Bulgarians urged to “see refugees through new eyes” in media campaign

Monday 24, November 2014

The innovative anti-xenophobia campaign encourages Bulgarians to “see refugees through new eyes.” “The idea (...) is to encourage people to see refugees for who they are – regular people who have fled horrific violence and persecution,” says Roland-François Weil, UNHCR’s representative in Bulgaria.

SOFIA, Bulgaria, November 24 (UNHCR) – It’s something nearly every Bulgarian can identify with: a lonely young man, far from home, writing a letter to his mother. “I just wish this emptiness would go away; not everyone accepts me,” laments the man, presumably one of two million Bulgarians who have left the country in the last three decades, leaving some seven million of their compatriots behind, many struggling financially.

As images of a typical Bulgarian country home mingle on screen with that of an indifferent bureaucrat haughtily casting aside documents, the powerful TV spot continues with the émigré’s letter --“I just wish that we could be together again” -- until the surprise ending. The letter is actually being written by “Rami,” a refugee living in Bulgaria.

The 30-second spot, which is expected to be seen by millions of Bulgarians over the next month, is part of an innovative anti-xenophobia campaign which encourages Bulgarians to “see refugees through new eyes,” a slogan that sounds even more powerful in the original.

“The idea for this campaign, the most ambitious we have ever launched here, is to encourage people to see refugees for who they are – regular people who have fled horrific violence and persecution,” says Roland-François Weil,  UNHCR’s representative in Bulgaria.

“This campaign is aimed at influencing the attitudes of the people who are not sure who refugees are,” he added. “We are trying to refocus the debate away from numbers of refugees and supposed threats, and rally moderate voices to be heard in the public debate. Too often they are drowned out by the far right.”

Last year, amid an unprecedented influx of some 9,000 asylum-seekers, mostly fleeing war in Syria, many refugees were brutally beaten and stabbed. Despite appeals for tolerance from the president and prime minister, hostility against refugees reignited in April this year when residents expelled three families from a village in central Bulgaria.

In September, protesting parents, teachers and local authorities prevented nine refugee children – including seven first-graders – from starting school. They claimed the children would not fit in and would hold back the Bulgarian pupils.

“Social research showed that Bulgarians who have lived abroad or have relatives abroad are more likely to be sympathetic to refugees,” said Ivan Hadzhivelikov of the creative agency behind the campaign, New Moment New Ideas. “This is what we wanted to play on in our ‘Letters’ campaign -- to make an emotional connection with the viewer and urge them to look at refugees differently.”

The agency donated the creative work for the campaign to UNHCR. The 30-second TV spot will air 630 times from 24 November to 31 December on two national private stations and 50 times on the public broadcaster BNT. A 60-second spot will be released on social media. The soundtrack is a 1916 classic that relates the nostalgia of Bulgarian migrants living abroad.

The TV spots are backed up by three riveting posters that will be seen in subway stations, on huge wall murals and in shopping malls across the country. One twist is replacing the eyes of the portraits with a mirror so readers of 12 leading magazines literally will see refugees with new eyes – their own.

“We hope this campaign will become a rallying point for more moderate voices in Bulgaria,” said UNHCR’s Weil. “In the longer term it is tolerant Bulgarians who will be the ones who can truly fight xenophobia in their own society.”

By Boris Cheshirkov in Sofia, Bulgaria


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