A Look Into the Stubborn Roots of Ethnic Intolerance

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SITTING in the garden cafe of the Hotel Alen Mac in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, it is hard to believe that four years ago communism ruled Eastern Europe. Across the plaza, the former Communist Party Headquarters flies the flags of the Republic of Bulgaria and the United States. Large golden letters read: American University in Bulgaria.

Can the American educational system, with its emphasis on liberal education and choice, help foster a successful transition to freedom and respect for individual rights so greatly needed in this part of the world? Here is a true adventure in multicultural education.

I came with a monolithic image of Eastern Europe, much of it accurate: Communism destroyed individual initiative and responsibility. The ``worker's paradise'' was a forced labor camp where survival was the priority. The aftermath is a society where nothing works well.

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For 50 years communism stifled the ethnic hatred that characterizes the history of Eastern Europe. But this hatred only waited for the opportunity to divide societies and destroy lives again. Bulgarian students describe how the Ottomans mistreated their ancestors more than 100 years ago. These anecdotes are used to explain why those minorities should not have equal opportunity today. The creation of an American-style liberal arts university is a grand venture. Bulgarians are hospitable people and admire America. But Bulgaria has failed to bring its diverse cultures together. Families that have been in Bulgaria for hundreds of years are called ``ethnic Turks,'' as if I were an ``ethnic German'' since my ancestor settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th century.

Bulgaria is an excellent choice for this educational experiment because the people of Bulgaria are genuinely humanitarian. They successfully defended their Jews from the Nazis. But there have been recent legislative attempts to suppress the small minorities of ethnic Turks and Gypsies.

IN January the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held in Bulgaria. When the principal speaker, Dr. Ivanov, adviser to President Zhelyu Zhelov for ethnic and religious matters, was criticized by one of our students for our support of Bulgaria's minorities, he replied: ``Would you rather be like Yugoslavia?''

Subsequently we established a program, with funding from the Soros Foundation, to bring minority children up to a level of English language proficiency that would enable them to be admitted to the American University. The first eight students progressed so rapidly that I was able to converse with them in English after only four months.

Yet we were criticized for wasting money on minorities that could have been spent on ``native Bulgarians.'' They were saying: ``We deserve the help because we are the ones that suffered under the Turks, under the Nazis, under the communists.'' They miss the point that they obviously suffered less than the others, since they are now in a better position to improve themselves.

When one young woman from the minority program told me that native Bulgarians look down on them, I said: ``Why do you refer to native Bulgarians? You are a native Bulgarian.'' Her reply demonstrated how prejudice works, ``Not according to them!''

Since this conversation I have asked a number of Bulgarian friends, including some college professors, if the three main groups in the country are native Bulgarians, ethnic Turks, and Gypsies. All have said yes without noticing the illogic of my statement. It struck me how deep cultural feelings run. Solving the problem of prejudice on a college campus or in a society is going to require much more than just making sure you have a diversity of cultures present and none are mistreated. Prejudice that has been ingrained for centuries will require massive efforts to erase. In our programs abroad, as well as at home, we need to concentrate efforts on helping minorities as well as people in general.

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