Refugees

I have been writing about refugees since December 2013, when I first started reading that Syrians, escaping war and running for their lives, were overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union, a place where I feel a deep connection and affection. “Bulgaria is a thousand miles from Syria! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell…” That was part of my melancholy homage, that year, to the Christmas spirit. I continued hammering at the subject of refugees until late last year, when with a weary sigh I started picking at a few other themes to fill the space. About three years ago I decided to stop just figuratively wringing my hands about refugees and started volunteering at a refugee resettlement center. Doing something about something is so much better for the soul than complaining about it. 

Photo from The Economist (2015)

In the time that I have been working at the African Community Center — don’t be misled by their legacy name; they handle refugees from all over the world — the world and I have both changed. I have become defensive on the subject of refugees, to the point of not writing or talking much about it. I have become tired of the arguments, and resigned to the cynicism and lack of compassion I see outside the small community of concern. I have had to accept that I can change my heart but no other. As for the rest of the world, the situation is dire and getting worse. For both those blissfully unaware of it all and for those feverishly working against the tide, the result is the same: apathy and futility have the same result.

Refugees are living displaced from their homes by the millions — millions! — in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. Lesser numbers, but still large, live in Uganda, Jordan, and Germany. Really, enumerating more countries hosting refugees is pointless; they are all over the world, mostly in poor countries nearest to the places besieged by war and terrorism. 1 Only a fraction live in refugee camps, although refugee camps recognized by the UNHCR 2 are the exclusive screening mechanism used by the United States for admittance of the few who are selected to be resettled here. Refugee families typically arrive on an airplane, bringing documentation and medical clearance papers. They also carry a note of indebtedness for their airfare that has to be paid back to the U.S. State Department as they become employable and get on their feet in their new country.

As for the United States, though, we’re not even talking about the refugees that have been my focus for so long. Unlike refugees, who flee their homes due to war or persecution, migrants choose to move for better economic opportunities or family reunification, or, as a separate but overlapping reason, for asylum. Still, the parallels are striking, starting with the lifeboat analogy and encompassing every kind of response from unalloyed and impractical mercy to vicious, blind hate speech. Why is this so hard? 

What has consumed us since before the last election, when fear was weaponized as a political strategy, is the terrible mess at  our southern border not with refugees but with other kinds of migrants. Many of those are seeking asylum, as is their legal right if they can prove they would face danger of harm or death back at the homes they left. Our broken-down system of handling the process of granting asylum has choked on the volume, and is completely unable to sort out the legitimate asylum seekers from those that will not qualify. Worse, it cannot account for, let alone care for, either category. 

I read an article in Time that reached into my heart, and expressed so much better than I could the reasons for my concern. It was written by a celebrity [groan] but one with a high degree of earned credibility on the subject. I recommend it for your consideration.

Angelina Jolie: The Crisis We Face at the Border Does Not Require Us to Choose Between Security and Humanity

TL;DR

“We all want our borders to be secure and our laws to be upheld, but it is not true that we face a choice between security and our humanity: between sealing our country off and turning our back to the world on the one hand, or having open borders on the other. The best way of protecting our security is by upholding our values and addressing the roots of this crisis. We can be fearless, generous and open-minded in seeking solutions.”

 

Pavlin

A Friend in BulgariaPavlin died.

He and Krassimira were our “host parents” during our Peace Corps training. We lived in their home, ate their food, learned their language, appreciated their practicality and humor, and became a part of their family more deeply than we ever could have hoped.

He was ten years younger than we were, and now he will never grow older. In my fondest memories he will always be 46, and it always gave us both a smile when I called him Dad. Another Bulgarian friend, meeting Pavlin over a weekend Peace Corps training session, remarked that he liked him. “He is a gentle man.”

Bulgaria

In the hills above Koprivshtitza. Pavlin sang us a few bars of the Bulgarian National Anthem.

I had not been able to get in touch with Pavlin by phone or message for a long time. He had drifted away from Facebook and other kinds of artificial social contact. Thinking of him one recent day, I texted his daughter, asking how he was. She told me he was no longer among the living. He had died a few days before. We shared text-message tears.

Stormy and I had learned that he was ill, dealing with chemo and the other grimly hopeful realities of cancer, when we last visited Bulgaria. When I wrote about that trip I didn’t intrude on his privacy by telling about his illness, saying only that amidst lots of good changes since we left, the lives of some we knew there had been “burdened beyond bearing.” He had moved back to the village where he grew up, to be cared for by his aging mother, not far from where we knew him and Krassimira.

Back when we were there with them, in addition to our daily schedule of classes and training activities, our family activities were regulated by his work schedule: 

Pavlin worked for the Bulgarian National Electric Company, twelve-hour shifts. His schedule was a four-day cycle: 7:00 AM start for a day shift, then the next day starting at 7:00 PM to work the night, two days off, and repeat. He commuted by motorcycle to a distribution substation a few kilometers outside of town. He was usually there by himself, unless a repair or emergency required another technician or engineer to come in. Rosen drove us there once for a visit when Pavlin was on a night shift. The isolation of the outpost was striking. It was a concrete building the size of a small barn, at the end of a long dark path. A single small bulb by the door welcomed us. The control room, in contrast, was brightly lit. Big pale-green consoles held buttons and levers and meters. A status board indicated the condition of different parts of the system with red and green lights. A green and white sign posted over the desk gave the reminder, “Work here.”

He gave us that sign, as a parting gift when we finished our training and were leaving the comfort and security of his home to go out and begin our work. The little souvenir carried a wistful message that brought a tear to his eye with our leaving, that he wished we could stay there with them rather than going off to Pazardjik. “Stay. Work here.” 

Bulgarians at Bulgari

Our favorite Bulgari, in front of the BVLGARI shop on Rodeo Drive. They visited us in California in 2005.

I think of Pavlin sometimes when an adversity needs to be best met with a smile and a shrug. And more, then, to start on the solution without complaining. That was like my father in America, which might have been why his down-to-earth ways resonated with me. 

I think of him when I taste rakiya, — Bulgaria’s national moonshine — the  strong drink that he taught us to enjoy and appreciate. I remember the warm starry night in the village where we joined him with his friend distilling it in a large copper and brass still, his friend stoking the wood fire as the constant rushing sound of cooling system water filled the room cascading into an open reservoir in the loop, and valves hissed, and we all visited and laughed together over sausages and cheeses until time seemed to collapse and it was very late, all done, time to go. Pavlin’s friend gave me a bottle of his own supply of matured rakiya that night, to give to my father in America on our upcoming visit.

I think of him at Easter. He taught us the Easter greeting that everyone uses for those three holy days, in homes and on the street, in shops and banks and drab gray government offices: Hristos voskrese, Christ is risen! And the response, Voistina voskrese, Truly risen! For the solemn seasons anticipating both Easter and Christmas, he did the Post, the fast, avoiding “all animal products except honey” as a sacred discipline. I think those sacrifices, and his kind and generous nature, must have earned him some blessed relief in entering his heavenly home.

I hope so.


Pictures of my friend Pavlin


 

Visiting America

Today I thought I’d wade into the burning topic of our times. It held the attention of the nation for days and days, alienating friends and reportedly breaking up some families. I’m referring, of course, to the standoff between a smirking, obnoxious white boy wearing a MAGA cap and a Native American who was praying for calm. Or it was a confrontational old man banging a drum inches from the face of a boy who was trying to remain calm. I don’t agree with either of them. So, that’s that.

In matters closer to home, we had friends visit us from Bulgaria!

Miladin at the orphanage

Undisciplined kids rioting. Or is it love?

You might remember Miladin and Vessi if you’ve read A Breeze in Bulgaria. Vessi was Stormy’s counterpart and mentor in teaching, and Miladin was “… the veterinarian everyone called “The Doctor.” The Doctor was a big gregarious man of many interests and a generous nature. We had spent hours visiting in his veterinary clinic, with snacks and rakiya in between his appointments with pets and the occasional farm animal.” They introduced us to the orphanage in Bratsigovo where we became happily involved with the kids’ English lessons and homework. They took us to participate in the rowdy rituals of spring where the evil spirits of winter were chased away by dancers in feathers and furs. We visited lovely Velingrad with them, talking and drinking late into the night with family and enjoying bright fall days in the picturesque town. Finally, after an incident that had left us rattled and hurt, they took me to the old baba with healing powers where my fears were “cast out” in an ancient ritual involving fire, water, and molten metal. We formed a strong friendship in the short time we lived in their country.

This month, after stepping through the labyrinth that is U.S immigration policy to get their visas, they came to America! To Colorado! To see us! We had a ball.

Stock Show ParadeThe Rodeo was the highest priority event for the trip. Miladin said it was his childhood dream. A few days before we were scheduled to go, we watched a sampling of the performers as the National Western Stock Show Parade went from Union Station along 17th Street for a mile, with cowboys driving longhorn cattle down the street followed by horses and riders, rodeo stars, mules, wagons, and stagecoaches. The rodeo itself, on a chilly Saturday with the previous day’s snow politely melting away, was in the spacious Denver Coliseum. We arrived hours early, and were held in rapt fascination by each and every one of the vendors and displays (for our purposes, Amerikanski souvenir shops) around the central arena. As soon as we were seated for the event, it started with a bang. Literally, an explosion of fireworks! The high-energy music was like at a rock concert and the booming voice of an announcer paced the events. We saw bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding, and barrel racing. There was also mutton busting, with little kids trying to ride a rambunctious sheep, girls in sparkly pastel outfits doing fancy trick riding, a stagecoach, Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon, a rodeo clown and a rodeo queen. Everybody cheered the winners and the losers alike. It was all (pardon the expression) awesome.

Garden of the GodsWe toured the Denver Mint, the Air Force Academy, Garden of the Gods, and Red Rocks Amphitheater Park. We had dinner with our son Joel and his family, introduced them to Stormy’s mom and to a brother, some sisters and a niece, went to Royal Gorge, and Miladin even had a day skiing. We visited the Denver Aquarium, the Nature & Science Museum, went to a book club meeting, and attended a lecture about U.S. foreign policy. We had dinner at The Fort. We took Miladin to a veterinary clinic for a visit, and on the recommendation of a friend it turned out to be a pretty cool place: Dr. Henderson’s crew is currently featured on Animal Planet in a show called Hanging With the Hendersons, that premiered days before our visit. Then we took Vessi to three different facilities that care for the elderly, since that is her avocation now as the founder of the Hope for Today and Tomorrow Foundation in Pazardjik. Amerikanski BarbekiuThe last night they were in town we went to a musical show with Broadway show tunes, directed by a friend and featuring several people we know. Whew! Like I said, we had a ball, but I’m worn out now thinking about it all.Loveland Ski Area

We hope they had a good time touring our part of America. We sure did! Air Force Academy

Sunny Day