Mark Saey | Civiclab

3.2. Interviews

To conduct the interviews (15 in total) we went to several cities and towns and received help from two professional organizations: vzw El Ele and Intercultureel Netwerk Gent). Both had close contacts with undocumented migrants. We present them in two short documentary parts. We interviewed several days, sometimes in the weekends. The students helped with many things in both organizations, some could easily have done an internship there. They had to make sure, well prepared in the language courses, to use their learned knowledge during the interviews and later in their written reports – many of which could easily have counted as “research competency” or your classic thesis. Rather than further expound things theoretically we publish one such interview in film and text.

‘(…) if a continent is serious about being a fortress …’

Angelika Gaillaert, Rob Groené en Julie De Jonghe

‘… it also has to invite one or two poor countries within its walls, because somebody has to do the dirty work and heavy lifting.’

N. Klein, quoted in: Wildemeersch D. et al. (eds.) (2005): Active Citizenship and Multiple Identities in Europe, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

To prepare I had looked up some information about his country of origin, Bulgaria. I collected some stuff (food, clothes) to give Nasco in exchange for the interview he wanted to help us with. I thought the film crew was going to be there that first day but for some reason they would be there only the second day, somewhere the following week. My dad drove us to the meeting point. I appreciated him doing this for us. Together with Rob, Julie, Mark and a translator – who wanted to remain unknown – we left for our adventure. When I taught things over in the car I got nervous and couldn’t sit still.

We drove until we reached a big, somewhat wild terrain that lay behind a bridge under construction. It was clearly not well taken care of. In this half wilderness, hidden in the outer circle of Ghent, we saw here and there some shags and garden houses separated the one form the other in a way you might think they were inhabited. After a while we heard voices coming out the bushes, voices we didn’t understand. Apparently we weren’t the only ones there. I got a little scared and felt cold. Winter was still with us. We continued on a muddy path that didn’t seem to end. Many chickens crossed our way. The further we got the more desolate and worse the shags. “Yes! Look! They are inhabited!” one of us shouted. What kind of place was this? Next to a possibly fifty years old caravan stood a sign “Thanks for stealing my flowerpots”. When our shoes were all dirty we stopped in front of two ancient train wagons that had been hidden from sight by a row of trees and bushes. How these wagons got here was a mystery. Around them lay lots of garbage and waste. Bottles, towels, shoes, boxes, … all rotten and worn out. The wagons were incredibly rusty.

“Here we are” Nick said. Nick was the coordinator of the food bank at vzw El Ele. Behind me I heard Rob say: “What?! Here?” We looked around but Nasco, the Bulgarian we were supposed to interview was nowhere to be found. “Now what?” A Turkish guy now was looking at our group from some distance. He quickly disappeared when tried to ask him if he knew where Nasco was.

Nick took a look in one of the wagons. He saw there was somebody sleeping in there and calmly woke him. He was a friend of Nasco. Nasco himself we wouldn’t meet that day – but he would be there the next day we came with the film crew. The translator asked the man if he also was Bulgarian, told him the reason of our visit and asked if he would be willing to answer our questions. Half awake he agreed. After presenting ourselves I gave him the coat I brought. Clearly happy with this gift he started to talk to our translator. He wore old clothes and looked some 40 years old. Later we understood he just had his 25th birthday.

Quickly we set up the scene for our interview. Rob would ask the questions, Julie found a chair or something looking like a chair and sat down in the dirt to take notes. I would record the interview on tape and coordinate. My dad and Nick watched from a distance while Mark too k pictures and here and there helped us out with questions. Much of what Nasco told got lost in translation. But we got that lived in Turgoste, has a family, and in Bulgaria worked in construction for a very poor wage of just a couple hundred euros. A year ago he lost his job and saw no way out anymore. Like so many other Bulgarians he fled the country in search of a better life.

We knew from our study of the case that in Bulgaria there still is a lot of corruption, especially in the legal system, and that there many complaints of breaches of human rights by police forces. These last years the economic condition of the country is improving slightly, as we concluded from the Country Reports every interview team had to consult. But the consequences of the conditions put to economic policy by the World Bank and the IMF still hurt the population. Tussen Zwart en Wit. Werervaringen van Bulgaren in het Gentse (2007 ; Between Black and White. Work experiences of Bulgarians in Ghent), a report made by Intercultural Network Ghent, puts it this way: “These conditions were severe: far reaching privatizations of state properties, a very strict budget control and promises to liberalize and further privatize companies. Currency has stabilized but the people suffered the consequences of these measures. There was hardly any money to invest in social programs or poverty reduction. A quarter of the Bulgarian people still live below the poverty line.” An article in the newspaper De Morgen of January 2nd this year noted that Bulgaria, like Romania, has since 1989 seen over 10% of its population leave the country.

Turgay went with some friends in a mini-van to Belgium. “We drove through Romania, Hungary, then through Austria and Germany, a very long drive. Luckily without too many problems. We came to Belgium because we knew there were other Bulgarians and lots of Turkish people here with whom we could speak our language. When we arrived we asked around for a place to stay the night. Eventually we ended up here. This must be some five months ago now. Whole of winter we’ve been here. We don’t have permanent access to water, no electricity nor heating. The other wagon we use as an improvised bathroom and toilet. During the night I can stand the cold thanks to a warm blanket, but just barely. It’s hard to survive here. A regular job I can’t find. Sometimes I can do chores but I’m paid very little for that. Those chores I find in Turkish pubs where bosses come look for people they can use for one day or sometimes more.”

Legally speaking Turgay is not a refugee. Since Bulgaria became an official member of the EU in 2007. Before, Bulgarians tried to get a legal residence via the asylum procedure. But since the end of the Cold War that door is closed. From that moment on Bulgaria was, like all other former communist countries, labeled as a stable country of origin. Although that blatantly wrong conception reduced the number of asylum applicants, it didn’t stop the migration from those countries. Since that is far more dependent on the misery in the countries of origin, and the demand for cheap labor in the Western countries, than on any sort of border controls. The ING report quotes a man who came to Belgium some years ago: “In Bulgaria I worked in the sector of heavy metals, a very hard and dirty job, always in very hot temperatures. I also worked night shifts. I worked three days at night, then two days off, than three days in the morning, then two days off, like that. I made 300 leva (150 euros) per month. Wages are still the same but life gets more expensive. Electricity and food are more expensive every month. How can we live like that? That’s why people flee to other countries.”

Bulgarian migration joined the rest of the clandestine migration. Together with those who still try to get their stay regularized the clandestine labor migrants would over the last decade erect a social network. This helped newcomers in their daily struggle to survive here. In the same report a woman says: “Some people offered me work but I didn’t accept it because I didn’t trust those people. In some cases you can have a job, but since you don’t have papers, your boss can’t legally hire you. That’s why I can’t work for just any. First there is the risk I will work many hours for way too little money, second it’s no exception I will not be paid at all.”

With membership of the EU there now is the possibility for legal work for Bulgarians. But like most old members, Belgium created a transitional period for migrants coming from the new member countries, which can last still a number of years (normally until December 31st 2011). Their stay and employment were subjugated to certain limits and conditions, also in Belgium.

A Bulgarian can, after proven his identity to receive a declaration of arrival, get a legal stay document for three months. Can he find a job in that period then he can receive a work permit B if his employer asks for it. In the unemployment center VDAB he can’t (unless he is reuniting his already legally staying family) list himself as looking for a job since he is not allowed to work in every sector of the labor market. He can only work in sectors with a high demand for labor. This has the consequence he can’t get any job trainings or normal employment-finding aid. If he wants to starts a business he doesn’t need a permit B but gets a temporary legal stay of five months, a “purple card”. If he can’t prove to have started his activities in that period he will be ordered to leave the country. Some want to return their purple card before the end of the period because they found out that it doesn’t permit them to work for wages or their legal residence excludes them from the right to urgent (free) medical aid. They who can start up their activities receive a “blue card”, a permanent legal stay document. Mostly these activities are unskilled like delivering papers or toilet exploitation. Since for these they don’t need a company number or degree in business management. But the little income those activities make them and the quickly acquired debt that comes along with it create the high risk of not being able to pay for the basic necessities. If they stop their activities they cannot receive an income through the poverty channels.

In short, finding a regular job, getting a permanent legal stay document and receiving something like a minimum income, are in spite of some good initiatives taken by the city no easy things at all for Bulgarians in Belgium, who number in the 2000 in Ghent alone.

Mark Saey | Met Bulgaren | Civiclab

This explains why Turgay could end up in these incredible circumstances. And it explains why like so many undocumented migrants he is entirely dependent on illegal jobs and always scared of being arrested and deported. “A couple of months ago some policemen saw us here. They said we could not work here, we had no right. But they didn’t arrest us. We haven’t seen them anymore and we stayed. Sometimes we work, two days, three days, than some day not. We have to live don’t we? But we’re not always paid … Nasco could work on a field some days ago. Two days work for 20euro. But now he is still waiting for this money … If they send us back home we’ll simply return. There is too much poverty and unemployment in Bulgaria. And when it will become easier for Bulgarians to find a job elsewhere then I think the whole country will soon be empty. Bulgaria got lots of money from the EU but this is not used to help the people or to open new factories, it simply gets stuck in the hands of politicians or disappears into the pockets of employers. Nobody leaves his country for fun. Belgium is a rich country, there has to be work here. We will get lucky one day, no?”

It was striking how stoic Turgay told us his story. When the interview was over, we could take a look in the wagon. Inside we saw an old kitchen table and some broken plastic chairs around it, a mattress for two people with some blankets on it and lots of plastic bags with all kinds of little things in them. It was dark and smelled bad in this wagon. Everything in a bad condition. How was this possible? Yes, we knew how, but still. Why didn’t people of this neighborhood help them out? Why can’t they get a job, do they lack a decent roof over their heads? Those are human rights no? I had to think of another refugee in a short film: “Europe is the university of individualism and loneliness.”

Mark, who went looking in the other wagon, now told us it was time to return. We packed our stuff, gave Turgay the money we collected for this interview and said our goodbyes. I thought my boyfriend needed to see all of this so I quickly took some pictures with my cellphone before getting in the car.

I didn’t feel too good in the car. It felt bad and sad to leave Turgay behind and to return to our luxury life where in the evenings we can eat our warm dinner and sit comfortably and cozy in front of the TV. I wonder what Turgay will do this evening. Is he alone? Will he survive the night?” (JWW, p.254-260)

No need to say the interviews put the students under some stress. But having received a global perspective and sufficient knowledge to understand what happened with and around them they could master the often emotionally demanding situations. That also was the prerequisite to expand their ethic of attachment beyond national borders. The interviews – face to face with the wretched of the earth – were the most acrid way in which their project connected their value-system to the meaning of those situations as parts of one unequal and global society. More than any other part the adventurous interviews on the terrain made it clear to them that globalization and human rights are no distant or abstract notions, but deserve a place in the forefront of their worldview – so that they could integrate their understanding in the political attitude of the world citizen.