Simeon Gospodinov’s seaside hotel is full, but no one there is on vacation. His rooms at the Helios Hotel in Balchik, on Bulgaria’s northern Black Sea coast, have been occupied by around 180 Ukrainian refugees since the end of February.
Normally, this time of year is the offseason; Gospodinov had hired a few construction workers to make improvements to the hotel. But when the war began, he “immediately” decided he would open his doors to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. The very next day, he posted a message to a Facebook group for Bessarabian Bulgarians — Bessarabia is Ukraine’s diverse far southwest region, home to many Bulgarians — saying his hotel was open to give people shelter for free and to the Balchik municipal website stating his plan.
All of the rooms filled immediately.
Gospodinov’s decision was personal: His father’s family members were refugees themselves when they fled what is now Turkey for southern Russia, then for Romania, in the 1940s.
“We have no right to not give shelter,” he said, “to [not] help the refugees now.”
The hotel has become its own community: People gather at picnic tables overlooking the Black Sea to drink coffee, smoke and message their families back home. Kids run around in the grass and play soccer in the empty pool. Laundry hangs drying on the balconies. Since the end of February, two women have given birth in Balchik; Gospodinov helped organize their transportation and care at the local clinic.
“We are feeling like a family,” he said. “I never experienced anything like this.”
But now the busy summer season is approaching. Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast is a popular destination for international tourists, and this summer is the first time they will be able to return without covid travel restrictions. More than two years into the pandemic, 80 percent of Balchik’s hotels owe credit or have overdrafts, estimated Hristo Zhelev, the manager of the Samara Hotel.
Zhelev quickly joined Gospodinov in opening his doors to refugees in the first days of the war, as did Plamen Kozarev, the manager of the nearby Lotos Hotel. The three men have been in close communication since, coordinating who has available rooms and advocating for government action. At the end of February, they suggested the government provide financial support for hotels hosting refugees. A few weeks later, the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism announced it would pay 40 leva (about $21) a day per refugee in state aid, meant to cover the cost of heating, meals and other aspects of housing.
On May 31, that aid will end. The war almost certainly won’t.
What are the hoteliers to do? “It’s a very difficult decision,” Zhelev said. “From one side are the refugees, and from the other side are our families.”
The men tried their best to change the government’s policy: They, along with four other Balchik hotel owners, sent a letter petitioning for the ministry to continue the financial assistance for “a few more months” so the hotels can keep hosting and feeding Ukrainian refugees “according to the capabilities of each of our hotels and our plans for the summer season.”
“Our hotels were among the first to open doors and hearts to accommodate the needy and we have been caring for refugees for three months now,” they wrote.
The hotels have already taken on some of the roles of social services, helping people find work and enroll their children in school. Uprooting refugees when they have started to integrate would be stressful and counterproductive, they argued.
On Thursday, the Bulgarian government confirmed that it would not extend the aid for hotels hosting refugees. But there is no full plan in place for where the Ukrainians currently staying there will go. The government has said that it will make use of state- and municipal-owned properties and move people by train around the country, with a more detailed announcement promised next week.
“These are not suitcases; they are people,” Kozarev said.
Natalia Sobon left Mykolaiv, Ukraine, with her 10-year-old daughter on March 8 and came to the Samara Hotel after hearing that Ukrainians were treated well in Balchik.
“I like it here a lot,” she said. Because the situation in Mykolaiv remains dangerous, she said, going back to Ukraine is not an option, especially with her daughter. She is currently looking for a job and hopes to stay in Bulgaria, ideally doing something similar to her work in Ukraine, where she designed custom clothes for women and children. With a job and a salary, she would be able to pay rent on her own apartment — the sort of transition that the hotel owners believe extending the free accommodations for a few months would allow.
At the Helios Hotel, Nana Mikova is also contemplating staying past the end of May, especially because of how welcoming and attentive the hotel staff have been. She’s considering going to Belgium, but, like many Ukrainians who have fled their homes, she’s uncertain about planning into the future.
She dreams of returning to Odessa and resuming the life she had before the war. She left Ukraine on March 5 and arrived in Bulgaria after three days of traveling with her mother, sister and nephew. She didn’t want to leave, but because men aged 18 to 60 must remain in Ukraine, she was the only one who could drive her family to safety. They came to Balchik at her brother’s recommendation.
“We are very thankful for everybody here because people are very kind,” she said.
But for Mikova, as for many people at the hotel, concern for loved ones in Ukraine, a longing for home and the near-impossible question of what to do next hover over every day.
“It’s not about how you’re treated,” she said. “It’s about how you feel. It’s about the inner world. You live and you are in the process of building your life step by step. And then comes the moment when you have nothing, in a minute.”
An uncertain future
Balchik is a small seaside town of about 10,000 residents; the broader municipality has closer to 20,000. With more than 5,000 Ukrainian refugees now living in the municipality, they are currently a sizable portion of the overall population. Along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast more broadly, nearly 40,000 refugees are living in about 600 hotels in the Dobrich, Varna and Burgas regions, according to Bulgarian National Radio. There are additional refugees staying in private apartments and houses.
For many Ukrainians, Bulgaria is an easier place to land than its northern neighbor Romania because the Bulgarian and Ukrainian languages are far more similar: Both use the Cyrillic alphabet, and they share many words and grammar structures. Most refugees currently staying on the Black Sea coast are from Ukraine’s southwest region, which is closest to Bulgaria.
Initially, the Bulgarian government had no support system for hotel owners. Balchik residents organized food delivery until hotels could hire additional staff to cook three times a day in the offseason. The hotel managers also set up basic services that refugees needed: registering their cars, lending people money when their credit cards were blocked and arranging work opportunities.
Compared with the countries that directly border Ukraine, Bulgaria has taken in a small fraction of refugees. Of the more than 6 million people who have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, more than 250,000 have come through Bulgaria; more than 100,000 have stayed. But, while the sheer numbers are smaller, Bulgaria ranks first among European Union countries in the number of refugees who have been granted temporary protection status, Mariana Tosheva, head of the State Agency for Refugees and of the government’s task force on refugees, said at a news conference this week.
Almost all refugees in Bulgaria have this status, which gives them access to essential needs such as healthcare, education and employment.
The government’s next step is figuring out how many people want to stay in Bulgaria. Some families, knowing that the May 31 date could mean the end of their accommodations, have already started to leave.
Ludmila Vishnerskaya has been staying at the Lotos Hotel with her 27-year-old daughter, Mariya Tokovenko, and two granddaughters (ages 3 and 8) in a single room. After two months in Bulgaria, the family is leaving: Tokovenko and her daughters, Kira and Sofiya, left this week for Poland, where they hope to stay and find work. Vishnerskaya plans to return to Mykolaiv next week.
Before the war, Vishnerskaya kept bees with her husband on a friend’s farm about 20 km outside of Mykolaiv; this time of year, they would be collecting “May honey” flavored by the bouquet of wildflowers blooming this month. Their apiary has been destroyed, but she wants to rebuild it.
The family’s two months in Balchik felt repetitive: Vishnerskaya would wake up and check in with her parents, brother and husband, who are still in Ukraine. An app on her phone sends an alert when air raid sirens are going off back home. Every call strikes fear of bad news.
“We’re learning to live day by day,” Vishnerskaya said last month, “waking up and at the end of the day, going to sleep. And here we can sleep.”
Although she picked up some work in Balchik, she wasn’t ever planning to stay; the goal was always going home.
“We want to go back to our beautiful country,” she said.
On a recent Monday at Helios, Slavik, a teenager from Kyiv, was preparing to return to join the city’s military forces.
“My friends are there, and they are already fighting,” he said. “I’m here at a resort, and I don’t feel good.”
On his final day at the hotel, people signed a Ukrainian flag like a yearbook, leaving messages and drawings, as well as their home cities in Ukraine.
“Glory to Ukraine!”
“Let it be good!”
Figuring out what’s next
The government has promised to launch a platform to collect data on how many refugees want to stay in Bulgaria. In Balchik, the hotel owners have already started the process of understanding how to help the Ukrainian refugees going forward.
Kozarev, the owner of the Lotos Hotel, maintains a bulletin board in the hotel lobby where he posts important information like the latest updates from the government about medical and social services.
Right now, the board features a survey for refugees staying in his hotel and the others: What do you want to do in May? And how can we help?
The options include:
1. Look for work
2. Move to state bases.
3. Go home to Ukraine.
Over the next few days, the hoteliers expect to collect surveys from all the refugees staying with them. If the government doesn’t respond with a plan, the men will go family by family and try to help refugees accomplish their desired next steps.
Hoteliers in a bind
“I felt personally that this is my chance to do something worthy, something significant,” Kozarev said. “I was sure from the beginning that I’ll do this, despite that I have a huge loan with the hotel.”
Now, he’s confronted with the financial realities of the situation: He needs the earnings from a full summer season to keep the hotel afloat. But until the refugees leave Lotos, he feels a “huge responsibility to keep them and take care of them.”
“We are hosting the future of Ukraine,” Kozarev said. “They are the ones who will have to rebuild their country.”
Gospodinov, who co-manages the Helios hotel with his sister, is now staring down a calendar full of summer bookings. After two years of the pandemic and restricted travel, the hotel was planning to welcome its primarily Scandinavian tourist base back. But that may not happen.
“We cannot send anybody out of the hotel,” he said. “We will cancel contracts if needed.”
The best-case scenario is that the war comes to an end. But if it continues, the hotel will be in a financial bind: About 98 percent of its annual income comes from the three summer months.
“The end of May is our breaking point,” Gospodinov said.
Thanks to Angelika Zamoriy for translation, Natalie Gryvnyak for production assistance and Lillian Barkley for copy editing.