On the road from the city of roses

Krasimir Yankov

It's the middle of June and Kazanlak in central Bulgaria is gearing up for the annual Festival of Roses. A stage stands on the main plaza. Stalls with rose oil products are ready for customers. The scent of the pink petals of Rosa damascena, the flower everyone is celebrating, fills the air.

But this year Kazanlak has drawn an unusual crowd. Some 35 refugee families from Syria, the land from where the Rosa damascena was brought to Bulgaria during the Ottoman Empire, have rented apartments and houses in the area. Their choice of Kazanlak has nothing to do with rose oil. The local council is small and unencumbered -- so it can process travel documents quickly. The refugees are not staying for long. They want to go to western Europe, where they believe they will fare far better than in one of the poorest countries of the European Union.

I arrive shortly after dusk begins to settle. Bulgarian pop music is blasting from the stage and the square is bustling. It doesn't take long to spot the Syrians in the crowd. Small groups of five to 10, mostly brown skinned and dark haired men, stand on the sidelines, chatting quietly in Arabic and Kurdish. A young man I will call Ali Najaf and his brother see me and wave. (I have changed their names because they are worried publicity might affect their asylum claims.)


“Krasimir, here, here!” exclaims Ali and says a quick goodbye to the rest of the group. We exchange customary kisses on both cheeks. “Eat now or later?” he asks straight away. Without waiting for an answer he drags me by the hand. “Let's go to our place.”

Ali – skinny, 25, with a boyish face and a lot of gel in his hair -- has been staying in Kazanlak for just over a month. Before that he spent eight months in the Harmanli refugee camp near the border with Turkey. I met him there in December as a volunteer giving out clothes and food.

His hometown is a small Kurdish village in northeastern Syria, which he left after an Islamist militant group put a price on his head in the summer of 2013, accusing him of being a regime spy.

During the short walk to his apartment, I ask Ali what he thinks of Bulgaria, now that he's living outside the closed refugee camp. “Wallahi,” he swears using a common Arabic expression. “I haven't seen anything. All day I stay at home and wait.” Before I begin to ask why, the door of the two-bedroom flat on the eighth floor opens and yellow light fills the stairwell. Inside, Ali's mother and two sisters are standing with smiles on their faces. They greet me warmly. But as is customary, men and women don't shake hands.

The women retreat to the kitchen to prepare dinner and Ali shows me into the living room. The flat is typically furnished for a socialist-era concrete panel building. An old worn-out sofa faces a boxy TV, tuned to a sports channel showing a tennis match. “We don't understand what the commentator says, but we know the rules of the game,” says Ali's brother Hussein with a smile.

Ali and Hussein are eager to talk about their plans. Soon, in a week or 10 days, they will get their passports. “Then, there is this guy in Sofia. You pay him 160 euros and he takes you with a minibus to Germany. We also need about 50 euros per person to pay on the borders. So we need 1,000 euros for the five of us,” says Ali. He doesn't have the money yet, and he already owes $1,000 to a friend in Iraqi Kurdistan and 500 euros to an English woman in Bulgaria, who have given his family money for living expenses.

While Ali is making calculations, the food arrives. His mother and sisters have prepared a huge bowl of boiled rice, some hot green peppers and a soup-like dish from a frozen vegetable mix. After the meal I suggest returning to the main plaza, where the party will continue through the night. Hussein declines and prefers the company of his smartphone. Ali is also not very eager but agrees to take a walk.


“Every time I go out, I spend money. But I need it for the trip to Germany and after that,” he explains after we leave the apartment.

Three girls stop us on the way back to the centre. They come from Spain, Sweden and Germany and are spending the summer in Kazanlak as volunteers at a nursing home. “What are you doing now? Let's drink beer and go to the club!” says the Spanish girl. Ali looks reluctant and says we’ll think about it. I grab a bottle from a nearby shop and we sit down in the park.

“I don't want to drink too much, because we're going back to my family,” he says after we take a couple of sips. It's not a problem, he insists, but it's better if they don't see him drinking. I ask him what he thinks about the girls we met. “Some time ago they invited me to a party at their apartment. Everyone was drinking, they even smoked marijuana. I don't like this, your head gets cloudy,” he says with an expression of disgust on his face. I ask if there was anything else. “No, no, my habibati (my love) is back in Syria and I want to bring her to Germany and marry her,” he quickly reassures me.

The girls leave for the club and Ali decides that the 6 lev entrance fee (3 euros) is not worth it. As we head back to his apartment shortly after midnight he warns me: “Don't mention my girl in Syria to my family. It will create problems for us.”

We find his brother still watching tennis on the TV. The women are already sleeping in the other room. As a guest, I get the sofa and a blanket. Ali lies next to me and Hussein makes himself comfortable on the floor.

In the morning Ali looks sad. His uncle in Germany, who is supposed to host him after he moves, has not answered his calls and texts for several days. “He must be busy,” he says. “I also need to ask him to send me money for the trip.”

A week later, Ali gives me a happy call. “I've secured the money and we got the documents. The minibus leaves from Sofia. What’s the cheapest way to get there from Kazanlak?”

The same day, the family arrives at the central railway station in Sofia. They carry nothing except the clothes on their back, a small holdall and a supermarket plastic bag.

As night falls, an old red minibus with Ali, his family and three friends leaves Sofia for Germany. He sends me a text message: “See you in 35 hours”.

We’ll meet again 2,000 miles northwest, in Dortmund, as they continue their search for a life that feels out of reach both in their homeland and in Bulgaria.

Krasimir Yankov is a reporter in the international news department at Capital Weekly in Sofia. His fellowship story focuses on Syrian refugees in Bulgaria and western Europe. 


Fellow Bio


Krasimir Yankov

Krasimir Yankov is a freelance journalist and researcher from Bulgaria, currently based in Ukraine, who previously worked as a foreign news reporter for the Capital weekly in Sofia.


Topic 2014: Generations

This year’s annual topic is Generations. Think of a powerful story that you have always wanted to report, and link it to this theme while crafting your proposal. Remember, it is better to have a strong central idea that is loosely linked to the annual theme than to have a weak idea that is strongly linked to the theme.