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People take part in "speed dating" during an event aimed to bridge cultural differences in Sofia, Bulgaria, October 11, 2017. Picture taken October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Dimitar Kyosemarliev


SOFIA (Reuters) - Couples lining up to face each other are given 30 seconds to chat before moving on - in a version of speed dating that, rather than sparking romance, aims to promote understanding and integration for new immigrants.

At a social centre in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, the locals stand on one side, the immigrants - many refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries - face them.

The quick-fire conversations - in which participants have just seconds to share their dreams and stories of love, pain and family - are aimed at starting a dialogue between two communities that in normal daily life rarely speak to each other on an equal footing.

"It's so good to have an event like this, especially for refugees," said Rodi Naamo, a 26-year-old Syrian Kurd who arrived in Bulgaria in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants passed through the Balkans en route to Germany and northern Europe.

Bulgarians also appreciated the speedy encounters, as well as the Middle Eastern food and traditional Afghan dances afterwards.

"I really enjoyed it, it helped me overcome prejudices," said Milka Bocheva, a Bulgarian who runs an online business. "They (the refugees) are just people like us, we gave such similar answers."

Bulgaria stands out in the region for its significant Muslim minority, some 12 percent among 7.1 million mainly Orthodox Christians - a legacy of its history as part of the Ottoman Empire.

Despite that, large parts of the population are concerned about the influx of asylum-seekers and migrants.

Naamo, who returned to Bulgaria after a short spell in Germany, to work in a call centre, believes opinions are starting to change.

"I decided to stay here, this is my country. I'll bring my family here," he said.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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