SOFIA, Bulgaria, January 8 (UNHCR) – Located beside a busy farmers market in the Krasno Selo quarter of Sofia, the “Persia” beauty salon is a cozy and inviting place where customers can be primped, pampered and groomed with Middle Eastern hospitality.
Until recently, the newly opened Persia, owned by Iranian-born Mehdi Mossadeghpor, aged 33, and his 28-year-old wife Beri, was a success story of refugee integration. But barely six months after opening its doors, the salon has become a cautionary tale about the challenges of integration, and the efficiency of the programmes meant to facilitate it.
Mehdi and his wife have experienced many challenges in launching their small salon. Some of their trials underscore the harsh realities of small-scale entrepreneurship in eastern Europe. But other difficulties stem from delays and inefficiencies in the very programmes devised to help people like Mehdi and Beri become self-sufficient.
Independence is what Mehdi has aspired to ever since arriving in Bulgaria in 2004, after his political beliefs made it dangerous for him to continue living in his birthplace of Iran. Educated as an architect, Mehdi discarded his old profession when he realized how much easier it would be to find work as a hairdresser.
Two months after setting down in Bulgaria he was apprenticing in a salon. “I learned quickly,” he said, “and before long I was working on my own.”
But Mehdi’s life changed when confronting the bureaucracy of refugee integration. Standing in line in Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees was a tiring and endless ordeal until one afternoon in 2012 when he found himself waiting beside a young woman who had recently arrived from Iran.
He and Beri were married a short time later, and Beri, taking her husband’s lead, trained to be a beautician. Opening a salon was a natural next step for the couple, but the prospect of launching one seemed only a fantasy until Mehdi learned of a European Union (EU) funding scheme for business start-ups offered through the Bulgarian National Employment Agency.
Mehdi saw the scheme as the best way to launch his family business. He and Beri applied to the fund for 10,000 euros in support and, after it was approved, they immediately set to work. They found a great location and, using the initial 2,000 euro payment, began renovating and equipping the space.
When they spent the first of their EU payment, they supplemented their budget with loans from friends, promising to repay these obligations once the bulk of their funds came through. But the remainder of these funds did not come, leaving the couple desperately short of cash, and in debt.
Mehdi appealed to the National Employment Agency. “I ran from office to office,” he recalled. “I gathered a ton of documents, but they still haven’t sent me the rest of the money.” Mehdi blames bureaucratic slowness for the delays.
Officials reportedly held up payment of the second instalment of EU funds after ruling that photos Mehdi had sent of purchased equipment were unclear; Mehdi responded by sending other pictures, but the controversy resulted in an inexplicable three-month delay in processing his paperwork.
“The bureaucracy is strangling us,” he said. “They could have sent the money much faster, but they didn’t care enough.” By early November, the second instalment had been approved, but the bank transfer had yet to be made.
Roland Francois-Weil, UNHCR’s representative in Bulgaria, believes that helping refugees to integrate is beneficial to the host country. Refugees bring many skills and talents as they look to start a new life and build a future for themselves and their families. “All can and will contribute to their host country if given the chance,” Francois-Weil said.
But with Bulgaria’s refugee agency overwhelmed, Mehdi, Beri and others like them live at the mercy of a sluggish bureaucracy and a fickle economy. “My next move,” he said, “is to start calling people from the street with the words: ‘Hey, come and let me cut your hair!'” Given the setbacks they have faced so far, this is a strategy that might just work.
By Krasimir Yankov in Sofia, Bulgaria