Europe feels effects of Syrian crisis

How the church in Bulgaria is responding

Bulgaria CIA map

Source: CIA World Factbook

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Crises in Syria and Africa have driven refugees to Europe and impacted ministries as far away as the capital of Bulgaria.

As many as 10,000 Syrian refugees have flooded Bulgaria over the last year, straining the resources of a cash-strapped country. The influx has caused tension among local residents, including other immigrant groups and Gypsies.

“In our area of Sofia alone there are hundreds of refugees packed into an old abandoned school,” ReachGlobal staff member David Bliss says. “The conditions are quite poor.”

Many people sleep on the floors without proper bedding. Additionally, most refugees are from warmer climates, so they do not have proper winter  clothing such as hats, gloves and warm coats.

Bulgarian crossroads

Many refugees choose Bulgaria because of its geography— it is near the southern and eastern edge of the European Union (E.U.) and it is relatively easy to enter. As a result, the Bulgarian government has been overwhelmed by the number and needs of its new residents.

Government-provided housing at refugee centers is overpopulated and under-resourced. Refugees report that the food is often not nutritious, and portions are only large enough for survival. “You’ll have a standard-sized classroom with seven families in it,” says Bliss. “People are sleeping on the floors.”

Conditions are unlikely to change soon. Refugees remain dependent on government aid amounting to 35 euros per month because the law does not allow them to work for the first year that they are in Bulgaria.

A Christmas store full of donated winter clothes awaits refugees in Sofia.

A Christmas store full of donated winter clothes awaits refugees in Sofia (photo courtesy of Sandy Chadwick).

“How can I live with 35 euros per month? It’s hell,” says Austine, an African immigrant who has lived in Bulgaria about one year. He is currently in jail for being in the country illegally.

The influx of Syrian refugees has created enmity among other groups in Bulgaria, who see Syrians sapping government resources. Africans, a significant portion of the refugee population, are complaining because their paperwork isn’t being processed as quickly. There are some Africans who have lived in the refugee camps for seven years without being processed out. In the time that Austine lived in the camps, only two Africans had their paperwork processed.

But it’s not just other refugees who are developing ill will towards Syrians. The Gypsy population in Bulgaria, long dependent on charity, has begun to resent Syrian refugees who are taking the aid that would normally fall to them. “There is a lot of prejudice against them,” Bliss says of the Syrian refugees.

The church responds

In the face of these needs, several mission organizations and the International Baptist Church of Sofia have joined together to help meet the physical and legal needs of refugees. They provide free meals, English practice, games for the kids, Bible studies, and legal advice from an immigration attorney. They also hand out canned food and other supplies as they are available.

“We’re doing a lot more this way,” Bliss says. “We just have three people on our team. There’s no way we could do anything significant if we didn’t work with others in this area.”

Together, these ministries have solicited resources from among other European nations. For example, fellow ReachGlobal staff members Dave and Jen Cox led a collection drive in Romania. They gathered so much winter clothing and bedding that it couldn’t all fit in the Blisses’ vehicle. However, “the need for non-perishable food items, warm clothing and bedding continues” Bliss says.

Meeting spiritual needs

Church service with refugeesThis new flood of refugees changes the spiritual face of the ministry as well. 

Before the influx of Syrian refugees, Muslims represented only 8 percent of the population, while significant portions of the population would claim Orthodoxy, paganism or no religion at all. Now, Sofia is flooded with Muslims. “It’s really a game-changer for our ministry,” Bliss says. 

In addition to the changed religious background, the church is seeing a greater spiritual openness. The difference is startling. Where people were unresponsive before, now there are more people responding than they can accommodate. “It’s a very good problem to have. It’s made me more bold in sharing the gospel,” Bliss says.

Sandy Chadwick, director of the immigrant and refugee ministry at the International Baptist Church of Sofia, also sees signs of this new reality. The church has never had to advertise its services, but each Sunday, there is a new row of immigrants. The attendance at both the church services and the immigrant ministry days has more than doubled and now includes many cultures and language groups for whom they have no translator.However, God’s love transcends all those barriers, she says.

“Every story we hear is more heartbreaking than the one before it,” Chadwick says. “The refugee process can be long and grueling. Their problems are much bigger than us. I can love, give a little food, and cheer them on to find a deep lasting relationship in Christ.”

Ongoing needs

Would you like to be involved in reaching refugees and immigrants in Bulgaria? The church needs Bibles and funds to supply food and warm clothing. To give, please visit the International Baptist Church Ministries giving page, where you may designate gifts to the International Baptist Church of Sofia.  If you’d like more information about personally ministering to the refugees in Bulgaria, please contact David Bliss at david.bliss@efca.org.

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