As we mark five years after Europe’s refugee crisis, we revisit our episode with Boris Cheshirkov, who worked for UNHCR as a spokesperson in his native Bulgaria when thousands of refugees were arriving at the border. It was an extremely tense time, testing European solidarity to its limits - bringing out the best of humanity and also the worst.Anti-refugee feeling was running high. In Bulgaria, an asylum seeker was shot dead at the border. But when Boris spoke out against the violence, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country. Boris now serves in Greece, where refugees remain in limbo.
Danger comes in many forms for people who work in the service of refugees. Sometimes the threat can be bombs or shelling in a faraway land. But sometimes they find themselves in danger where they least expect it – at home.
“There were others who were saying ‘Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country.’ There were others that were just wishful thinking: ‘You will get cancer and die tomorrow. Your family is cursed. We will find you. We will make you disappear’.”
Boris Cheshirkov worked for UNHCR as a spokesperson in his native Bulgaria during Europe’s refugee crisis – when thousands of refugees were arriving at the border. It was an extremely tense time. Countries throughout Europe seemed at a loss at how to cope with the flow of desperate people. Anti-refugee feeling was running high. In Bulgaria, an asylum seeker was shot dead at the border. But when Boris spoke out against the violence, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country.
Edited transcript: Boris Cheshirkov
Melissa Fleming (MF): Boris and I are in the same profession. We communicate on behalf of refugees and I have had a lot of hate directed towards me, but nothing like the attacks that Boris faced online. Attacks that were so frightening that he had to leave the country and yet he refused to let the haters stop him.
Danger comes in many forms for my colleagues who work in the service of refugees. Sometimes the threat can be bombs or shelling in a faraway land. But sometimes you find yourself in danger where you least expect it – at home.
Boris Cheshirkov (BC): There were others who were saying “Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country.” There were others that were just wishful thinking: “You will get cancer and die tomorrow. Your family is cursed. We will find you. We will make you disappear. That I would be soon having acid thrown in my face.”
MF: My colleague Boris Cheshirkov worked for UNHCR as a spokesperson in his native Bulgaria from 2013 to 2015, during Europe’s refugee crisis – when thousands of refugees were arriving at the border. It was an extremely tense time. Countries throughout Europe seemed at a loss at how to cope with the flow of desperate people. Anti-refugee feeling was running high across the region. In Bulgaria, an asylum seeker was shot dead at the border. But when Boris spoke out against the violence, he himself became the target of a virulent online hate campaign. The threats were so severe he had to leave his country.
I am Melissa Fleming. This is Awake at Night.
BC: We started to see more people coming through as the war in Syria broke out. Quite simply, more Syrian families started to come to the country. In the summer and autumn of 2013, we had 10,000 people come in a matter of weeks.
MF: How did that affect your work?
BC: It completely changed my life. I remember very vividly. I was on vacation at the Black Sea. It was late August when I received a phone call from the Bulgarian news agency. They asked me: “Can you confirm that five hundred people have just arrived at the land border between Turkey and Bulgaria?” And they had in fact arrived. Five hundred people most of whom were Syrian families who had just come through, in a specific area. We got in a car, we traveled to the border facility and what we saw was shocking because we had a group of people in a field, in a fenced area, in front of a small facility from maybe the 1950s, without water, without food, nursing babies without toiletries, without any sort of support structure.
MF: The system was completely overwhelmed.
BC: It was overwhelmed in a day. And then the next day we had 300 more come through. By the end of the week it was a couple of thousand. Within the months of September and October, 10,000 people had come through and had completely overwhelmed the system, and the Bulgarian state was unprepared. People couldn’t be housed anywhere so they were thrown into these abandoned military barracks that weren’t converted at all. So they were just locked in, behind fences, in something that had been abandoned years, if not decades ago, without running water, without electricity. In the first days, only the Red Cross was dropping off bags with one bottle of water, a can of beans and some tuna fish. That was all the people got for days, and it was horrific. The first rains were coming in. People were living in muddied fields. Then the military provided military style tents which were fit for the summer but not for the coming winter. And, you know, it was extraordinary. That meant that as I was working with the media in communications, I started to do daily statements responding to queries to dozens of media which I had never done before.
MF: So this is probably when your name started getting out and you started to become a recognized public figure in Bulgaria?
BC: Yes. The backlash was extraordinary, publicly and politically. People were saying: “No we can’t host these people. They they’re going to change the nature of our society. They’re going to overrun us”. And that drove UNHCR to engage in the debate to be more visible. And that meant that I was the one that started to appear in front of cameras, that started to go to morning programs and that became my daily reality.
MF: You were a Bulgarian citizen but you went on television as the voice of UNHCR defending refugee rights and refugee dignity. How did that feel?
BC: Well, I thought that everybody was completely unreasonable, that they were probably out of their minds. How could they react in the way that they were? It took me a long while to process and I think I’m still trying to grasp why people react negatively to the idea of receiving refugees. I was surprised more than anything. I thought it was common sense that when people are fleeing war and are coming to our country, we need to help them. It’s black and white. There can’t be two opinions. You have to help those that are coming in. So it made no sense that others would want to stop them at the border, even with the use of force, or that a fence would be built. It made absolutely no sense to me. And because in Bulgaria civil society to this day is not very strong, UNHCR was, in a way, the only pro-refugee voice. Everyone else, regardless of creed or political persuasion, was against refugees.
MF: This became particularly acute in 2015, a couple of years later, when even more refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan came through Greece and through Turkey to Bulgaria. There was an incident that would really affect you in October 2015. Can you describe that?
BC: I got a call from the Sofia’s correspondent of Agence France-Press, in the middle of the night. The phone woke me, it was maybe 02:30 in the morning and she asked me: “Can you confirm the reports that are coming out in the media?” I had no idea what was coming out. I had gone to sleep. So I said: “Well let me check what it is and I’ll come back to you immediately”. So I started to open up the news and it was there.
News Bulletin: “For the first time in the current crisis a refugee attempting to find shelter in Europe has been shot and killed”.
BC: A border guard had killed and Afghan man. A group of Afghans and other single men had come into Bulgaria in the middle of the night. And there was an altercation.
MF: And there was one dead.
BC: The man had died. A man had been shot dead. So I started calling colleagues waking them up in the middle of the night, waking up partners who were present in the border area, trying to find out more, trying to get more news reports, calling contacts in the middle of the night, trying to find out whether that was the case. And the first news that was that was coming back is: “Yes indeed, a group of people, we don’t know how many, we don’t know who they were, they had come across the border and they were stopped further inland by a border guard patrol, and they were instructed to stop”. The initial reports from the police were coming out as well, that they did not stop immediately. So one of the border guards produced a warning shot which then ricocheted into the back of the neck of an Afghan man. He dropped dead instantly.
I spoke immediately, I actually woke him up, with the head of our operation, our Representative. I said that we need to respond to these growing media calls. By that time I had a long list of media that wanted to know what had happened, and we came up with what UNHCR would say in any case in this situation.
In fact it was the first time in the European refugee crisis when someone had been shot at the border. So I ended up saying, on behalf of the organization, something that to this day I believe was the right thing to say: That we deplore the death of an Afghan asylum seeker in the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, on Bulgarian territory. We are deeply shocked by the incident and we call for a transparent and quick investigation by the authorities. And that seeking asylum is not a crime. It’s a fundamental human right. Those were the four things that I said. I said them to AFP. It said them to Reuters. I said them to the Independent.
I had a scheduled morning program at 7:00 a.m. to speak about other things related to integration. So I went into the TV studio and obviously there was only one topic to cover. I said the same in the studio. And then I started to get phone calls from public radio, requests for interviews. I had no idea what was happening in parallel. There was a huge reaction. Initially, I thought it was against UNHCR, but no, it was against me. There was a campaign that I believe started from a part of the far right. But very quickly seeped into the mainstream. Initially hundreds, but then thousands of people on social media were saying: “Who is this guy who’s defending the Afghan man? It’s our border guard that needs defending. He’s a traitor. He’s a paid traitor. He’s not a Bulgarian, he’s an anti-Bulgarian. He has to give up his passport. He’s not a citizen. He has to rescind his citizenship”. Politicians started to talk about the incident immediately…
MF: And calling you by name.
BC: The politicians were very careful not to call me out by name although there was one case where I was called out by name. There was a popular historian who associated with the right, who started a petition for my citizenship to be rescinded. And I started to get dozens of calls on my mobile phone. As UNHCR spokespeople we list our phones publicly. It’s very easy to find us. Hundreds of emails, Facebook messages. One of the first calls that I remember well was from a Canadian number. After that I switched off my phone. I didn’t expect it to be a Bulgarian. It was someone speaking Bulgarian. I don’t know whether it was a Bulgarian living in Canada or just that they were rerouting the call so it wouldn’t be tracked. And he said: “You are a disgrace. But you will also die. And I am sending a pistol and a cartridge full of bullets to the border guard so he can personally kill you”.
MF: This was the one that affected you the most.
BC: It was one that I remember because it was so explicit.
MF: It was a death threat.
BC: There were others who were saying: “Now we’re coming to kill you. We’re organizing. You will not find a safe place in this country”. Others were just wishful thinking: “You will get cancer and die tomorrow”, “Your family is cursed”, “We will find you”, “We will make you disappear”, or they were saying that I would be soon having acid thrown in my face.
MF: It must have been absolutely frightening.
BC: Yes it was. I think I was a bit paralyzed and I shut down a little bit. I didn’t know exactly how to react. I’d grown accustomed to the small level of hate mail and the trolls on the Internet. It was something quite common and I was used to it. So I didn’t think much of the fact that people were reacting. What I didn’t anticipate, and I was completely surprised and shocked, was the extent and the fact that it was so meticulously organized. It’s as if somebody turned on a switch button and all of a sudden a thousand people directly target you.
Our office in Sofia was also receiving calls and emails. It took me a while to figure out that it was also an attack on UNHCR. Because I was representing UNHCR. But it was so personalized. They were targeting me. Even people on the street whom I knew. I went home by tram, that same night, in the usual way that I go home, and some people were looking at me. My landlord called me and he was very polite. He told me: “What you said today, you’re not right. You should not say these things.” I went home. I switched off my phone. I took my Facebook account off line. I deleted all the messages that I received. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I didn’t want to speak to my parents. The next day I started to get messages of support from UNHCR colleagues. News had traveled to headquarters, into the Bureau of Europe, that there was a situation in Bulgaria and I started to receive emails of support initially.
MF: And how did that make you feel? Did that help you?
BC: I didn’t realize it. I thought: “OK, it’s nice of you to say but what now? What am I supposed to do?”
MF: Were you scared?
BC: I didn’t realize. I didn’t get the full extent of what was happening. The death of the Afghan man was on Thursday night so everything transpired on Friday. And on Sunday afternoon, I received a call from one of our Geneva-based spokespeople. William Spindler at that time was covering Europe and he called me and said: “How are you? We’re all very worried.” And that’s when I realized that it was actually a very serious situation. I was in my dining room sitting at the table and I broke down.
MF: I can imagine. If the people who did this could see how it affects you even to this day.
BC: I don’t think about it at all.
MF: It obviously deeply affected you.
BC: It… It…
MF: Take your time.
BC: It completely changed my life. I’d say that I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it changed my life. First of all, it opened up experiences that I never thought I would have, but it also made me consider far more deeply and carefully who I was, what my purpose in life is and what’s important. It’s important to be true to your values.
MF: So you didn’t regret having stood up for that Afghan man who lost his life in the border that day.
BC: No. And, you know, I’m sorry that then that caused a backlash but I believe that we have to stand up whenever we feel that something is not right.
MF: It changed you because at that point you realized that this is what your purpose was to do. Even though you had done it automatically, you weren’t thinking about: “I’m standing up”. You were just doing your job.
BC: Initially I was thinking: “OK, now I need to get some distance between myself and the situation. I’m not going to throw myself into activism all of a sudden.” But I knew that you can be targeted, you can be attacked, and it’s not just a matter of defending yourself. It’s defending what you believe in. And I believe that people have a right to be helped.
MF: If you could sit down, like you and I are sitting down right now, with one of those haters who instigated that personalized hate campaign against you, what would you say to them? And what questions would you ask?
BC: I would explain how that is. I would tell them that this is what you’ve caused just by saying the words that you’ve said.
MF: That it caused you to have to leave the country, leave your teenage daughter behind.
BC: A teenage daughter with whom I was building up a relationship because we’d never lived together. And we had started to become quite fond of each other and spent more time and spent more weekends. And then I had to tell her “I’m sorry but I have to go away”. I think she understood. I think she was also disappointed. But also my family, my parents. I believe that they’re still young but they’re retired and I’d love to spend more time with them. I’d love to learn more about them. I feel that it’s been such a wild ride up till now that I haven’t had time to spend moments, hours, days with my family and having frank conversations.
MF: It became quite clear from the enormity of the attacks, the hatred towards you, the personalized campaign that your life was in danger if you stayed in Bulgaria and you had to leave. And UNHCR arranged an opportunity for you and you took it.
BC: I’m very grateful that UNHCR was very quick to react. I got a message of support from the High Commissioner who at the time was Antonio Guterres who is now of course the Secretary General. He wrote to me and he said: “You have my full support and solidarity and don’t feel bad for doing the right thing.” And soon thereafter I found out that there was a plan for me. First of all I couldn’t do media work anymore because that exposed me. I’m not sure if keeping a low profile and staying out of the media, whether my life would have been in danger. I don’t know. Now, I don’t believe that somebody would have actually come to kill me if I hadn’t stopped my media work.
MF: But at the time what were you feeling? What was your reaction to all of this?
BC: I felt that there was a physical threat. I stopped sleeping. My car was vandalized, not seriously but it was scratched and somebody put a heap of garbage on my hood. So there was a proximity from which I knew that I had to get away so I was very grateful when there was an opportunity for me to leave Bulgaria. And this is at a time when Europe was burning with the refugee crisis. Every single day thousands of people were moving through so many countries. I think it was Adrian Edwards, who heads our media team in UNHCR, who said: “Well actually we need somebody in Greece on the island of Lesbos”.
MF: So this is kind of typical of UNHCR. Take you out of an extremely difficult situation on one hand and on the other hand put you into probably the most extreme situation that the world has faced. Lesbos was the island where virtually all the refugees were coming and arriving. But I just want to ask you one more question before we move on to Greece. What has this experience taught you about human nature? I mean when you think about what motivated the people behind this campaign.
BC: I think that the main lesson that I’ve learned is that we’re all afraid of what we don’t know. Many of the people who are close to me, friends and family, and relatives with whom I’ve spoken afterwards who have no intention of harming me, but who don’t agree with the position that UNHCR and I had taken on behalf of UNHCR, they don’t know. It’s only when they meet somebody who is affected, when they meet Nur who had to keep his hands over his eight year old son’s years because his mother was being violated in the next room. When they see that we’re talking about completely ordinary human beings with ordinary lives, teachers, engineers, students, bakers, farmers who have never ever wanted to do anything else than lead their lives, that their kids have good grades, that maybe they get a raise, that this year’s harvest is better. It’s when you understand that we’re talking about completely ordinary people. That’s when you start to understand why we need to be far more open and that there is no place for xenophobia. Not in the 21st century. That there is no space for this type of rhetoric of “us and them”. What do you mean us and them? “Them” are some of the scholars whom I’ve had the great fortune to meet and artists coming out of Syria, coming from Afghanistan. The poets. These people, I would have never had the opportunity to meet in most of the places where I lived.
MF: You met them as they were fleeing for their lives, just off the boat arriving in Lesbos.
BC: The only reason why I met them is because I work with UNHCR and because I was there when they were coming through on the shores of Lesbos. It completely took my mind off Bulgaria. I think the next time that I actually thought about Bulgaria, definitely the next time that I messaged my parents was probably a month later.
When I got to Lesbos, it was a few days after the worst shipwreck in Greek waters to this day. I flew in early in the morning on the first flight, and as the plane was making its approach I started to see the outline of the island and then an orange halo around it. I had a window seat on the left of the plane and the closer that we got I could see that the outline of the island was day glow orange, fluorescent orange from all the life vests. I had received a briefing, I knew that I was going into a very difficult situation but I was completely unprepared. I only figured it out when I got down to the level of the shore that there is no sand or there are no rocks. It’s just a carpet of vests and discarded boats. It was from thousands upon thousands of people that were coming every single day. Just in October of 2015, there were one hundred and thirty five thousand people coming in. It’s not the number that is important. It’s the fact that this location, just a few kilometers from Turkey, was every single day like Groundhog’s Day. Because you begin very early in the morning, maybe four or five, with boats coming in one after the other, sometimes two hundred a day. Every single boat with 50 people on it. And then in the evening the same number of people are off on the ferries and the very next day you do it all again. And sometimes it’s in good weather and people arrive and they’re happy. But then other times it’s in terrible weather and rough seas, and they still come through and they’re confused, they collapse when they step onto the shore and you try to help them off.
MF: So you were there in the mornings where people were coming in terrible conditions. Is there one in particular that you can’t get out of your head?
BC: There is. I remember a girl, she could have been maybe at most 10 years old. She came with her family in very difficult conditions. When we helped them off the boat she just stood perfectly still staring out into nothing, into the sea, wearing a purple jacket and matching dress, and she had on her lapel a blue cloth flower. And she stood there with the emptiest gaze that I’d ever seen, the only movement was her jaw which was trembling and she was obviously hypothermic. I was trying to get a blanket onto her but it kept slipping off her shoulders. I tried again and again and again but at night it didn’t stay. I had to wrap her around while we waited for the bus to come through.
MF: She was soaked from the boat ride.
BC: They were all soaked. Every single one of the people that came through was completely soaked. The whole of that winter, on every boat, we had 50 people at least, sometimes it was 88 on a boat not much larger than an average dining table, stacked like sardines one on top of the other. Their legs had gone numb because they had spent three or sometimes five hours on high seas in very difficult conditions. The waves splashing from all sides. So yes we had hypothermia almost on every boat.
MF: So you were in Lesbos for eight months. How has that experience changed you?
BC: It has changed me completely. I’m not the same person I was when I left Bulgaria. That experience, that all-consuming experience, has left the deepest imprint on me from anything else in my life. Not just because of the people whom I’ve met, not just because of our team which is an exceptional group of people and especially our local colleagues who would sacrifice their life for months, leaving at the very peak of exhaustion and still going and then helping people every single day. But also because it’s there that you understand that life continues.
And yes the journey is very arduous. It is complete desperation when you see the faces of those people coming off. Many of them have never been close to the sea or to any type of water. Many of them can’t swim. They have these same orange life vests that are full with cotton or stereo foam that will not keep them afloat. And they know that full well, they know the danger that they will find. You understand that life goes on for them, that within a few hours maybe a couple of days they’ll be OK and they’ll be on their way. Life goes on for the locals. Lesbos is a duality of sort because you see this full spectrum of human emotions from the most sincere form of joy for those that come over to complete desperation in those days where were we had people that drowned or died of hypothermia. But then you can go to a tavern if you have the time, you can enjoy some of the greatest food that you’ll ever have. You can see this amazing Island to go and experience the olive oil of Lesbos, to talk to the people of Lesbos who are deeply intellectual and you understand that there’s far more than posturing and politics. Life continues.
MF: You would just come from the situation in Bulgaria where you were seeing kind of the worst of human nature. Did you see some of the best of human nature when you were in Lesbos?
BC: I absolutely did. I saw it every day. You know, this is a large island. It has a population of 90,000 people so it’s not small. But there were thousands of people that had gone specifically to help refugees and the locals were there day after day on the shores giving tea, giving blankets, helping people through, pulling them out of the water. Sometimes half alive, sometimes not alive and this continues to this day. There’s more frustration now. I still work on Greece. I’m now in Athens, no longer in Lesbos but I do travel sometimes and I can see the frustration, that they want their island back. They want this to now go away finally. They feel that they’ve done what they could. But they still help and they still believe that refugees have to be helped.
MF: Ai Weiwei, the great artist has now come out with an amazing film called Human flow, and part of it was filmed on Lesbos and you were involved in facilitating that. Can you describe what it was like working with Ai Weiwei?
BC: I met Ai Weiwei on New Year’s Day 2016. It was after a couple of days of no arivals. The weather was just too bad. He didn’t stop filming me for one second and he asked me about UNHCR and what was happening on Lesbos and what was UNHCR doing elsewhere. And we started to build a level of trust. He kept reaching out to me and asking me how are things on Lesbos. It was only later when I was preparing to leave Lesbos that Weiwei said he got 1,000 hours of footage from 23 countries and they’re about 500 interviews with experts and helpers and refugees. And he’d really love it if I take a look at a few of them. So I said “Of course, I’d be honored to do that.” I went to his studio in Berlin. It was there that I started watching the interviews and giving comments and feedback. I came back to UNHCR, I came back to Greece in fact, going to Athens. Then one day he called me and said “Oh the film’s done and you’re going to receive a writer’s credit”. Well thank you very much! I don’t know why. A thank you from you would have sufficed. But he said “No, I believe that you deserve to be credited.”
MF: And you also appeared in the film.
BC: Two of the several interviews that he did with me.
MF: How did it feel that people in theaters all over the world were seeing you among other people up here in this amazing film?
BC: Well I’m very proud to be associated with this incredible film. I think it’s a very important film for our era.
MF: He made this film using his artistic power to counter the ugliness that you experienced personally in Bulgaria and that has spread all over Europe. We see it in the US as well. How does the current political debate and the instrumentalization of refugees in order to win elections make you feel?
BC: Well I have a teenage daughter who now understands full well that the world is not a rosy place. I also have a 2 year old daughter. And I worry because I see what the trend is. For me it was Bulgaria more than three years ago. But I see the same rhetoric again and again in countries in Europe, in the industrialized world, in the US which were and still are – it’s not past tense – beacons of core human values, the principles of human rights. And they will persevere and they will triumph over our current trend of xenophobic and anti-refugee rhetoric.
MF: Have you been back to Bulgaria since?
MF: Describe that experience just briefly.
BC: I went back for a few days. Those were the only days that I took while I was in Lesbos, in May of 2016. I didn’t want to go but I also wanted to see my family. I was quite worried that when I went back something would happen, I didn’t know what. Nothing happened. People had forgotten, they’d moved on and I wasn’t in the news. Sometimes broadcasts were coming in from Lesbos and I was making a statement on something that had happened that day. But people no longer associated me with refugees in Bulgaria.
I think I was relieved that I could go back. And I’ve been back a few times since and it’s my country. I’ve spent many years away from it, but it’s still where I come from.
MF: In the middle of all of this you managed to remarry and have a little girl.
BC: I’m very fortunate to say that’s the love of my life, the only respite I had on Lesbos. I called her every night. And sometimes she’d wait up for me. Other times I’d wake her up. I’d never tell her what was happening, I’d never describe what I was seeing or what I was experiencing or how it was affecting me. But I think it made our love much stronger. And I’m very happy.
MF: Sharing with her this profound experience that you were going through.
BC: She was with me throughout this time.
MF: She moved from Bulgaria to be with you.
BC: She has moved from Bulgaria to be with me. She’s an artist. She has moved with me and I’m very grateful for that decision and I’m very grateful for her being not just my wife but also the mother of our daughter.
MF: Well, other than your 22 month old little baby, Leah, what keeps you awake at night these days?
BC: She definitely keeps me awake.
MF: That’s what I thought.
BC: I think the concern that I’m not doing enough. And at the same time I’m doing enough not to be with the people I love as much as I should. And it’s this journey that I’m still on, of trying to find out exactly who I am and what are my purposes and that still keeps me up. But it’s mostly my daughter.
MF: Boris thank you so much for sharing your experiences and also opening up your heart to us in this podcast.
BC: Thank you very much, Melissa. Thank you.
MF: Thank you for listening to Awake at Night - we’ll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at the time of this pandemic. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming You can follow Boris on @cheshirkov. Subscribe to Awake at Night, wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. Thanks to my colleagues at the UN and to my producers Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk and Blade, Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh (KAYRA) and Alex Portfelix. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah – and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse (PRON WISE)