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Evander Holyfield joins fight for Syria's refugees

By Atika Shubert CNN | 12/16/2013, 2:31 p.m.
Evander Holyfield has faced many difficult opponents in the ring -- but nothing quite like this.
Evander Holyfield has faced many difficult opponents in the ring -- but nothing quite like this. The former heavyweight world champion has teamed up with colorful Canadian businessman and philanthropist Yank Barry to help Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. Photo by CNN.

When the new arrivals walk through, tears start to flow as Mohammed recognizes his brother, Noor. He hasn't seen him in nearly a year.

"Hey Noor, you know this man? It's your brother!" Barry says enthusiastically.

"Your heart skips a beat and I was crying probably as much as he was," he tells me. "I saw Evander had a tear in his eye."

When I ask Holyfield why this mission is important to him, he says: "Because at some point in time, when you leave this earth, they won't be asking about how many championships I won. They'll say: 'What did you do for the least of them?' I can say I was in Bulgaria, I was in Russia, I was in the Philippines."

Barry says he is already looking for another hotel to house more refugees.

But with so many needing help, they may not be able to reach as many as they hope.

More than 100 people try slip into Bulgaria every day, border police say, most say they are the fleeing the fighting in Syria. They pay smugglers as much as $1,500 to guide them in.

"The amount refugees pay varies according to the number of people trying to cross the border. If the group travels only to Bulgaria, the price they pay to traffickers is much lower. If Bulgaria is only a transit point, however, the price can go much higher," George Kalaydjiev, Director of the board in Svilengrad city explains.

Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in Europe. And this, Bulgarian officials say, is the best they can do.

The UNHCR says it is trying to get more help for Bulgaria from the European Union. The U.N. says more than 62,000 Syrians have applied for refugee status across the EU.

"But we cannot forget these people have suffered enormously. It's unacceptable that they go on suffering once they reach the EU," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said recently during a trip to a refugee camp in Sofia.

Bulgaria is now building a wall along the most thickly-forested section of Bulgaria's border with Turkey, in an attempt to keep people out.

But Syria's refugees are desperate. And with or without a wall, Bulgaria remains the doorway to Europe.

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