Bulgaria’s IT Boom Offers Syrian Refugee New Life

By Mariya Cheresheva

Elias Sulaiman in Sofia. Photo: Private archive

When he fled Syria in 2013, the now 33-year-old journalist and professor of literature Elias Sulaiman hardly imagined that, only three years later, he would have a successful career in IT and a family in Bulgaria.

Like many of his fellow citizens he took the dangerous route out of his war-torn country to seek safety and a better life in Germany or Sweden.

But, to his surprise, the poorest EU member state, criticised for its ill treatment of refugees, has offered Elias the opportunity to build up a new life.

“In the beginning, staying in Bulgaria was not on my mind, as I knew it was a poor country and there were no opportunities here. I thought I would have a better chance to find a good job in Germany,” Elias recalled in his modern office in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

“It was destiny that made me stay here,” he added, remembering the summer of 2013, when he applied for asylum in Bulgaria.

As the situation for the thousands of refugees who entered the country back then was tough — living conditions and services in the refugee centres in Bulgaria were grim — Elias started volunteering to help the others that were suffering.

This is how he met many Bulgarian volunteers who advised him to look for a job in the country.

“I just sent my CV to some companies and they immediately started calling me — IT or outsourcing companies, looking for people with Spanish [which Elias speaks fluently together with three other languages] or Arabic,” Elias explained.

“It turned out that if you are educated and have а certain level of English, you can get a decent job very easily in Bulgaria,” he added.

Like many other young people in Bulgaria, Elias was hired by an outsourcing company, providing support for clients all over the world.

Elias with his wife Zozan at their wedding in Sofia. Photo: Private archive

The outsourcing and IT services sector has been the fastest growing branch of the Bulgarian economy for the past decade.

In 2015, Bulgaria was named European Outsourcing Destination of the Year by the Outsourcing Association UK. It ranked third in the world rating of the same organisation, after Latvia and South Africa.

Over the last year, Bulgarian software companies achieved a turnover of 1.6 billion leva [around €800 million], 65 per cent of which was generated from export services, the latest study of the Bulgarian association of software companies shows.

Around 90 per cent of people employed in the sector are young specialists under the age of 35. On average, they earn four times more than the country’s average monthly wage of €475.

However, in 2015, the sector’s continuous double-digit annual growth dropped by 3 per cent, as compared to 2014, to 11 per cent. The IT companies blamed the drop not on the lack of business opportunities but on the shortage of qualified workers.

“The Bulgarian business processing sector in Bulgaria lacks 50,000 people. The first condition for employees is to speak one more language apart from their mother tongue, because the companies operating from Bulgaria provide services for the whole world,” Vassil Velichkov, owner of the Sofia-based Sensika company, explained to BIRN.

Vassil met Elias when they were both volunteering to help refugees in Bulgaria in 2013 and he hired him to support his company’s business operations in the Middle East.

“We have clients from all over the world, but we have set the focus on clients from the Middle East with Arabic as a native language. Our competitors worldwide do not perform very well on those markets,” Vassil said.

“Arabic is very specific — as a language and as font. Plus, doing business in the Middle East requires a different approach. We Bulgarians are culturally closer to our clients in Middle East [than most other Europeans] and it is easier for us to do business with them,” he added.

Owing to the growing need to find native Arabic speaking staff, early in 2016 the main associations of Bulgaria’s IT and outsourcing companies convinced the government to ease the procedure for non-European specialists to obtain a European blue card that gives them the right to work.

“The most important thing is that now the IT and the outsourcing sectors are not obliged to carry out market research on whether any Bulgarians are looking for the same job as foreigners who have applied for a vacancy. Today, this sector needs 50,000 people, and it is clear that if there were suitable candidates, businesses would have already hired them,” Velichkov explained.

He added that now the Blue Card procedure has been significantly shortened and eased, so that all vacancies can be filled “both by refugees and asylum seekers and by people who want to establish their lives in Bulgaria and to work in this innovative sector”.

However, as Bulgaria has not had a state-run integration program to assist refugees in learning Bulgarian and finding a job on the local market since 2013, few refugees are aware of this opportunity.

Most of the migrants who seek asylum in Bulgaria continue on their way to countries like Germany without waiting for their asylum procedures to be finished and to receive Bulgarian documents.

Statistics of the State Agency for the Refugees, or SAR, revealed in August, show that of 10,900 people who had sought asylum in Bulgaria since the beginning of this year, 5,000 did not show up for their interviews for receiving protection.

Those people, however, have already been registered in Bulgaria as their first EU country of entry, which allows other member states to send them back to Bulgaria under the Dublin Regulation.

In 2016, 402 asylum seekers were returned to Bulgaria, Daniel Indjiev, Vice-President of SAR, told Focus News Agency in August.

Elias believes that at least some of those people have a good chance of finding a job in Bulgaria.

At his previous job, he even convinced the company to open an Arabic department. “We started with three refugees and now more than a hundred people work there,” he says.

As for his own future, he is convinced that for now it lies in Bulgaria: “I am planning to learn Bulgarian. I have married a Bulgarian woman and we have a kid now. So I think my future will be here,” he said.

He believes the Bulgarian state should do more to support refuges who want to stay in the country through integration programs and job counselling.

“The Bulgarian government must think about the future of the country. If they care about its future, they should think about how to keep people like me here, not to simply let them go,” he noted.

Originally published at www.balkaninsight.com on September 20, 2016.

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