Russians help Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria
When Ukrainian Elena Bondarenko fled to Bulgaria after Russia invaded, she never imagined she would be welcomed there by a Russian.
But that’s exactly what happened to the bank clerk in Zaporizhzhia, one of many refugees fleeing the war who were quietly housed by members of the 17,500-strong Russian community.
Bondarenko, his mother and two young children were taken in by a Russian who runs a children’s holiday camp near the Black Sea town of Burgas.
At first, “it was a shock,” admitted Bondarenko, 36. But “I am happy that not all Russians are aggressors”.
“When you’re homeless and you have to save your children, it doesn’t matter who helps you,” said another refugee, Anaida Petrushenko, 34, who fled Pavlohrad in eastern Ukraine with her three children.
“I never hid the fact that I am Russian because people saw that I wanted to help,” said the camp’s co-owner, who did not want to be named.
It hosted around 160 Ukrainian refugees, some of whom were kicked out of nearby hotels at the start of the tourist season.
While a number of Russians in Bulgaria are helping the refugees, much of the Balkan nation remains staunchly pro-Russian. And the Bulgarian government has often been unwelcoming when it comes to providing housing and support, forcing many Ukrainians to leave.
Of the approximately 932,000 who have fled to Bulgaria since the invasion, only 51,000 remain and less than 10,000 have been given state accommodation, according to official data.
Indeed, the Russian who runs the holiday camp only receives a daily allowance of 7.50 euros ($7.90) per refugee from the Bulgarian government, and even these meager payments are often delayed.
With around sixty children and fifty elderly dependents, the Russian and his Bulgarian companion must bear the additional costs themselves.
While they castigate the Bulgarian government for not providing language lessons or helping refugees find work, with winter approaching, they say they cannot close the camp.
– ‘Ashamed’ –
Volunteers have been the main driver of refugee relief efforts, with Bulgaria sadly unprepared for the influx of Ukrainians after the Russian invasion in late February.
Despite their best efforts, some of the Russians helping Ukrainians are uncomfortable admitting who they are.
“I invented this phrase: ‘I was born in Russia’,” a 47-year-old Russian translator, who lives in the nearby city of Varna, told AFP.
“It was less painful for me to say it that way. I can’t describe that feeling of being ashamed of your own homeland,” she told AFP, afraid to give her name just in case. would cause trouble for his mother.
After traveling hundreds of miles to pick up people at the border with Romania, she is still hosting several families in her and her sister’s Airbnb apartments in Varna.
– ‘Collective responsibility’ –
Another Russian from Varna, Viktor Bakurevich, told AFP that he had “decided to take some responsibility for those people who suffered from the war”.
“I don’t believe in collective guilt, but I do believe in collective responsibility,” said the father of three, who moved to Bulgaria 14 years ago and founded his Russian grocery chain Berezka.
Feeling “tremendous shame”, he publicly declared his opposition to the war early on and hired about 50 Ukrainian refugees in addition to the dozens of Ukrainians already working in his stores across Bulgaria.
Bakurevich is still providing daily food and hot meals to 100 refugees housed in a government recreation center near Varna.
One of her Ukrainian refugee employees, Oksana Shurdova, 48, said the salary that supported her family was more important than the “Russian Grocery” sign on the door.
“My relatives know that not all Russians support the policies of the Russian government… They don’t generalize,” she said as a communist-era monument honoring Bulgarian-Soviet friendship towered over the town from a nearby hill.
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