Identity Crisis: A Story of Migration

Turkish migration from Bulgaria

“You can lose everything you have in life, your home, your job, even your loved ones, but the last thing a person can lose in life is their identity.”

Naim Süleymanoğlu

What makes you who you are? Is it your identity? Is it your name? What would be left if someone took it away from you? Now, who are you? With the assimilation process in Bulgaria under the Soviet regime, the names of the Turks began to turn into Christian names. According to the regulations in Bulgaria, it was no longer possible to “be” the person you are. If you speak Turkish in the public, you will be penalized. With the assimilation project of the Soviet regime, the name, identity, religion and language were erased from the life of the Turkish people. This process involved the change of the identity documents, university diplomas, birth certificates, and even Turkish-written gravestones. Furthermore, speaking Turkish in public, wearing traditional dresses, and exercising Muslim rituals have been banned from the lives of the Turkish people.

The replacement of names of Arabic-Turkish origin with Bulgarian ones was imposed on 900.000 people. This secret and sudden operation started in 1984 and was completed in 1985. There were mass protests by Turkish people against this repression, but the authorities remained rigid and they violently stopped the demonstrations.

Turkish Migration from Bulgaria
Silent demonstration in Sofia, late December 1989: “Give us back our names”. Source:

History of Turkish people living in Bulgaria

The history of Turkish people living in Bulgaria dates back to Ottoman rule. The Ottoman domination over the territories of Balkan countries was based on changing the demographic structure of the region. The history of Bulgarian Turks goes back to the 14th century. The Ottoman empire used colonization as a very effective method to consolidate its position and power in the Balkans with the Turkish people sent to the Balkan region. In addition to the name-change actions, ideological activities were also carried out. The government called these activities, which are essentially human rights violations, the “Revival” period. In this way, it was implied that the Turkish minority would return to its Bulgarian roots after the “Assimilation” process.

After the oppression of the Bulgarian government, the Turkish people could no longer resist the restriction of their identity. Turkish minister Özal started campaigning internationally and locally. With the condemnation in international areas and demonstrations both in Bulgaria and Turkey, Todor Jivkov, leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, gave a speech in 1989. He said that those who do not want to live in Bulgaria can immigrate to Turkey and make a request from Turkey to open its borders to accept all “Bulgarian Muslims”. Turkey opened its borders to Turkish people coming from Bulgaria. From June 1989 to August 1989 the borders were kept open. Turkish people left all their attachments, belongings, and friends who helped them to build their identities and rushed to the border gate to unite with their homeland.

Turkish Migration from Bulgaria
Within three months 350,000 Turks were forced to leave Bulgaria for Turkey Source:

Turkey and Bulgaria: Staying In Between

After immigrants were welcomed with sympathy by local Turkish people, the local people realized the rivals in the job competition and tried to push the immigrants away from job opportunities. The immigrants also knew little about Turkish society. Given the fact that they came from a socialist regime, they did not know how the state worked and they did not know how to find work in a capitalist regime. Besides, they realized that the Turkish they spoke was different from the literary language in Turkey, as well as from the vernacular. Again, history was repeating itself for them; they did not speak the language of the majority.

It would be meaningless to talk about fixed identities in the context of migration. The daily life of the immigrants plays a crucial role in the construction of spaces of belonging. As Henri Lefebvre said, space is a social product which mainly based on the values that we built and the social production of meanings that affect our social practices and perceptions. Thus, the immigrants who are between two spaces build their own spaces of belonging, which differs from Bulgaria and Turkey. Consequently, their identity is in between, now it is clear that Turkish people have their own names on their identity cards, but still the question of “Who are you?” is challenging for them and also for anyone else who feels in a ‘between’ situation.


Elchinova, M. (2005). Alien by Default. The Identity of the Turks of Bulgaria at Home and in

Immigration. Na

Lefebvre, Henri. 2007 [1991]. The production of space, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Maiden

& Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Demirtaş-Coşkun, B. (2001). Turkish-Bulgarian relations in the post-cold war era: the

exemplary relationship in the Balkans. The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations

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