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Project May 13, 2022

Resisting Forced Assimilation: Bulgarian Turks


Girl and father perform sunrise prayer in a Bulgarian field
Rayme Osman and her father, Shükrü, perform Fajr (sunrise prayer) in the tobacco fields of Sredsko. Villages deep in the Rhodope mountain like Sredsko are some of the few places in Bulgaria where Muslims can safely pray in public without fear of harassment. Image by Michaela Vatcheva. Bulgaria, 2021.

What makes you who you are? Is it your name? Your God? The words you say? The land of your ancestors? What would be left if someone took all of these away?

To secure better control over its population, Bulgaria’s communist regime carried out a forced assimilation campaign in 1984. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim citizens were made to change their names to Slavic ones, abandon their religion, and stop speaking their native Ottoman Turkish dialect.

Today, in the shelter of the pine forests of the Rhodope mountains, far from the country’s main road artery, small communities are relentlessly holding on to their complex identities. Dirt roads weave through the mountains, linking village to village, lacking a hospital, a school, a police department, but each housing at least one small mosque.

Filmmaker Michaela Vatcheva was born to a family who, like most Turkish families in the big city, assimilated to survive. Thirty-five years after the ethnic cleansing campaign, Vatcheva follows in the footsteps of her ancestors into the Rhodope mountains wondering how and when being both an ethnic Turk and a Bulgarian citizen became an irreconcilable conflict. After all, the country was built on the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

The elders of a village called Sredsko still remember her great grandfather, a member of the last generation of Bulgarian Turks to freely celebrate their identity. A teacher in a Turkish school and hodja (Muslim religious leader), grandpa Mustafa loved Bulgaria, the land of his ancestors.

Framing Bulgaria as a nation-state was at the heart of the authoritarian regime’s propaganda. They used this narrative to justify their attacks on their Muslim citizens. But decades after the fall of the regime, Vatcheva discovers that the pressure to assimilate or leave is ever present, and othering Muslim minorities remains embedded in the fabric of Bulgarian life. What price is the community of Sredsko paying to hold space for their allegedly conflicting sentiments? And are the youth willing to continue carrying the burden? Is Sredsko a refuge for Bulgarian Turks or a prison?


teal halftone illustration of praying hands



teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees