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In Bulgaria, An Oasis of Play and Learning

Two British women set out to add color and creativity to the lives of children in a large refugee center.  

by Boryana Dzhambazova 19 December 2016

HARMANLI, Bulgaria | A dozen refugee children are busy cutting, coloring, and gluing paper for carnival face masks. Some are already decorating them with glitter. Others dance to a pop song or play table foosball. Their teacher – Sadie Clasby, a 26-year-old British woman – is helping several girls with the decorations, while keeping an eye on the rest of her students. 


The walls of the brightly lit schoolroom in the reception center in Harmanli – a small town in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Turkey and Greece – are covered with colorful posters of the English alphabet, as well as words for numbers, colors, and names of the months written in English. Divided into three different groups, as many as a couple of hundred children spend time in the classroom every week.  


children at Harmali refugee centerMost children who attend the Harmanli camp’s learning through play center are from Syria.


Since the beginning of 2015 around 1.5 million refugees and migrants have reached Europe, and human rights organizations have voiced concerns that refugee children often have little access to education. While the criticism has often pointed to Greece, of the almost 19,000 registered asylum seekers in Bulgaria so far this year, only 90 children were enrolled this fall in schools in the country, all of them in the capital Sofia. Even though the vast majority of asylum seekers quickly journey on to Western Europe, that figure indicates that the great majority of all school-aged children are not in school.


Home to around 3,000 refugees, this is the biggest reception center in Bulgaria, the poorest European Union member state. Here, in the only such facility set up in a reception center in the country, the Clasbys employ the learning through play method to teach children between the ages of three and 14. Through a wide range of activities, they try to help kids develop their skills in art, science, math, and English as well as help them recover from the traumatic experience during their perilous journey to Europe. 


“I didn’t feel a school was what they needed so much as some kind of play therapy,” said Gil Clasby, Sadie’s mother and a former educator in the United Kingdom who started the play center in 2014. Together with her daughter they have created an alternative space for hundreds of children who usually spend months in the camp with little to do.


Educational activities in the play school also aim to introduce refugee children to the structure and style of European schooling.


Classes usually start with an hour of play, where children busy themselves with a variety of art and craft activities, reading, or role play. Then through different educational games and songs Sadie Clasby gives them a 30-minute lesson, teaching them some basic English and math.


“This was going to be the first experience of a school for a lot of these children and I wanted them to get used to the idea of what a European school is like,” she said. 


Cool Reception


Most migrants see Bulgaria, whose border police have been accused of physical abuse and pushing them back across the border, as a transit country on their way to Western Europe, where they hope to find a more welcoming attitude, better benefits, and more opportunities to integrate.


Refugees, including children, often face discrimination and hostility in the Balkan country. In the past year police have registered several cases of hate crimes toward foreigners and refugees, and residents of some towns have shown they want nothing to do with the newcomers.


In September 2014 some parents from a village near Sofia protested against the authorities’ plan to have a dozen refugee kids study in a local school. Earlier that year a group of Syrian refugees was forced to leave the house they had rented in another village after some of the local residents threatened them with violence. 


Gil Clasby – better known in the camp as Mama Gil, the children’s nickname for her – got the idea of opening the school after she started volunteering at the reception center. She was helping gather and deliver donations to the asylum seekers housed there at a time when the country was struggling to provide proper accommodation and living conditions to thousands of refugees who were fleeing the war in Syria.


“It was hard because there was nothing in place – very little electricity, no running water – it was really tough times to start with,” Gil said, stressing that basic things like larger shoe sizes, milk, diapers, and clothes used to be in great demand. 


In 2013 Bulgaria saw an unprecedented number of asylum seekers – more than 7,000, the majority of them Syrians – rising to 11,000 people in 2014 and more than 20,000 in 2015. Those numbers represented a dramatic increase compared to an annual average of 1,000 people over the last 10 years, according to statistics provided by the State Agency for Refugees.


Once the reception center was renovated in 2014, Gil and Sadie got to work, though convincing the camp’s management to provide them a room wasn’t easy. 


“I was just amazed how many children in this camp have nothing to do – they weren’t going to any of the schools here [in town] for various reasons. There was no playground, most of them had no toys,” Sadie recalls about her first visit to the camp.


The Clasbys have invested a lot of their time and money to furnish the schoolroom, as well as buy books and toys, to create a safe space in the camp where children can forget their hardships and feel like children again. Since they don’t receive any support from the state, last year the team started raising money to keep the play center open. They managed to raise 5,000 pounds ($6,200) through crowdfunding and by earlier this year had raised more than 8,000 pounds in total.


Learning to Play Again 


Despite their experience as teachers back home, it took the Clasbys some time to figure out the best way to approach refugee children. “We realized that these children are showing all sorts of trauma signs,” Sadie said. 


Mother and daughter were stunned by the children’s inability to enjoy even basic things like toys. 


“They’ve all lost their ability to play. There were so many people in the camp that their instant reaction was to hold on to anything they can grab and not let anyone else play with it,” Sadie said. “Their lives have been so chaotic and moving from one camp to the next and crossing borders illegally. It’s a survival sort of instinct.” 


A boy tries out one of the carnival masks made by children at the center.


Some of the students are concerned about problems more common for grown-ups than children their age. One of the class exercises encourages kids to draw or tell a story corresponding to an emoticon – happy, sad, scared, worried, etc. It’s a way to study basic words in English as well as provide therapy for all the trauma children have encountered back in their home countries or on the way to Europe.


An 11-year-old boy from Syria, who spent most of his childhood in an Iraqi camp, listed in his notebook, under an emoticon for “fear,” the worry of not getting the right refugee status that would allow the family to reach Germany. Another student put being arrested by the police as an example for “worried,” while a third one felt “tired” when the family was walking through the forest to cross into Bulgaria from Turkey. 


What keeps Gil and Sadie Clasby motivated, though, is the difference they are hoping to make.


“You’ve made a contribution to so many children’s lives. We’ve made their experience of being a refugee in this country better,” Sadie said. “Parents say, ‘The only good thing about being in Bulgaria is going to your school.’ Because they had so many bad experiences here, they just end up having a really negative view of Bulgaria.”

Story and photos by Boryana Dzhambazova, a freelance journalist based in Sofia.

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