According to resident graffiti, Druzhba is a “state of mind.” It is also where I live. My building is number 271 of many more, in the Soviet-based equality housing complex “Druzhba-2.” It stands on the bleak industrial outskirts of the Bulgarian Capital, Sofia. In the background sits Vitosha, a massive snow covered peak dotted with springs that are said to run magical waters, capable of bringing sight to the blind.
When Soviet engineers designed this series of identical housing blocks in the early 1980s, the towering concrete structures – collectively named after the Bulgarian word for soviet-style comradeship – were to serve as a testament to the strategic fraternity of socialist Eastern Europe. The project boasted centralized heating and the convenience of elevators for fleets of working families assigned to live and work in Sofia. Now the courtyard is swallowing a rusting communal playground and the crumbling building lacks the electrical power to light the stairwell, let alone pull an elevator. The massive central heating pipes, spreading like umbilical lines from a distant turbine, lay in decaying nests of their own insulation, having long since lost the maintenance of communism to the costs of capitalism.
Through the window of my one-bedroom apartment I watch workers level land for mega-outlet stores—hallmarks of Bulgaria’s recent European Union membership — which lure residents of Druzhba with wall-mount flat screens and Costco-style value. They are a conspicuous reminder of western capitalism in a neighborhood in which I’ve never heard English spoken, even, sometimes for weeks at a time, by myself. The contrast to Druzhba is stark.
I came here to explore another inevitable consequence of “Europeanization”: the tightening of external borders. Bulgaria and Greece share the only overland border linking Europe to the Middle East, via Turkey; refugees entering Bulgaria are demonized as a “burden” to the state. Afghans, Iraqis, Tunisians, Congolese, Iranians, Turks, and more wait in detention centers, without legal recourse, for political winds to determine their fates. Some detainees are deported to distant countries, only to journey back again. Others meet swift ends by vengeful hands upon return to countries rightfully fled. Still others are imprisoned for years on end, trapped in the bureaucratic negotiation of their political identities.
As I leave my apartment, I pass Roma children who live in my stairwell, surrounded by swastikas and other graffiti remnants of the nationalist 1980s. They play with me, hitting all the elevator buttons and hiding out under the mailboxes. I walk the streets aware of the American passport in my pocket—I could be, and have been, detained without it—and trace the lines on the sky left by airlines carrying others like myself, those of us who travel by privilege and opportunity. I get on my tram, bound for the Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants, where eighteen volunteers—all students under the age of 25—draft legal defenses for migrant detainees to be submitted by the organization’s only lawyer. These eighteen have gotten detainees released and forced laws to be struck down; they’ve taken Bulgaria to the European Court of Human Rights and activated international campaigns against Bulgarian detention. The work can both overwhelm and re-affirm the volunteers, the lawyer, and me; some days it feels as if only we are trying to hold back a tide of political nationalism expressly manifested through identity. Twenty of us is not enough.
At the end of my day I am greeted by my neighbor Tzetska, an affable and mostly toothless grandmother, who presents new elements of her household every time we meet, though we share no common language. Today she grinningly thrusts a watermelon-sized hedgehog towards me, her hands cushioned with oven mitts. At her side is the blind and graying dachshund that walks her to market every day from memory. His feet trace the concrete’s cartography, swollen and cracked where wild trees and grasses slowly disassemble the settlement above, like a thousand miniature volcanic eruptions.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Make/Shift magazine.