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Bulgaria’s Drive to Bring Missing Kids Back to School

A month has passed since the first school bells rang this fall in Bulgaria, but, for thousands of children, the academic year never started. 

12 October 2017

The EU’s poorest member state is on a mission to bring its missing students to class by literally knocking on their doors.


Over 11,000 people, including teachers, social workers, and police officers, have been tasked with traveling the country to locate dropouts and others who have never set foot in a Bulgarian classroom or kindergarten. According to Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Dontchev, together they amount to over 200,000, although it is unclear how many live abroad permanently.


The campaign represents a bold attempt by Bulgaria to deal with widespread illiteracy, a lack of motivation among young people, and high rates of teenage pregnancy.


Such issues are evident particularly in the Roma community, which has been highly marginalized and discriminated against since Bulgaria began its transition from Communism in 1989. Many Roma and other Bulgarians have left the country in search of better work opportunities, often leaving the teams of specialists with no one to meet with.


A classroom in the Bulgarian town of Alfatar. Image by Gary Bembridge /Flickr.


“So far 150,000 visits have been completed, and 12,146 children have been brought back into the education system. Eighty-two percent of the children at these homes [which the experts visited] are currently abroad,” Deputy Education Minister Denitsa Satcheva told reporters on Tuesday.


Frequent journeys abroad by entire families or breadwinners play havoc with children’s schooling. Zatie Marinova, a resident of Bulgaria’s largest Roma ghetto in the southern city of Plovdiv, told AFP the education of her 10-year-old son depends on her husband.


“We’ll enroll him in school here if his father doesn’t call us back to Germany,” Marinova said.


But Roma can draw inspiration from role models such as Marcel Iliev, 19, from the northwestern city of Montana, whose excellent grades earned him a state-sponsored scholarship to England.


“Education is the road to success and can help you get out of poverty,” Iliev told AFP in a phone interview.


The Bulgarian government, a coalition of conservatives and nationalists, recently threatened parents who refuse to enroll their children in school with fines and suspension of benefits. To encourage families with financial burdens, the government promised to provide them with textbooks, clothes, and backpacks.


In September, Education Minister Krasimir Valtchev said 90 percent of Roma children have not completed secondary education. According to him, not attending school should be criminalized.


Valtchev’s comment has been criticized by experts who believe that parents should be supported rather than threatened.


“Demonizing families, which for whatever reason do not help their children to receive an education, is not working. This would further isolate these families and turn society against them,” Tsveta Brestnitchka from a parents association told the Bulgarian National Radio.



  • The 2015 edition of PISA, an international educational assessment, found that 40 percent of all Bulgarian ninth-graders were functionally illiterate in science, math, and reading.


  • According to AFP, some 22 percent of Roma in Bulgaria are illiterate.


  • The European Commission reported in August that Bulgaria has made significant progress in Roma integration, with more children participating in early childhood education and care, and fewer leaving school early. Yet, segregation remains an issue – more than 60 percent of Roma children are separated from other children in Bulgaria.

Compiled by Peter Georgiev

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Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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