An education in misery – Syrian refugees in Harmanli

Refugees at Bulgaria’s largest refugee camp in Harmanli have begun an informal school for the camp’s children, who have no access to outside education. © Georgi Kozhuharov

“It’s my turn to teach the children English now,” Mohammad Hussain told me on a recent chilly January evening at the Harmanli refugee camp in Bulgaria. We headed out for a short walk to the makeshift classroom nearby.

Mohammad makes sure he wears his thickest clothes and a winter hat when he teaches. The children, too, are dressed warmly from head to toe as they cuddle against each other on the cement floor. Old mattresses are being used as desks, but a local school has promised to donate their old furniture soon. A map of the animals in the Bulgarian mountains looks down from the hastily painted white walls.

“I don’t have any books to use, but it’s better to do something [rather] than to just sit and wait”, he said, smiling. The lesson, at its best, was improvisation. Several dozen children attended that evening to listen what Mohammad had to say.

The 23-year-old from the north-eastern Syrian city of Qamishli is part of the informal educational collective made up of Syrian students and young professionals. With help from Bulgarian volunteers and a room donated by the state, they have set up an informal school within the Harmanli camp, based on the old methods of community learning. More than 250 children of all ages have started studying basic subjects such as mathematics, biology, English and computers.

“We were always outside with nothing to do,” a young girl called Maha said. She enjoys the opportunity to learn something. “But now when school began it’s interesting”.

The lack of gainful activity is a problem for the adults too – because Harmanli is a closed camp, they are not allowed to leave to pursue work. One of the reasons Mohammad started teaching is because it helps to pass the time. “I am tired of this rotting. All I have done for the past two months is wake up, eat and do nothing. I want to go out, I want to see people”, he told me.

Others have taken up sports and music. Somebody has donated balls and coloured vests. A football tournament was quickly set up, with more than 10 teams taking part. The “Falcons of Qamishli” won it after heavy resistance from “United Africa”. Traditional folklore dances and music were played while the players celebrated.

More than 1,600 people live now in the former military barracks in Harmanli. This is the biggest refugee camp in Bulgaria. The government plans to expand it to 4,000 residents as more people are expected to arrive this year.

Most of the asylum seekers are Syrian. Smaller groups of Africans and Afghanis are also among them. The camp is off-limits and Bulgarian police guard the perimeter around the clock.

Until recently nobody was allowed outside the camp without the right documents. Such papers could be obtained only after the start of the asylum procedure. However, Harmanli lacked the required staff and technical capabilities for months. This has led to rumours about corruption, which the Bulgarian authorities dismiss. My attempts to verify them proved unsuccessful.

One of the most talked-about topics is the so called “kart akhdar”. This is what the people in the camp call the green piece of paper, which gives them identity in Bulgaria and allows them to go outside during daylight hours. Getting it is the first step towards receiving refugee status.

What many of the refugees don’t know is that once they receive their final documents, they have to leave the camp forever and find accommodation elsewhere.

This is the challenge that all refugees have to face soon. Some people simply do not have the financial means to support themselves. The Bulgarian state does offer material assistance for people in the national integration programme. However, the scheme is limited to only 60 people – more than 10,000 asylum-seekers entered the country in 2013 alone. A new programme is not yet ready.

The ones who have money to pay find themselves in another difficult situation. Bulgarian landlords set exorbitant prices or simply refuse to let their property. “People are scared that the foreigners will break their houses and never pay the rent”, an official in Harmanli told me, asking to remain anonymous.

As more people are granted asylum, the housing problem is set to expand as well. And more refugees are expected to come. Bulgarian authorities do not have exact figures, but concede that it is unlikely to be fewer than in 2013. This means that a further 10,000 people are likely to seek shelter in the country.

Mohammad, the teacher, says he feels sorry he left Syria. “My girlfriend is still there. I am very worried.” He mentions her every time we speak about home. For him, Bulgaria and the European Union proved to be a nightmare: “This here is bad life. I want to go back.”