Since 2013, millions of asylum seekers and migrants have fled war, poverty and persecution in the Middle East for the promise of stability in Europe. The recent exodus has created political complications in many parts of Europe, especially the Balkans.

Given its position on the southeastern side of Europe, the Balkans has become the main gateway for Middle Eastern immigrants. In 2015 alone, 800,000 migrants passed through the mountainous region—roughly 50 percent Serbian, 25 percent Iraqi and 25 percent Afghan.

The migrant crisis has been accompanied by a rise in violence, both by state border police and vigilantes, in the region.

A 2017 study conducted by researchers from Doctors Without Borders showed 22 percent of subjects to have experienced physical trauma from violence, 65 percent of which was perpetrated by state authorities. There are many reports of police robbing, beating and abducting civilians throughout the entire Balkan route.

This rise in violence against migrants has been particularly adverse in Bulgaria. For example, in 2015, an Afghan migrant was killed by Bulgarian police. Similarly, a team of vigilante migrant-hunters, egged on by high-profile state officials, has been known to use dangerous methods to capture migrants crossing Bulgaria’s border with Turkey.

Adnan, 26, whose name has been changed to ensure his personal safety, is a Kurdish Syrian who served in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. After four years of fighting, he decided to flee to Europe as a refugee. While crossing into Bulgaria illegally, he was apprehended but later given refugee status in the country, which prevented him from reaching his intended destination: Germany. The Metric’s Robert Willard had the opportunity to chat with Adnan over the summer about his unique experiences and controversial views.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’m looking at how European people have reacted to the refugee crisis, and part of that story is to see how someone like you has been treated in the Balkans. I have talked to many Bulgarians and Serbians on the subject, but I haven’t talked to any Syrians who have had the refugee experience.

You came to the right person. It’s been three years since I left my country.

Can you start by sharing the general story of those three years?

I’ll keep it short. It was very hard to cross the border illegally as a refugee. It was hard to live in the refugee camps. Bad food, bad insurance and not the best places to live. But we have to be strong and face such a situation optimistically, to make sure we stay human. We have a right to live. It wasn’t our choice to leave our countries, to become poor and to become refugees, to make it clear. I left my country because of the war. Everyone now knows what is happening in Syria. They now know many people are dying, how many people are left and how many people are estranged. They understand that sadness, but it’s hard to explain it. We lived just because we didn’t want to die. We don’t want to kill anyone. Our homes are destroyed. We chose to be refugees instead of killing people.

That was the choice?

Yes. I spent four years of my life in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. Four years in this war is not something that is easy to talk about. I came here. I got refugee status for five years—an international protection from Bulgaria. After I got it, I went to Germany. I spent one year and seven months in Germany. So, I can speak German well. Then, they refused my stay, because I already have a European status of protection from Bulgaria. Actually, it’s really hard to call yourself “European” in Bulgaria, because you have to fight every day to survive.

How would you assess your experience in Bulgaria?

Bulgaria is not a bad country. It’s a good country. The problem is, as I told you, you have to fight to survive. In all countries it’s like this. But in Bulgaria, there is little work and money.

I often hear that Bulgaria is harder to live in than Syria before the war.

Of course. Besides the politics and government, it is kind of the same, maybe even harder. But living in Bulgaria doesn’t mean you have to focus on these small problems. You have to think positively: how you are going to build your life in Bulgaria? I was here for two years before, a long time. I’ve now made many friends.

I’ve done interviews all across Bulgaria: Harmanli, Smolyan, Plovdiv and Sofia. I’ve heard a lot of arguments made by Bulgarians against refugees. I’d like to mention some of the things they say and would be interested in how you respond to them.

In Bulgaria, there are a lot of people who don’t like refugees. But this is their choice. The good thing is that, although they expect something bad from you as a refugee, after a few days, they’ll become close friends with you. I don’t care about what they believed before. I have someone here I know who used to give me a lot of hate about refugees, but now we are friends. They accept me now, because now I am Bulgarian. I do what I have to do.

You identify as Bulgarian now?

Yes, I have a right to stay here. I can give, I can buy, I can sell, and I can do anything. After October 2018, I can apply for Bulgarian citizenship. I’m going to be Bulgarian. There are both Bulgarians who like and hate refugees, but they still accept me as a human. They’ve given me an ID, which I really appreciate. So many countries refused people. A lot of people paid a lot of money for smugglers to get to other countries to ask for some place to live, and they just kick them out.
I made friends in Bulgaria and found a life in Bulgaria. At first, I was completely estranged. I was very quiet. As I was running from the war, voices in my head sounded like bombs exploding, tanks shooting and guns. Through all this time: fighting, fighting and fighting. It makes your brain say you have psychological problems. It’s not so easy. I came here to Bulgaria. I know it wasn’t a good start and a good life to live, but I just kept moving.

What would you say about people coming from countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan? I often hear from Bulgarians and Serbians I’ve interviewed that they can accept Syrians, because they’re running from war, but not Pakistanis or Afghanis, since they have no war. That is mistaken, of course, since there is a war currently in Afghanistan.

They don’t need to be refugees. They don’t have to. What happened in Syria is like nothing that has ever happened in the world: brother killing brother.

Since it is so hard to differentiate between true refugees and those who are pretending, some people suggest we shouldn’t let anyone in. How would you respond to that?

I can’t do anything about it. But still, even if you don’t give them an official status, they’ll still come. Afghani people are still coming; you can see them here.

To clarify, you feel they are coming for economic reasons?

…Some are coming for money. I have an Afghani friend now, and he’s applying for a job. He is a lawyer and now he wants to stay here, take the refugee status and apply for a job. I actually helped him apply for my company. I helped make a CV so he can stay here. He is Afghani, but he needs work; he needs to eat.

So, you are ok with someone who is honest? Someone who comes in and says “yes, I need work,” versus someone who falsely takes the status of the refugee.

There are people who really need protection, and these fake refugees come and then make problems. … This even includes Syrian people. I’m talking about all refugees. Afghans are coming here like refugees. Syrians are coming here like refugees too. Iranians, Indians… Everyone’s coming like a refugee, but Bulgaria’s a poor country. It doesn’t have that much money for all these people.

In summary, this is a complicated question. I can’t say some of the things Bulgarians say are wrong or right. It’s a bit of both. But in the end, they should still be open to letting in a refugee?

Sure, because they still face adangerous situation. They are running away from something … something you can’t understand, but we can. We feel it and live it. I’m not saying Bulgarians have to accept us, but this is our life. This is the only way for these people. They don’t have any choice any more. This a judgement from God.

Then we can make this conclusion. Bulgarians, migrants, and refugees: they’re all not black and white. They’re just making the best of their situation. But in your personal experience, Bulgaria has not been bad for refugees.

Yes, sure. I cannot say Bulgaria is bad. Bulgaria has given to me, and I have to give back to it. I have to work and build. I am planning to stay here for all my life. I plan to have a family here. I will learn the language soon.