In late 2016 Isabella Steel spent two months working in the refugee camps/detention centres in Sofia, Bulgaria. There have been some changes there since, with the introduction of a UNICEF funded school, but the fundamental observations remain the same, especially in the detention centre.
‘Anne is an international volunteer.
Anne likes to help. It makes her feel special.
She wouldn’t help where she lives, but does it long distance.
Anne answers to calls for help. Sometimes without thinking.
She wouldn’t double check the source. She just reacts.
Anne does more harm by trying to help.
DON’T be like Anne.’
The ‘Refugee Support Group’ posted the above on their Facebook page in early September. It recounted a distress call from ‘Anne’ who wrongly reported the kidnap at gunpoint of several asylum-seekers in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Her mistake significantly undermined the reputation of the organisation which spent several thousand euros to employ a high governmental contact and send an emergency response special forces unit which, arriving at the premises less than an hour later, found no-one there. It transpired that forty-seven asylum-seekers had been retrieved from the GPS location ‘Anne’ identified, but several hours earlier via an Interpol signal. ‘Anne’ wrongly confirmed that her information was live and valid.
‘F@(k you, Anne, and all who are in the likes of you’, the post continued.
‘Go get some help.
And please, apprehend the fact, that you are doing harm, by thinking you are helping…
Please, be gone, it’s the only way you will truly be helping.’
These words struck a chord. I spent two months volunteering in the refugee camps in Sofia. I recalled times when I was asked by asylum-seekers for information about legal procedures I did not fully understand; when effective communication was hindered by my inability to speak Arabic, Farsi or Bulgarian; when I underestimated the ability of the adults in my class and spent a lesson teaching them grammar and vocabulary most already knew. I remembered my fear of legitimate hostility from asylum-seekers trapped in Bulgaria and forced to watch volunteers from Germany, England and the US return home to comfort and security that continued to elude them.
What I remember most, however, are the small moments: sitting with two seven-year olds as they copied out the alphabet; laughing with some older girls as we realised that ‘broccoli’ was the same in English and Farsi; holding a smiling baby who, at just two months old, had been carried by his parents from Turkey to Bulgaria.
The impact of international volunteers and organisations is far from perfect. Uncertainty remains as to whether the recent UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants will have a lasting impact. The Irish Times reported on 20 September, ‘inevitably, the content of the declaration is abstract’ and ‘the difficulty is that the mechanisms for achieving the lofty goals…are vague at best’. The UN machine has been criticised for broad-sweeping hollow proposals such as ‘human rights have to be protected’, or ‘all refugee children have a right to an education’. The conference has precipitated a two-year intergovernmental process to negotiate two Global Compacts on refugees and migration. The world does not hold its breath.
In these circumstances, grass-roots organisations can often have greater capacity to enact tangible change. Their scope is narrower, but freedom from bureaucracy can help forge valuable interpersonal connections. A significant role of volunteers is also to recount their experiences. A recent ITV documentary ‘Forgotten Children’ described how many journalists are not allowed to enter many migrant centres in Greece; and in the detention centres even mobile phones are prohibited. This report, therefore, outlines some observations I made during two months working at Busmantsi detention centre and Voenna Rampa refugee camp in Sofia.
Busmantsi detention centre is on the outskirts of a small town thirteen kilometres east of Sofia. It was once a juvenile prison, and high spiked fences still surround the complex. The derelict playground outside is overgrown and littered with rubbish. A stray dog limps across the grass to the shade of a yellow Lada Riva parked on a road which leads seemingly just to the distant mountains. One block is uninhabited – windows broken, paint peeled off, pigeons huddled against the crumbling concrete. The other three blocks are infrastructurally sound but hauntingly brutal: clothes hang from barred windows and immigration police are stationed at every corner. There is a cracked tarmac basketball court where camp residents can spend the only two hours they are allowed outside each day. In mid-summer it is often too hot. The accommodation blocks for families and single men are separate, and all interaction prohibited. It is a lifeless, soul-sapping place.
We hand in phones and passports to the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) guards on arrival. They unlock the barred gate of the family block. The foyer is busy with people. A downstairs office has been converted into a dormitory, with several bunk beds crowded in and makeshift curtains draped loosely across the open doorway. As we wait, we give pipe-cleaners to the children who gather excitedly; they make bracelets and pretend glasses. There are no classrooms in Busmantsi. We move the tables in the cafeteria to face the whiteboard on the end wall; some of the table tops are disconnected from the metal feet on which they now precariously balance. The wooden seats of many of the chairs are so worn away that only a steel frame remains. During the adults’ lesson, the children sit quietly and colour; I am given a picture of a bright blue house with pink curtains with grass and flowers in front. There are hills in the background and a warm sun.
Busmantsi is one of two detention centres – ‘Special Homes for the Temporary Placement of Foreigners’ – in Bulgaria; the other, Lyubimets, is on the Greek-Turkish border. All migrants to Bulgaria are considered ‘illegally residing foreigners’ upon entry. The status of asylum seeker is conferred only once an application for international protection is made. An approved asylum application results in refugee status. In basic terms – as defined by the 1967 Protocol – a ‘refugee’ is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to, or seek the protection of, his country due to ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted’ on grounds of race, religion, nationality, social or political opinion. Refugees live in open camps. In Sofia there are two open camps in Voenna Rampa and Ovcha Kupal.
‘Irregular migrants’ are detained in Busmantsi. Various violations of immigration regulations lead to ‘irregular migration’ status – ‘illegal entry’ by evading immigration controls at green border crossings; or ‘means of deception’ including forged documents, or misinformation about purpose of stay. Undocumented asylum seekers can also be detained. Illegally entering migrants have the right to claim asylum, and can apply at the border with immigration police or from a detention centre. A lack of twenty-four-hour interpretation services for all languages at the border means, however, that many individuals submit late applications which can lead to detention. The Dublin Regulation stipulates that asylum-seekers register for refugee status in the first ‘safe third country’ they reach, which includes all EU member states. A European-wide readmission deal means that refugees can be deported back to the state that they first registered in. At Voenna Rampa an Iranian man told us how he had been deported from Germany twice. Bulgarian cooperation with this policy has been recently complicated by Turkey’s refusal to readmit refugees after the EU failed to grant visa-free travel to all Turkish citizens. Registration is accompanied by fingerprinting; the data recorded saved onto the EURODAC database to make refugee identification (and deportation) easier.
Many asylum-seekers avoid registering for refugee-status in Sofia for this reason, as they do not want to have to stay in Bulgaria. A man in Voenna Rampa explained how his family in Iran had been distraught when they discovered he was in Bulgaria. He mimed crying. ‘Bulgaria is a good country, but there is no future for us here’. His plan is to settle for a time in Sofia and then proceed to Germany with his wife and two young daughters. Twenty-three-year-old Khaled* was detained in Busmantsi for thirty-six days, and decided to opt for voluntary deportation to his home city of Dohuk, northern Iraq. ‘Peshmerga forces are very good to stop ISIS’ he assured me, explaining how he hopes to go to Canada. His Canadian mother lives there with his Iraqi father, neither of whom he has seen for nine years. ‘Nine years is too long not to see your mother’, he said sadly. Individuals whose asylum applications (and up to three appeals) have been denied can also be deported. During a volunteer training session, I was told of a loop-hole, however, that persons who neither register for asylum nor opt for voluntary deportation, can be detained for up to eighteen months in Bulgaria before being released. An NGO leads Bulgarian orientation classes which explain in practical terms how to proceed in these cases, giving, for example, directions to reach Sofia via public transport.
Some aid workers say there is insufficient regard for international law which is designed to acknowledge the specific vulnerability of unaccompanied minors. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child outlaws the detention of children. In exceptional cases in Bulgaria children can be detained with their family for up to ten days to – as outlined in Article 45 of the Law on Asylum and Refugees – ‘preserve family unity or to guarantee their protection and security’. Detaining an unaccompanied minor contravenes Article 44 of the Law for Foreigners in Bulgaria. In January 2016 the Office of the Ombudsman reported that 142 children were registered in Busmantsi and Lyubimets detention centres, many of them unaccompanied. An employee at ‘Centre for Legal Aid: Voice of Bulgaria’ (CLA) described how some unaccompanied minors are arbitrarily paired with an adult asylum-seeker during registration at the border, meaning that in administrative terms the minor is deemed accompanied and can be lawfully detained. Often neither party knows that this has happened. Sometimes Afghan children are registered with Pakistani men, the source told me.
Aarash and Arman* were two unaccompanied boys in Busmantsi from Afghanistan, who said they were thirteen years-old. They were detained for at least five weeks, attending every English class we ran. One week Aarash asked for money; a volunteer gave him enough for the coffee machine, but worried that he wanted it for something untoward. It was unclear what though given the strict regulation of the camp. Residents of Busmantsi are locked into their accommodation blocks, within a wider secured complex. They have no phone or internet access, and are isolated from the outside world, friends and family. In late September I was relieved to see Aarash at Voenna Rampa, in relative terms, happier and freer.
Such isolation dehumanises, a central experience of many of the people that I spoke to. Refugees are too often depicted as a homogenous group, but they each, of course, have distinct stories, personalities and aspirations. Khaled is a photographer. The biographical section of his website writes ‘First think I am a photographer; my job is photography and everything is camera’, ‘Life for Peshmerga, Die fucking ISIS’. Some photographs are poignantly political – coiled barbed wire against scorched grass, captioned with ‘Here in Iraq we are not on the face of the land’. A close-up of a man’s face superimposed with the Kurdistan flag is captioned with ‘My blood is Kurdistan; my country is Kurdistan; my language is Kurdistan; my everything is Kurdistan’. It reminds me of the drawings the children do of the flags of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Khaled condemned the behaviour of the Bulgarian authorities; interestingly he described the Turkish police as ‘very good’ and said that they treated him as a person. In Busmantsi Khaled told me that he was refused access to a doctor, accused of lying that he was ill. ‘Why would I pretend I was ill?’ he lamented in frustration. Refugees complain about the social workers; some of the children have psychological problems which seem untreated. One boy is temperamental and violent – kicking and biting. The other children mouth behind his back that he is crazy. A Pakistani man told me that the guards and migration police are paid off by the mafia. He showed me scabs on his arms from where the mafia had cut him, and explained how they steal belongings and stir trouble by bringing in alcohol. He said that human traffickers are also present, their crimes brought to global attention by the arrest of three Bulgarians in Hungary in August 2015 accused of the trafficking and death of 71 refugees who suffocated during transportation in a hermetically-sealed truck for refrigerated goods. During my stay, the children informed me of several families who had gone to Serbia (presumably with traffickers).
These problems are augmented by a lack of effective communication between the refugees, authorities and NGOs. At Voenna Rampa a man asked us to decipher a poorly written registration application which told him to register three hours from Sofia. He was meanwhile denied entry to the camp and left with nowhere to go. The CLA launched information sessions in Kurdish, Arabic and Farsi in response to similar incidents; to not only outline the options available to asylum-seekers but guide them through the legal maze of immigration and refugee policy. The lack of operative channels of communication also prevent refugees from gaining redress of grievances. I was told that a group, predominantly of Afghan men, had rioted in Voenna Rampa in early 2016 after a dispute with the authorities. Riot police arrived after the interior was attacked – plumbing ripped out and windows smashed. A volunteer lamented the ensuing lack of political impetus at all levels to resolve the foundational issues, and SAR refusal to repair the damage. The incident cultivated deep antipathy between the Afghan and Kurdish residents of Voenna Rampa. In August, a seven-year old girl spat at the Kurdish children during class. ‘Afghans two o’clock, Kurdish three o’clock’ the Kurdish children pleaded, but such segregation would compound problems.
Bordermonitoring Bulgaria (BMB) reported on 2 September the Bulgarian government’s support for detention spaces in open centres to be installed for refugees deemed to have broken conduct rules. Director of SAR Petya Parvaonva and Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova also proposed the implementation of zones of movement whereby refugees would be restricted to defined areas from the open camps to the city. Contravention could lead to detention. These measures are deemed compatible with EU law provided access to schools, hospitals and other social services is maintained. Bachvarova claimed that these proposals were to boost ‘discipline and security’ following a mass brawl that left three injured at Harmanli refugee camp in south-eastern Bulgaria in late August. BMB argued, however, that such changes had been long planned – a response to shifts in the structure of migrant inflow to Bulgaria. Afghan migrants now significantly prevail as a share of people applying for protection; according to figures from Caritas, from 1 January to 31 July 2016 there were 4442 Afghan requests for asylum submitted, compared to 2832 applications by Iraqis; 1120 by Syrians; 646 by Pakistanis; and 169 by Iranian nationals.
These disciplinary and security concerns could explain the increased police presence at Voenna Rampa. By late August there were always police. One morning there were several migration-police cars, and armed officers at doorways inside the camp. A news crew had trained its cameras on the playground, within which were rows of men, most with several bags. There were no women or children. Faces peered out of the accommodation blocks; someone threw a pair of socks to a waiting man. A police officer patrolled the human enclosure, his alsatian straining at its lead towards the front men. Two coaches were parked under the trees; it was unclear whether they had brought, or were to take away, the men. They might have gone to Harmanli camp which is at only 50% of its 2000-person capacity. An Iranian woman and her husband later explained to me how the men had been recently caught by the migration police. She mimed someone being handcuffed.
The next week I met a Pakistani man who had been attacked by the police dog. The gouge was deep, like a spoonful of flesh had been taken from his calf. He explained how earlier that day two men had fought near the entrance to Voenna Rampa when the police intervened and let their Alsatian loose. He had been caught up in the skirmish as he re-entered the camp. He said that he had tried to find a doctor but to no avail. The antiseptic solution from the classroom first aid-kit proved entirely insufficient so I told him that I would bring a dressing and bandage to the classroom the next day. I never saw him again. These problems are augmented by the language barrier. The English lesson on body parts and injuries proved popular in the women’s class but highlighted the acute difficulty of administering effective medical care in another language.
Neither does anyone seem to have comprehensive knowledge of the medical provision at Voenna Rampa. Two doctors are meant to work in an office in the administrative block, but the terms of their presence – including working hours and referral powers – are not clear. The doctor who I spoke to complained of the lack of resources, lamenting that there was no longer any medicine to distribute. This corresponded with the feedback of the refugees themselves. An Iranian woman with chronic sciatica was without medication; a twelve-year old girl with a long-term heart condition received no treatment. During several lessons she became faint and breathless, clutching at her chest and would have to sit quietly for a while. A four-year old girl came to class with a large bandage around her foot. Her brother explained that she had been caught in a ‘jungle fire’. She could not walk on it properly and was carried around. The dressing seemed never to get changed, and grew progressively dirtier.
In Busmantsi the absence of sufficient medical care is also clear. A primary school teacher from Mosul, Iraq explained how his five-year old daughter has a long-term medical condition for which she is not receiving treatment. Whether treatment would be curative or purely palliative is not clear. ‘She is sick; very sick’, he said, and cannot talk or walk properly. Her eyes are glazed over and seem not to notice the bright balloons the other children are playing with. Her weak body leans heavily against her father’s chair. The language barrier, once again, hinders entirely transparent communication but it seems there is little hope of her condition improving in the imminent future. Her father explains how with a family of five the process of applying and gaining asylum is slow. Until then she will continue to receive insufficient care.
Health is not helped by poor hygiene and sanitation, particularly at Voenna Rampa. There are meat bones and rotting fruit in the corridors; the bathrooms are leaking and puddles of dirty water cover the floor, residual dirt seared into the grimy walls. Children cover their noses as they pass. Men cook outside on makeshift fires, the dirt ground littered with glass and broken plastic cutlery. Some of the children have blackening teeth; on occasion we give out toothbrushes and explain how to use them, but it is hard to know if such practice is being followed. The children always ask for hand sanitiser at the end of class, and a few of the girls beg for clothes wash. They also ask for Pampers nappies for their little siblings.
In physical terms Voenna Rampa is deplorable, despite nominal EU funding for renovation. It is located in a largely derelict industrial zone on the outskirts of Sofia. The tram stops outside a run-down tyre factory. Stray dogs lie in the shade of several old cars parked behind the rusty gates. There is an abandoned house before the road disintegrates into a dirt track and scrubland. Charni Vrah – the Black Peak – of Vitosha mountain looms overhead. Through a graffitied underpass, there is a busy road where the drivers only stop if you are in the middle of the lane by the time they reach you. A small corner shop sells coffee for the equivalent of 30p, and banitsa – a traditional feta-cheese pastry. The road continues. It is not residential but built up with industrial warehouses and street lamps under which clusters of men crouch talking. ‘Salam’, some nod to us. They are always friendly.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’, a Bulgarian volunteer, teacher and former journalist explained to me. She said that many people in Bulgaria are scared and in poverty, and resent government and international efforts to help refugees when they too need support. Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, and is one of the poorest member states, with youth unemployment at 28.4%. The CIA World Factbook writes how ‘corruption in public administration, a weak judiciary, and the presence of organised crime continue to hamper the country’s investment climate and economic prospects’. Poverty is acutely clear. People rummage through the large metal dustbins to salvage some small morsel; old women stand for hours on the metro steps trying to sell bunches of flowers. The journey to Busmantsi passes rows of communist-style tower blocks; some have been half demolished, loose cables holding the crumbling walls in fragile place; the wires and aerial masts fixed haphazardly like the wayward tendrils of a staked plant. We pass horse-and-carts; old men shelling walnuts on the roadside; more stray dogs.
Sofia is also, however, a great city; serene yet vibrant. There are beautiful parks, many sites of historic interest, innovative shops and a full calendar of cultural events. There are independent boutiques, and contemporary health food shops which creatively adapt the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that shape Bulgarian cuisine. The landscape is breath-taking: a new metro link connects the city easily to the dense forests, lush plateaus and clear streams of Vitosha Mountain. The Seven Rila Lakes and Pirin National Park boasted some of the most incredible scenery that I have ever encountered. The people I met were friendly and welcoming, going out of their way to help me in what ways they could. Indeed, the majority of the volunteers at the camp were Bulgarian; their compassion and dedication driving the project forward. As a man from a rural village in the Iskar Valley just north of Sofia described, there are as many views on immigration in Bulgaria, as there are people – 7 million.
In this light, the dangers of broad-sweeping generalisations are even more acutely illuminated. Ivan Krastev – chairman at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia – wrote, however, about the broad distinctions in European attitudes to the so-called refugee crisis. In an article in the International New York Times in September 2015, he outlined how 60% of the German public supported its government giving shelter to as many as 800,000 refugees. A similar poll conducted in the Czech Republic revealed that 44% insisted that the government spend not even one extra koruna to help migrants. Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia asserted, Krastev continued, that 95% of asylum seekers were not refugees at all, but economic migrants, and that Slovakia would accept only Christians. An email leaked from the Hungarian national television network asked journalists to avoid showing images of migrant children. Bulgarian television never had the money nor interest to send reporters to Syria.
Krastev labelled this ‘Eastern Europe’s compassion deficit’. He attributed such sentiment in Bulgaria to an incurious insularity; cynicism after communism and liberal reforms; disappointment in the EU after unmet promises of economic prosperity; and fear of ‘ethnic disappearance’, particularly in the context of the failed integration of the Roma. ‘What we see’, he wrote ‘is not a lack of solidarity…but a clash of solidarities: national, ethnic and religious solidarity chafing against our obligations as human beings’. His comments parallel the experience of a volunteer from Sofia who recounted how she had been at a family party where she had been repeatedly asked in disbelief why she wanted to spend time volunteering in the camp. Her father, who lives and works in London, was actively disapproving.
Voenna Rampa camp is not tented, but a converted school. The guards sit at a wooden table by the entrance. The large black gates are left ajar and residents can come-and-go as they please. Their status as ‘refugees’ has been approved and, depending on the visa granted, some can even work. The building is comprised of two three-storey perpendicular blocks, painted in white and orange. There is a tired tarmac playground in front, lined by sparse trees and a few benches. A volleyball-net has been erected haphazardly – one side onto the wire-fence of the play area, inside which young men sit or practice pull-ups on the rusty equipment. I once saw a game of baseball. Five coloured hoops have been attached to the fence, a remnant of the recent Olympics. Shallow steps lead up to one side of the building. People used to climb from here into the ground-floor rooms, but bars have since been locked to the windows.
Inside almost everything is dirty and broken. There are bare mattresses propped up in the hallway, kicked over during the day and used as trampolines by children, or slept on by men with nothing else to do. The windows are broken, the plaster of the walls cracked or gone entirely. There is only one classroom in use. There used to be three but one is used to store computers (donated for refugee use) with entry by refugees and NGOs forbidden in case of damage; the other has been converted into a dormitory. The sports hall is also now used for accommodation, although the other day a funeral was held there. It was hard to learn exactly what had happened, but there were men with plastic gloves and it seemed like someone had died in the camp.
The present classroom was designed and modelled on a play-based teaching style which has been constructive in a camp near the Turkish border. It is a decent-sized room and, on first inspection, a bright and positive space. A colourful mural has been painted on the walls and there are large windows; drawings are pinned up along posters of the alphabet and numbers. In one corner is a box of books and games. Fancy-dress is always popular, as is the toy cooker.
It is, however, rife with difficulties. The main door, even when locked from the inside, can be opened, meaning the children run in-and-out during the lesson. This has severe repercussions on structure and discipline: ‘time-outs’ for misbehaviour are impossible; parents come in and drop-off younger children as if it is a day-care service; and, particularly after the decision to split the lesson and teach three to eight-year-olds first, followed by nine years and over, the younger children rush back into the classroom uninvited. We resorted to tying the door handle with rope to a cupboard, until the rope broke when the children outside tried to pull the door open. Clearing up after class becomes almost impossible – younger ones run in and refuse to leave, hiding under the tables, arms wrapped firmed around the chair legs. On one occasion I had to lock the door from the outside and then climb back in through the window.
The structure of the session is meant to be thirty minutes of lesson, followed by thirty minutes of play. In reality the teaching rarely stretches beyond fifteen minutes – the short concentration span of a child compounded by the distraction of toys, and the long-term absence of routine or sufficient stimulation. The difficulty of teaching is augmented by the vast discrepancy in age and ability, and a language barrier both between the volunteers and refugees, but also within the children themselves; the majority are Afghans who speak Farsi, while others speak Kurdish or Arabic. Playtime, too, has ceased to be productive, descending quickly into chaos. As an inevitable result of time and extended use, but also from a lack of respect, already limited resources are damaged – one lesson a seven-year-old girl pulled out a drawer of lego and threw the contents into the air, watching as the tiny pieces fell to the ground. I sat her down and explained that she would have to pick up every piece. Two boys hurled cardboard bricks across the room; another girl scribbled absently on the desk despite there being paper in front of her. Puzzle pieces are snatched and torn; beads which they refuse to share spilt into every conceivable nook. Small cockroaches run rampant among the files on the shelves, and dirt become embedded into the rugs on the floor. In early June there were around fifteen children; by September there were at least forty, often with only two volunteers.
It was outlined at a volunteers meeting that the best way to try to enforce greater order would be to get the parents’ cooperation, encouraging them to bring their children to class and collect them at the end. Some parents do this already; the trouble is that many children are without their parents. An Iranian woman sits amidst the chaos of the classroom with a beautiful three-month old baby. She speaks limited English, but explains how many of the children are becoming increasingly badly behaved because their parents are absent. I was told that the father of a twelve-year old girl was shot on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, after a bullet ricocheted off a tree. Another family came only with their father, their mother remaining in Afghanistan. It is little wonder there are such problems; the tragedy is that there seems little hope of effective or imminent resolution.
The lessons highlight the physical and intellectual deprivation of the children. One seven-year girl could not even copy the alphabet out; her pencil too unsteady. Some of the older girls ask whether they can take things out of the classroom – usually pencils, paper and books – promising to bring them back the next day. Normally we agree, but it is difficult to balance resources. Recently, some have asked whether they can take small saucepans from the toy cooker, not to play with but for their parents to cook with. The younger ones sometimes try to take toys out of the classroom – finger puppets or crayons hidden in their small fists or pockets. Others run after them and retrieve the items; it feels cruel but some things have to stay in the classroom or else there would be nothing left. The footballs and table-tennis sets we lent out never found their way back, rendering the weekly sports session a rather feeble affair.
There is, of course, capacity for effective engagement and productive development. The children love the lessons. They rush to the classroom when the teachers arrive, waiting outside for thirty minutes to be first in line to enter. Through exercises, songs and games they have learnt basic phrases and more complex vocabulary relating to body-parts and moods. Science is led by a volunteer who is a trained primary-school teacher. The lessons are innovative and ambitious, incorporating theory and practical experiments; baking soda and lemon juice used to demonstrate how a volcano erupts. In Music they have made harmonicas from toothpicks and paper, tambourines from paper plates and dried beans. Bottle tops collected from various drinking establishments around Sofia are waiting to be made into other instruments. During playtime, some read stories with us and practice their English; others sit quietly and draw, or pretend to cook with bright plastic vegetables. The older girls like to make jewellery; I watched in awe as one girl made a beautiful scarf by weaving the wool intricately around her fingers.
The volunteer project also organises excursions, like day trips to the medieval Bulgarian capital Plovdiv; orientation tours around Sofia; and pony-riding and sports for the children. A group of women from Voenna Rampa attended a craft workshop to learn the Persian art of Ebru painting. They ranged from about thirteen to thirty-years old, and were from Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. In a café after the painting, the younger girls took selfies on their phones and enjoyed cherryade and ice-cream, the older ones chatted over a cup of coffee.
The women have a difficult time in the camp, and I rarely see them leave to visit the city centre. The children sometimes invite us to their corridors which are small and full of people; a single cooker for several families, and little space to wash or dry clothes. The teenage girls have no classes suitable for them; they are reluctant to attend the adult English class because it is entirely dominated by men, yet they are too mature for the play-based escapades of the children’s sessions. The weekly Art for Women class has become neither a constructive nor invigorating environment. Some mothers insist on bringing their children, even those old enough to play alone. This means that more ambitious craft activities cannot be attempted; while the noise prevents English practice, which the majority are keen to do. We tried informal lessons about body-parts, food shopping and travel, but it was insufficient. In October, an evening women-only English class is to be trialled in the small Red Cross office in Voenna Rampa, which will hopefully improve the present situation. Knowledge of English is a crucial tool of empowerment that, in a hostile and uncertain world, is becoming increasingly indispensable.
As I sped easily through Sofia Airport, amid reports of the ever growing horror of events in Aleppo, the sheer inequity of the world was lain bare. As Somali writer Warsan Shire wrote ‘No-one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark’. Bulgaria offers little in the way of safe refuge. The situation is unsustainable; in humanitarian regard most certainly, but also in relation to hope of future global peace and prosperity.
* Names changed to protect identity.