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The Opportunities and Challenges of Migration: The 2017 Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Bulgaria

In July 2017, sixteen American high schools teachers who teach subjects ranging from history to civics to special education to literature spent a month in Bulgaria as part of the Fulbright Hays Summer Seminar “Bulgaria in the Context of Migration and Challenges to European Cohesion,” organized by the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission. Funded by the US Department of Education, the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar program provides short-term study and travel seminars abroad for U.S. educators in the social sciences and humanities for the purpose of improving their understanding and knowledge of the peoples and cultures of other countries. Topics and host countries of the seminars vary from year to year – in 2017, Bulgaria, Chile and Thailand were the featured countries.

The 2017 Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Bulgaria introduced participants to the country’s rich cultural and political history, exploring how its past affects its current national identity. Through meetings with prominent scholars, NGO representatives, government representatives, artists and members of civil society, seminar participants investigated the country’s historical and contemporary relationship with the EU, NATO, Russia, and Turkey and how this has created opportunities and challenges for Bulgaria’s European integration.

Because Bulgaria is an EU border state on the frontlines of the recent refugee and migrant crisis, we discussed the country’s strategies for dealing with the influx of newcomers that has challenged regional and European stability. The seminar also discussed migration in a broader sense, not only addressing refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, but also Bulgarian emigration to the EU and US for educational and employment opportunities. Lecturers examined how the “brain drain” of more than a million of Bulgarians to the US and Europe has had a profound effect on the country demographically, economically, educationally, and culturally, while participants explored how Bulgarians experience immigration on a personal level through contemporary films and literature.

The seminar kicked off at the University of Chicago, where the two-day pre-departure orientation offered a crash course in Bulgarian history and culture, as well as a general introduction to the current refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. Since Chicago is the “Bulgarian capital of the US,” participants also met with prominent Bulgarian immigrants from all walks of life and who had arrived in America at different times and for different reasons. The Fulbright-Hays group visited a Bulgarian church, had a feast at a local Bulgarian restaurant hosted by Bulgarian Consul General in Chicago Ivan Anchev, and learned to dance their first horo!

After this introduction, seminar participants were well-prepared to dive into the realities of Bulgarian life – after a short stay in Sofia and an intensive schedule of lectures, tours and cultural events, the group set off for Veliko Tarnovo, Varna and Burgas, where they visited historical and cultural sites and enjoyed lectures by local scholars, artists and NGO activists. After learning so much about migration in theory, the group spent a day in the Harmanlii refugee camp, where they helped give English lessons to children and talked to Syrian and Afghan youngsters about their experiences. Back in Sofia, their first-hand experiences with asylum seekers were put into broader context during a day-long seminar on refugee and migration issues that featured speakers from the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, the Bulgarian Red Cross and other scholars, journalists and NGO representatives.

Since the discussion of migration inevitably brings up the topic of borders, the Fulbright-Hays group hopped across Bulgaria’s southern border with Greece and spent four days in the Thessaloniki area exploring how the refugee crisis has played out there and comparing the differences and similarities to the Bulgarian experience. Our wonderful hosts from the Greek Fulbright Commission, in addition to organizing a delicious and fascinating program that introduced us to Greek culture, history and cuisine, also arranged for a visit to the Diavata refugee camp to tour the facility, talk with staff and observe lessons.

The seminar finished with a trip to the lovely and historic city of Plovdiv, where participants met with city officials, explored the city’s impressive past and vibrant present, and were treated to a spectacular performance by the folk music and dance ensemble of the Academy of Dance, Music and Visual Arts in Plovdiv. Everywhere the group went, local Bulgarians were interested in finding out more about the American teachers’ work and their impressions of Bulgaria. The largest national television network, bTV, even put together a report on the Fulbright-Hays seminar:

Upon returning to Sofia, all 16 participants gave presentations about their experience and how they intend to incorporate their new knowledge into their school curriculums, which will introduce hundreds of American high school students to aspects of Bulgarian culture. The Bulgarian Fulbright Commission would like to thank our partners at the Department of Education, the University of Chicago, the Greek Fulbright Commission and our Bulgarian lecturers and presenters for helping make the 2017 Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Bulgaria a success!