Bulgarians urged to "see refugees through new eyes" in media campaign

Imaginative TV spots help fight discrimination against refugees in Bulgaria by encouraging viewers to imagine themselves isolated and far from home.

An anti-xenophobia campaign launched today in Bulgaria will urge people to "look at refugees with different eyes." This is one of three posters that will be seen nationwide in shopping malls. A similar image will appear in magazines, with a mirror over the eyes, so the reader will literally see refugees with new eyes – their own.   © UNHCR 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, who at first comes across as being one of the 2 million Bulgarians who have left the country in the last three decades, leaving some 7 million of their compatriots behind, many struggling financially.

As images of a typical Bulgarian country home mingle on screen with that of a bureaucrat haughtily casting aside documents, the powerful TV spot continues with the 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, launched today and 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 in the middle 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 attacked. Despite appeals for tolerance from the president and prime minister, hostility against refugees reignited in April, when residents expelled three families from a village in central Bulgaria.

In September, protesting parents, teachers and local authorities prevented nine refugee children 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 TV spot will run from today until December 31 on two private stations and 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 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