Amin is a British citizen whose hopes of studying medicine abroad in Bulgaria have been turned upside down after Bulgarian authorities labelled him a “national security threat” and barred him from re-entering on spurious charges. In this Human Voices story, Amin retells his story of how Bulgarian authorities began to encourage Muslim students to inform on fellow students, his experiences, and the impact it has had on his life and other Muslim students in Bulgaria.
My name is Amin and I grew up as the eldest of my siblings in a tight-knit household. One of my greatest ambitions came to fruition when I was accepted at a leading UK-university to study Medicine. I had always wanted to become a doctor, and this was something that brought immense joy not only to me, but my family too as I was the first in my family to attend university.
In my third year of study however, life took an unexpected and traumatic turn. My mother – the backbone of our household – fell ill, and we struggled to find out exactly why. For the next few months, I took the responsibility of coordinating her care as we spoke to numerous doctors, visited countless hospitals, and faced great uncertainty as her health continued to decline. She was eventually diagnosed with a rare type of brain tumour and shortly thereafter, passed away. As an active and healthy woman in her late 40s, this came as a huge blow to us all as we struggled in the aftermath of grief and shock.
The loss of my mother also had a colossal impact on my education too. I had to prioritise the care of my mother while still a student, and inevitably this led to me falling significantly behind as my time and focus was entirely elsewhere. Initially the university was accommodating, and I repeated my third year, however I had simply missed too much course content and did not pass the necessary exams to progress further. This was a hugely difficult time for me both personally and academically. While still navigating the impact of my mother’s loss, the demanding nature of Medicine was too much to keep pace with.
Though I tried what I could to stay on the course, I had to take the decision – with a heavy heart – to cut my losses and leave the course.
A second chance
With this, I left the idea of Medicine altogether, and worked several jobs in different sectors to stay productive and harness my skills. A chance meeting with an old university friend, however, gave me a potential way to re-enter into a medical degree.
He himself had studied in Romania for one year and then re-applied to a UK-university to complete his degree. I didn’t realise at the time, but there were countries within Europe like Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic who accepted UK-based students onto their Medicine degrees, and this opened up a door for me which I had long assumed was permanently shut. I did my research and after a lot of questions and admin, enrolled on a 6-year medical degree in a quiet city in Bulgaria. You would finish actually a bit further along than UK-based students as the 6-year degree included the FY1 foundation year which is mandatory in the UK. This was never my first choice of ways to become a doctor but was the most viable route for me to get my ambitions back on track. I applied and was accepted in 2017.
For four years, I studied Medicine and – since I never stayed longer than three months at a time – was able to travel back and forth from Bulgaria to the UK to see family and friends. Since I had already covered most of the course content from my time in my first degree, my studies were not new or particularly taxing at the time. When Brexit came into effect, this free travel became much more restricted. Now a residency permit or Bulgarian ID card was required, approved by the Ministry of Education. Though I had managed to avoid the admin hassle of this in the past, I knew it now made sense to apply for a Bulgarian ID card and ensure seamless movement between the UK and Bulgaria.
Asked to inform on fellow students
Around this time however, I began to hear rumours swirling of other South Asian Muslim students being asked very intrusive and inappropriate questions about their religious practice by immigration officers (connected to National Security) in interviews for these ID cards. In some cases, their treatment could honestly be labelled harassment. A group of students even came together complain to the university about this criminalising questioning and were invited to fill in official paperwork with all their details on it to submitted to the British embassy.
Predictably, all of these declined to do so, fearful of backlash. I am aware of a few students on the course who were continually harassed by immigration officers and was even asked to spy on other students and give up information about them.
When it was time for me to have my interview, I was naturally apprehensive but knew the kinds of questions I could expect. During the 30–45-minute interview, I was asked questions about myself, my friends, whether I prayed, went to the mosque, had girlfriends, drank alcohol and went to bars. I answered all the questions honestly and completely.
They then asked me to identify other students and their personal habits and routines which I had no knowledge of. I simply told them this, that I wasn’t especially close to them or aware of them. I was also asked of the identities of the students who complained against them and couldn’t give them any more details. I felt the immigration officer get increasingly frustrated at this and the interview ended on a frosty note.
I thought that was the end of the matter and returned to the UK to see family as usual.
Denied entry for being a “threat to Bulgarian national security”
The next time I returned to Bulgaria afterwards I stopped at the airport and told there were issues with my passport. I was denied entry. I immediately assumed this had something to do with the immigration officer and the interview, so called him. There was no reply. I contacted the British embassy who could only confirm there was nothing on my passport and nothing they could do to help. They simply referred me to a list of lawyers on their website.
I ended up staying at the airport for three days trying to find out what the issue was and whether I would actually be let into the country at all. One lawyer after the other said the situation was based on “national security” and were unable to help. I hoped upon returning to London I would get the answers I needed. Back home, it took 15 days for me to get confirmation that I was flagged as a “threat to Bulgarian national security” and had a 5-year ban on entering Bulgaria.
To say I was shocked was an understatement. I couldn’t understand how this could happen, and what it truly meant. Many lawyers I contacted didn’t respond, some responded and simply said they couldn’t help, and others were nice, but felt unqualified to take on the case. One lawyer had a very uncomfortably accusatory tone where he handled my case as if I were guilty of all the accusations.
I finally managed to find a lawyer willing to represent my case. Though helpful, he did say that my chances of being successful in appealing the charge of “threat to national security” were slim but we could try. It was only when I reached an appeal stage at the Sofia Administrative Court that my lawyer finally got to see details of what I was accused of. Underneath paperwork that had large areas redacted and classified; I became aware of the accusations against me. It said I was not in Bulgaria to study as a medical student, but I was going there to establish an Islamic caliphate and was also trafficking people to Syria to fight.
Other details were used to beef up the charge: I travelled to the UK a lot so could not be interested in studying. (I had explained that I travelled back regularly to see family, and this did not affect my grades). It also said because I kept myself to myself, did not have a girlfriend or go drinking that I was a religious fanatic. All these wild lies came together to mean I was a threat to national security and should be banned for 5 years from the country.
I asked repeatedly for the claims to be investigated and the evidence scrutinised, but I was told they were past this stage. I also told them I wished they used this precious time and resource to actually find people who were behaving illegally, rather than targeting innocent students who wanted nothing more than to complete their studies. The feeling was baffling and surreal.
I proceeded to lodge an appeal to the Supreme Court and was unfortunately unsuccessful with my appeal. The Supreme Court did not engage at all with the merits of the “accusations” or “evidence”. Instead, it only assessed whether the Bulgarian national security agency correctly followed the relevant administrative processes in revoking my permit. My lawyer suggested we could proceed to the European Court of Human Rights where cases like this had a precedent there already. The process at the ECHR takes from 2-5 years which is time I do not have if I want to finish my medical degree, however I am willing to pursue this on a point of principle.
Creating a climate of fear among Muslim students
Right now, I am stuck in a limbo. I had completed four years in person and managed to study the 5th year remotely because the pandemic meant everything shifted online. I have a few exams, some clinical practice and my 6th year left to complete. I am now waiting on contacts within the British embassy to petition the university on my behalf to help find a way for me to complete my studies and achieve the final degree. There are several options that could be worked out for this outcome, if only I had people who were willing to look at my case in fairness.
Right now, I firmly believe I am being made an example of. All the other students I studied with in Bulgaria are petrified they will be next. Their parents – who are paying their fees – do not want what happened to me to happen to them. They know that if they are served a charge like this, then their career and all academic aspirations are over. Only a very small number of my classmates know about my case, I stay away from others and don’t communicate so I don’t cause trouble for them.
They have successfully created a climate of fear and paranoia among the student community there, especially amongst observant Muslims. I know the only ‘crime’ I committed was not being able to give personal information about other students to an immigration officer who wanted to gather intelligence.
It is difficult to describe the impact this situation has had on me mentally and emotionally over the last year and a half. It has been extremely triggering to have another chance of pursuing your ambitions as a doctor taken away from you again – this time in absolutely unjust and malicious circumstances. I feel like my life is in limbo now as I do not know what the future will hold for me. I can’t move forward with career and job opportunities as all my goals were tied up in practising medicine as a doctor. I cannot move forward with many aspects of my life, and I continue to hold on to hope. I must remind myself that this is a massive test from Allah, and this is the perspective I should keep at all times.
Mentally, I must believe that a positive outcome is possible as it is only this hope that keeps me going through dark times. Right now, I need clarity and closure to move forward with my life. Hopefully it is to close a deeply traumatic chapter in my life and to have positive and productive paths for my future made clear.
Image courtesy of Unsplash/Zhivko Minkov
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)