Our members on their clinic experience
Legal clinics are probably the only place where students can actually practice what they have learnt in law school. Clinics provide the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills that will be directly applicable in the young professionals’ future careers. Undoubtedly, the legal clinic is a very useful activity. Still, the Refugee Law Clinic in Sofia has been a lot more. It is the endless gratitude of our clients, bringing joy and a sense of purpose to our lives. It is the wonderful friendships which have turned out to be longer-lasting and more sincere than the usual contacts one makes in university. It may sound like a cliché, but for me the clinic is a Home, where I am always welcome and always ready to help with whatever I can. A spiritual space, the kind one rarely has the chance to encounter during their lifetime. A small office, at the same time a universe of courage and dreams of students, professors, and hundreds of clients from all over the world, who teach us a lot more, than they could ever imagine.
Master in Law, Sofia University, year of graduation 2005
Some time ago I liked very much what one person, convicted of life imprisonment, answered to the question which is the most important thing for him: “First of all I put Love. I would give my Life for Love. But because of my Freedom I would give my Love.”
About the cases in the Clinic. A lot of people came. Most of them were sincere and desperate because of the situation in their home countries. I will not forget one Russian woman, who had fled with her son because of the Chechnya’s outrages. In Bulgaria she had literally found a saving recourse – a job, a living, friends, and an environment, in which she could feel valued and free of her fears. Unfortunately she could not overcome our iron-like legal procedure for granting refugee status and she went back to Russia …
Another person, with whom I really do not know what has happened later on, is one young man from Pakistan, who was left absolutely alone in his country. His parents were dead, and his brother was killed by extremists. He himself was threatened with murder by the extremists, because he did not want to join them and to fight against the Indian troops.
The saddest part in all these stories is that these people come here, in the foreign country, and somehow get attached to everything. In the same way like when one sees salvation in something and completely devotes himself to it, with full trust and hope. Unfortunately, despite their sincerity and their sufferings, they do not manage to overcome the prejudices of the legal framework and the competent institutions.
Sofia University, 5th year Law student
I could not understand the power, which these afflicted with so much suffering people found within them, in order to continue fighting against their misery and against the absurdity of the judicial practice concerning the asylum cases. Most of my cases at the Clinic were sad, because after so much efforts and hopes, the next in succession court decision cut the way leading to the freedom and to the dignified human existence.
There used to be one boy, who had managed to go above the line – he had a refugee status, but he wanted very much to study in a university. The state bodies made everything possible to hamper him and ultimately his dream was not fulfilled …
Master in International Relations, year of graduation – 2003
I liked the idea about enriching the Clinic webpage with the impressions of previous and current clinicians very much. Reading the letter from Ionka Damyanova, I returned back in the years, some 5 years ago, when a group of International Relations students joined the initiative of Prof. Vidin to create such a Clinic, back to our study visit to Poland and the visit of our Polish colleagues to Bulgaria. I will remember my short participation at the Clinic with our first successful case from Belarus, with the family from Iran that received humanitarian status. My master thesis was also connected with the refugees – The Problems of Women in Need of International Protection. Well, my letter is not good for publishing; it is rather retrospection back in time.
I conclude my letter with the words of a friend of mine:
”God determines who walks into your life….it’s up to you to decide who you let walk away, who you let stay, and who you refuse to let go.” When there is nothing left but God that is when you find out that God is all you need.
On this web-site you are going to find real stories and thoughts inspired by our meetings with a different reality of which I didn’t know before I became a LCRI member. The people who visit the Clinic very often have made me think how fragile and uncertain the happiness is and how quickly and easily we can lose our most dear people. For me the opportunity to hear the stories of our refugees and migrants has been more than work. This has been an opportunity to meet people, who in most cases have gone through so many problems, but still have power to fight for themselves, for their families and they can still talk about what made them leave their home places. Now I look in a different way at the news from Ukraine, Armenia, and Afghanistan (I had cases from these countries), at all these people, who leave these places and many other places in order to find shelter. Of course, the lessons in Bulgarian language were the funniest part. I used to teach some of the foreigners coming to the Clinic to speak and write in Bulgarian, we even tried to sing together Bulgarian songs.
Member of the LCRI since January 2003, Master in Law
There are no useless efforts when you help a Person, even if sometimes it looks like that. Different people coming from different counties, but all of them search for the same things – a safe place for living, friends, warm treatment. They know quite well that this is not their Home, but they strongly believe that it is better than fleeing again and again.
I’ll always think of myself as a present member of the Clinic, not an ex-member and this is the reason why I’ll not put a final date for my membership. I believe that becoming a Member of LCRI is one the most inspiring and lovely things that has happened to me: at the Clinic I met young, enthusiastic, open-minded people, my lovely friends, I felt Hope and Desperation of people searching asylum, but above all, their Courage, I became more compassionate and tolerant and I learnt to appreciate Human Life.
Master in Law, year of graduation – 2005
I am born on 24 January 1983 in the city Bayla Slatina. In 2000 I was accepted as a student in the my desired major Law at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. Later I became part of the refugee law clinic. My work with the clients of the Clinic and my interaction with the colleagues changed me a lot.
The most beautiful and valuable moments of my university years are connected with the Clinic. An outstanding role for this is to be assigned to its founder – Prof. Blagoi Vidin and the Ph.D assistant Valeria Ilareva, who for all of us remains the favorite Valeria. Their knowledge, advices and support gave us confidence and united us. The character of the work itself helped to all of us to appreciate the value of the human person and the value of the freedom of the spirit.
Vladislava Petrova Stoyanova
5th year International Relations student, Faculty of Law, Sofia University
Membership in the Refugee Law Clinic – since October 2005
How did I become a member? – One of my best friends Olga became a member of the Clinic one year before me. She was constantly very enthusiastic about her work in the Clinic and very impressed by the manager – Valeria. So Olga has the main contribution to me being part of the Clinic.
We try to help people, but ultimately I found out that these people help us more than we actually help them. Through our efforts to do something we manage to reveal to ourselves who were are, what is our essence, what is in our hearts and souls, despite the fact that we are supposed to use our minds in order to provide assistance. Isn’t it true that one cannot give something that he/she does not have?
Without further trying to think so profoundly I just want so say that what the Clinic and Valeria have given to me is much more than what I have given through my work.
I’ve been a member of the Clinic since October 2004. Before that moment I had not even supposed that it existed. I read the announcement for the new academic year and decided to apply for membership. Working with the leaders of the Clinic is an inspiration. They are among the most erudite and competent persons that I’ve ever met. I hope I have acquired a scent of their knowledge, as well as of the personal example for devotion to a highly humane cause and resistance they show. The work at the Clinic was my first contact with the refugee protection field. At the beginning my interest was mainly due to the desire to help others and to be useful. Only later did I find that the refugee law was tightly connected to the domain of my University education and that working in the Clinic meant gaining precious practical experience that was different from the purely theoretical programme of my major. It appeared to me that the chance to help other people by helping and developing oneself is unique. On applying to become Clinic members most of the students do not have a clear idea of its activity but they are motivated by curiosity, enthusiasm and desire to get up to something meaningful and of use. Thus, the very idea of the existence of the Clinic lets in only the most open-minded and tolerant persons. There are people who give up after the preparatory course and do not attend the working hours with clients. Only the most valuable and tenacious stay despite all the other school obligations and the difficulties they meet during the process of working. At first the most impressive for me as a newcomer was the way all Clinic members were extremely active and successful in different types of projects and initiatives. Everybody had excellent marks in University, spoke 3- 4 or even more languages and had participated in various courses and competitions. It is an honour and pride for me to be among such kind of people.
Some people say that protection of human rights is a kind of fashion and “too much a do for nothing”. The truth is that the poorer a country is the fewer are the guaranties for the respect of one’s fundamental rights. In Bulgaria there are many examples of human rights violations, some even with fatal outcome, due to some bureaucrat’s criminal negligence. So if Bulgarian citizens, who have lived in the country all their lives, cannot protect themselves, how could immigrants? They have to deal not only with loneliness, the unknown customs and language, the lack of friends and relatives who could help them; they must face a whole army of bureaucrats, who decide their destiny without really caring about them. It’s easier to decide the fate of a “paper” than that of a living person. In my opinion the main problem of refugees and asylum seekers in Bulgaria is the lack of consciousness about them. Most people don’t even know they exist. The refugee issues must be made public issues – that’s the only way to deal with slow bureaucracy, both in administration and in court; and above all – to deal with random detentions, which are the gravest problem. I am going to tell you the story of a the refugee named M., because during his stay in Bulgaria he faced all the problems a refugee can possibly face. Up to now that story has no happy ending. Let us hope that when it does, that fact will herald better conditions for refugees and asylum seekers in Bulgaria.
I first met M. at the immigrants detention center in Drujba, Sofia. He had spent more than six months there. I had the immediate desire to help that man. I could see he was suffering, but he never complained. He was unusually polite, even the guards of the detention center seemed to like him and told me that he was a man that deserved “to go out”. I could understand right away that he was an intelligent man with a fine soul and that the latter made it even harder for him to be deprived of his most precious possession – his freedom. I could feel that he had just a little more strength before breaking down; he had been through so much. So I decided to learn more about him.
If there is something one doesn’t choose in one’s life, that is where to be born. M. was happy to be born in the family of an intellectual, which meant a possibility to develop his natural intelligence. However he was unlucky to be born in a conflict-torn country and that meant he had to share his unfortunate country’s fate. M.’s father was a member of the Communist Party /People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan/. He received his university degree in Moscow and then worked in a science institute in Kabul. At that time (the end of the 80-ies) M. was studying at the University of Kabul and also was a member of the Communist Party. Life seemed to be all right then.
Everything changed in 1992 when the Russian army withdrew from Afghanistan. The Mujahidin destroyed the institute where M.’s father worked and started harassing many of the intellectuals. M.’s father was forced to flee to Pakistan, where he subsequently died. The whole family dispersed. M.’s mother went to Moscow, his sister – to Belgium and then to Germany, his cousin – to Holland. However M. tried to arrange his life in his homeland. For almost ten years he refused to believe that his country had become a hostile place for him. During that period he was subjected to all kinds of inhumane treatment, both physical and psychological. He was unlawfully detained, he was shot, and his right arm was broken. During one of the detentions he was hit on the head with a paddle. His head was broken but he didn’t receive medical aid for several hours. Ever since that incident he has been having a constant headache. After a medical examination in Bulgaria it became clear that his occiput and upper part of the spine were damaged and a surgical intervention was necessary (which hasn’t been realized yet). M. was harassed not only because he was a member of the Communist Party, but also because while the Mujahidin organized the resistance against the Russian occupation, people like him were studying in the University of Kabul and did not help the resistance. The Mujahidin wanted to punish the “collaborators” and to put a hand on their property. Another reason for persecution was the fact that M. was practicing martial arts, whose philosophy differs in some aspects from the prescriptions of the Koran.
Having suffered persecution for many years and having realized he had no future in his homeland, M. decided to leave Afghanistan. But that was not the end of his sufferings. He arrived in Bulgaria on the 01.08.2001 and immediately applied for protection before the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) – the organ empowered to give refugee and humanitarian status. He was granted humanitarian status for a period of one year because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. However when the year was over, his humanitarian status was not continued. On 10.12.2003 SAR conducted another interview with him and decided that he should be returned to Afghanistan. Their arguments were that since the year of 2003 Afghanistan is considered a “safe country”. Moreover, according to SAR’s decision, “M. was persecuted by the Mujahidin who no longer rule in the country”. In reality however the Mujahidin are still influential in Afghanistan – according to The ICG Briefing of 2 June 2005 “former mujahidin leaders, whose vote base is limited to their own ethnic groups and regions, lead many of the parties that are registered or seeking registration”. Human Rights Watch further notes that “some factions changed their party names for registration purposes, possibly to avoid running afoul of the law. Most members of Jamiat-e Islami (Jamiat), for instance, a mujahidin military force, which fought against the Soviet occupation, are now organized as the political party Nehzat-e Melli”. SAR quoted the Bonn Agreement as a proof that there was a democratic regime in Afghanistan. It is obvious that all of these arguments are too general and do not take into consideration the individual particularities of the case. The Bonn agreement is not a sufficient proof for the stability of the regime in Afghanistan. According to the studies of many government and non-government organizations Afghanistan is not a safe country as the legitimate state organs are too weak to control the whole of it. The bigger part of the country is controlled by war leaders. The Government has no entire control even over the capital – Kabul. The recent clashes, more than three years after the end of the war, show clearly that Afghanistan is anything but a stable and safe country.
These are the logical arguments in favor of M., those that go before SAR and the court. But if we think about it, how can you force a person to return to a country where he was subjected to violence? Isn’t it a matter of personal choice to go back to a place, related to so many painful memories? If there was individual approach in dealing with refugee cases, I am quite sure that M.’s decision would have been different. All his relatives, who have similar stories, have more or less arranged their status in the countries where they live. But things are much more complicated in Bulgaria. Because SAR has the practice to reject asylum seekers’ claims. The overloaded courts have the practice, after several months and sometimes more than a year, to reject appeals of asylum seekers and confirm SAR’s decisions. Lawyers have the practice to ask foreigners thousands of leva for trials, which are preliminarily lost. And the poor refugees have to combat on their own all those practices, i.e. the whole soulless bureaucratic machine of the country. And that is something almost impossible even for Bulgarian citizens. The real problem is that nnnnnno one cares about refugees; no one wants to help them. Well, at least not State institutions. Otherwise they wouldn’t be condemning people so lightly. But we must admit that it is easier to write “NO” on a piece of paper than to have to face a person and see the despair in their eyes. I guess that is why institutions always prefer the “written form”. This is how bureaucracy works. Yet, refugees have nothing but their fight left and hope is their unique weapon.
Thus, M. was condemned to become an illegal immigrant. The narrow-mindedness of State officials forced him to break the law by remaining in Bulgaria. We, as people who have all their papers in order, cannot even imagine how difficult it is to live without documents. You can’t buy something more expensive than food, you can’t have a bank account, you can’t even go to the disco. Your heart jumps every time you see a police officer, because he might ask you to show him your documents, which you don’t have. Then you could try to cover the situation by saying that you are under some status determination procedure (which is very probable with all that bureaucracy), but most probably you will be detained.
Still, in spite of the insecurity of being illegal, M. seemed to arrange his life in Bulgaria well. He found a job as a martial arts tutor, he found friends who helped him in everyday life. He learned some Bulgarian. It turns out that you can always find a way as long as you have your freedom. But what happens if even your freedom is taken away from you? Isn’t that too much? Unfortunately, that is what happened to M.. He was detained in November 2005 and has lived in detention centers ever since – almost a year now. And here we come to the most acute problem related to refugees – the detention issue. According to the law, illegal immigrants can be detained if there is reason to believe that they will otherwise run away. It must be clear that they are not criminals; the detention is just a measure that must help their extradition from the country. However there is a reasonable period of time after which (as deportation is not effectuated) detention becomes illegal and a serious violation of the right to freedom. Interpretation of the different sources of law shows that that reasonable period is six months. In reality however there are obstacles to the deportation and instead of being released (as the law suggests) refugees are kept in detention for months, even years, before being released or taken out of the country. The practice is such that once you get in a detention center, it is almost impossible to get out. Soon after his detention (14.11.2005) M. filed a claim for his release but, according to “the practice”, it was rejected. He turned to every possible institution, but his efforts have given no result yet. Because bureaucracy has its own rules, which are so complicated that sometimes strange paradoxes occur. In M.’s case after he received the refusal to his claim he appealed it to the Sofia City Court, which, after several months of reflection, decided that the appeal was not admissible because M. had submitted his claim to the wrong institution – the head of the respective police section and not the head of the Migration directorate. Still, it was an official from the Migration directorate who had told him explicitly to turn to that particular institution. Thus, it turned out that not only the procedure was complicated, but also that the officials themselves were not acquainted with it! What is tragic is that in the case of detention due to ignorance, indifference and wrong practice people are deprived of their most precious – their freedom.
Thus it becomes clear that a detainee could very difficultly get out following the normal procedure; he would get lost in the infinity of procedures going on and on without end. Getting out becomes a real miracle but the poor souls have no other option but to believe in miracles. Of course, there are cases when justice triumphs but usually those are cases that have (in one way or another) received publicity. And that is one more thing that shows that the way to solve refugee problems is by getting more people engaged and by copying with anonymity and indifference.
The case of M. is still not solved. He was moved to a new detention center – one with better conditions, as they say. But “better conditions” don’t give freedom back, do they? Detention is slowly destroying him – both physically and psychologically. Physically, because he cannot receive proper medical treatment while his status is unclear; psychologically, because a spiritual man like him could not live behind prison walls. In one interview he once said that his soul was dead. And he is not a person that would say such words lightly…
I think there is hope that M.’s miseries will end soon. Bulgarian society is slowly becoming aware of refugee issues. M. himself was interviewed twice by a very popular television and the interviews were shown in primetime. He is also awaiting a court hearing before the Sofia City Court with regard to his arbitrary detention. So I guess it is just a matter of time… But how much time does M. still have? One day in detention is not equal to one day “outside”, especially for a fine soul like him. Let us hope justice does not come too late…when it is no longer needed.
Clinic’s member since April 2001
Master in International Relations, Lawyer, PhD Researcher in International Public Law
My students and the clients at the Clinic often say that the Clinic and my participation there have changed their lives for good. But I’ve been thinking how they have changed me: I’ve learned to appreciate my freedom, my peace and safety, my shelter and food, my family and friends … But most importantly, here I’ve learned the meaning of the word “RESPONSIBILITY” – you start to look at your actions in a different way after you’ve felt what it is like to be responsible for another person’s life.