Small Cafe Offers Refuge To Desperate Migrants Entering Bulgaria On Foot
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Some people fleeing from Syria and Iraq are also passing through Turkey into Bulgaria. This is the part of Europe's migration crisis that's happening by land. Six-hundred-fifty people were stopped at the border last weekend alone. NPR's Ari Shapiro visited a small cafe in Eastern Bulgaria that's trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Harmanli is a tiny border town, so there are not many restaurant options. And forget about ethnic food. It's all Bulgarian except this spot in the center of Harmanli where these guys are buying lunch. They've ordered kebabs, and they're standing at the cash register speaking Arabic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Arabic).
SHAPIRO: Outside, rotisserie chickens turn on a spit. The smell draws people in. So does a sign with a big, bright sunrise. It says, in Bulgarian and Arabic, Sunny Fast Food. This shop is co-owned by a Syrian and a Bulgarian. The workers don't speak each other's languages, but somehow they get by. Bosilka Yordanova is behind the cash register, clearly Bulgarian.
BOSILKA YORDANOVA: (Through interpreter) A little bit of Turkish, a little bit of Greek, a little bit of Arabic, a little bit of Bulgarian - I also have a dictionary which is an Arab language dictionary.
SHAPIRO: She pulls a small blue phrasebook out of her apron pocket.
YORDANOVA: (Through interpreter) If someone wants to help, there is a way.
SHAPIRO: What is an Arabic word that you have learned from one of your employees?
YORDANOVA: (Through interpreter) Not just Arabic. They've taught me Kurdish too. I know hello, how are you? I'm good. I'm bad.
SHAPIRO: Her Syrian employees join in and start trying out their Bulgarian.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Bulgarian).
SHAPIRO: She says it's a good business because everybody likes kebabs. The Syrians come in for lunch since people living at the nearby refugee center have nothing to do all day. Then the Bulgarians come in after work. One of the Syrians piling meat into a pita is Zakaria Zayat. In Syria, he was a university economics professor.
ZAKARIA ZAYAT: (Through interpreter) For two years, I didn't teach because the Syrian Free Army said we'll kill you if you go to the university.
SHAPIRO: After four years of civil war, he left Syria with his pregnant wife. They crossed the border from Turkey three months ago. He's frustrated that he can't do professional work here. The job at the restaurant pays less than $5 a day, but at least the kebab shop gives him a taste of home.
ZAYAT: (Through interpreter) It's a fantastic feeling, but it's expensive.
SHAPIRO: Each kebab costs about a $1.50. That's more than many Syrian refugees have to spend. Zakaria Zayat introduces us to his friend Niroda Khoder. In Syria, he was a lawyer.
NIRODA KHODER: I lost everything. I lost my job. I lost my office. I lost my house.
SHAPIRO: Three times Khoder tried to cross into Bulgaria on foot and failed. The fourth time, he spent two days in the back of a truck without food, water or a toilet. That time, he made it through. That was March. Now he has no money at all. And Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, so the government doesn't provide much.
KHODER: Before, one month, they gave us the bread and the yogurt and some fruit - now, nothing.
SHAPIRO: How do you eat?
KHODER: From my friends. I have the debt.
SHAPIRO: These Syrians are planning to leave Bulgaria, hoping to make it to Germany or maybe the Netherlands. That means Sunny Fast Food will have to find new workers, which is not a problem with all of the desperate Syrians trying to cross the border into Bulgaria every day. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Harmanli, Bulgaria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.