremist overtone, with “suspicion” and “community segregation” replacing “integration” and “coexistence” as discussion keywords. She also noticed that in Bulgaria, the level of knowledge about Islam and the quality of debate about issues surrounding Muslim residents has been disappointingly low, despite the country’s close proximity to Turkey, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population. 

While Muslims make up the largest minority religious group in Sofia, there are several other major ethnic minorities within Bulgarian society, such as the “old” minorities, like the Roma and the Turks, who have been coexisting with Bulgarians for several centuries in different configurations. There are also the “Newcomers,” comprised of different ethnic minorities that have been coming to Bulgaria since the country’s accession to the European Union in 2007. Ina found that the public discourse concerning these minority groups also lacked understanding and thoughtfulness. Like the conversations surrounding Islam and its adherents, many people were not willing to challenge their own pre-conceived notions and prejudices about Muslims and other minorities in Bulgaria.

Creating A Solution

Building on the structure of the Humanity in Action Fellowships, Ina worked with HIA Senior Fellow Maria Spirova (Germany 2006) to design a workshop for Senior Fellows that would foster education and debate about these issues while ensuring that a multitude of opinions and viewpoints were acknowledged, contrasted and interpolated. In order to facilitate such an environment, they incorporated various learning tools, including lectures, discussions, interactive exercises, personal meetings and tours. In order to offer the participants the chance to explore the issues from various and opposing viewpoints within the community, the speakers they invited included academics, NGO experts, government officials, members of minority groups and right-wing party activists.

Ina and Maria utilized the HIA network to advertise the event and encourage Senior Fellows to participate. Before the workshop began, Ina distributed reading materials to the participants that would provide them with the relevant background knowledge before they attended lectures or met with representatives of certain organizations.

Furthermore, the workshop was designed to coincide with the Transeuropa Festival, a transnational festival of culture, arts and politics that simultaneously takes place in 14 cities across Europe, encouraging political and cultural exchange all over the continent. Ina incorporated three Transeuropa Festival events into the schedule for the workshop as a way of broadening the Senior Fellows’ exposure to the issues. 

It was extremely important to Ina that the people of Sofia be included in this event. Thus, she designed the workshop to conclude with a panel discussion that would be open to the public. This discussion was not only an opportunity for the Senior Fellows to share their impressions about Bulgaria and compare the issues of coexistence and multiculturalism to their experiences in their home communities, but to engage with the Bulgarian audience, which posed questions and comments to the panel. Some of the Bulgarians who attended the panel discussion told the Senior Fellows that it was the first time that a public debate addressed the issue of Muslim minorities in Bulgaria. Both the speakers and the people that the Senior Fellows met in the street were excited about their presence and interest in Bulgaria. Journalists and TV stations attended the panel discussion in order to interview the Senior Fellows.

Overall, the workshop was a massive success, and Ina received very positive feedback from both the Senior Fellows as well as the lecturers who participated in the workshop. Mia Kjaergaard, one of the Senior Fellows who participated in the workshop, says, “With my experiences from a Danish context, with increased tensions between minority and majority population, it was interesting to learn about a country that so recently has opened up, and where public discourses on coexistence between religions are facing challenges within the rapidly changing society.” 

The Senior Fellows participated in the following activities as part of this workshop:

Day 1

  • Arrived at their hotel in Sofia.

Day 2

  • Attended a lecture on Bulgarian history and early models of multi-ethnic coexistence, given by Alexei Kalionski, member of the Educational Committee of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in South-East Europe (CDRSEE) and noted author whose publications have focused on the Muslim community in Bulgaria.
  • Met with the head representatives at the Chief Mufti’s Office before visiting the headquarters of the DPS political party (The Movement for Rights and Freedoms).

Day 3

  • Took a trip to the Sofia Development Association (SDA), where they met with the executive director of SDA and representatives of EVET Association (European Vision for Ethnic Tolerance) and CERMES (the Center for European Refugees, Migration and Ethnic Studies) to discuss ethnic tolerance in Sofia and issues related to migration and refugees.
  • Attended lecture focusing on the Turkish minorities in Bulgaria, delivered by Alexei Kalionski.
  • Attended lecture focusing on the Roma minorities in Bulgaria, delivered by Alexey Pamporov, Chief Science Officer at the Open Society Institute – Sofia and Head Assistant Professor at the Institute for Study of Societies and Knowledge at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
  • Attended the Transeuopa Festival event, “The idea of European commons as part of a global protest wave?” and took part in the debate along with activists from Bulgaria and other EU countries.

Day 4

  • Took a trip to the Forum for Arab Culture to discuss Arab culture and its place in contemporary Bulgaria.
  • Took an interactive tour of Sofia that focused on places of interest to the Muslim community, organized by Free Sofia Tour.  
  • Attended a lecture on the financial collapse and the poetical reactivation of the social body, sponsored by the Transeuropa Festival.

Day 5

  • Took a trip to the State Agency for Refugees to meet with its representatives and discuss issues surrounding Bulgaria’s refugee population.
  • Discussed these same issues with the founder of Justice 21, an organization that provides moral, financial and legal support to victims of racism and xenophobia.
  • Participated in a Transeuropa Festival open discussion on the European economic crisis with participants from Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, UK, France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Day 6

  • Participated in a panel discussion, open to the public and moderated by Yana Genova, director of Next Page Foundation, the first spin-off organization of the Open Society Institute Information Program. 

Day 7

  • Departed from Sofia and returned to their home countries.

Participants

The following Senior Fellows were selected to participate in the workshop:

Lessons Learned

Ina was surprised that her communication with certain national institutions and political agents ended up being much more formal and time-consuming than anticipated. She advises anyone interested in carrying out a similar project to keep this in mind during the planning stages.

She also stresses the importance of having programatic support for a project of this size. Prior to developing this workshop, Pavlina co-founded A25 Cultural Foundation, which aims to use the potential of contemporary culture as a means of expression to discuss current social issues, human rights and diversity issues in a meaningful manner. A25 Cultural Foundation served as the coordinating body for this project.

Funding

The total cost of this project was close to $9,000. However, Ina succeeded in securing a great deal of in-kind donations, including lecture halls in various venues and compelling lectures given free of charge, which significantly lowered the cost of the project.

The remaining costs were covered by the $5,760 grant that Ina was awarded as one of the winners of the HIA Senior Fellow grant competition, which seeks to empower Senior Fellows to create projects that embody HIA's educational mission and facilitate cooperation among Senior Fellows from different countries. The Senior Fellow grant fund is administered by HIA The Netherlands and supported by a generous grant from the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, Department of War Victims and Remembrance.

Awards & Recognition

"Diversity on the Other Side of the Wall: Muslims in Sofia" was one of the winners of Humanity in Action's 2012 Senior Fellow Grant Competition. It was also recognized as an extraordinary Senior Fellow project at the Fourth Annual Humanity in Action International Conference, held in Warsaw.

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Germany Germany 2007

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