The New Face of Sofia’s Vrazhdebna Refugee Center
The refugee reception center in Sofia’s Vrazhdebna district opened doors in September 2013, on the premises of an old abandoned school.
Just weeks after it started functioning, the Vrazhdebna center was filled with 475 asylum seekers, while its capacity is for 320. The media showed appalling conditions, with as many as 21 people crammed into a single room. There was a shortage of food, as the Bulgarian government was struggling to cope on a national level with the steady wave of refugees entering the country as a result of the Syrian crisis.
This is how a room and a playground for children looked like, back in October.
Seven months later, I visit Vrazhdebna. I am welcomed by the head of the center, Colonel Ivan Penkov. He takes me on a tour around the building.
An overhaul of the center began on February 20. It was funded 80% by the European Refugee Fund and 20% from the national budget, amounting to some BGN 2 million. By April 30, the core of the repair work was completed. There are still several workers laying the finishing touches here and there.
The facade of the building is completely repainted, in warm yellow and pink colors. New doors and window frames are installed. I enter a former classroom, which is now equipped with brand new chairs and desks. This is where the refugees take Bulgarian language lessons and participate in other integration activities.
The adjacent room is a kindergarten. Of the 68 refugees currently residing in Vrazhdebna, 26 are children. It is still morning and the activities have not started, but the chairs and tables are neatly ordered. I see drawings made by the kids yesterday. Mr. Penkov tells me that they are very artistic, and also love to sing and dance. They have also made friends with some peers outside the center, where they take walks and play in the neighborhood.
In another classroom, the children are taught Bulgarian by a lady from the Caritas charity and relief organization. There are only 2 girls and a boy when I enter, and the lesson is yet to start. Two of them seem quite sleepy as they have just gotten out of bed, while the third is rightfully more focused on her breakfast sandwich than on my presence. Remembering the dreadful mornings of my school days, I decide it is appropriate not to bother them with too many questions. They are still beginners in Bulgarian, but their teacher tells me that they are very bright and positive kids and that it is a pleasure to work with them.
The medical room is also completely new, and a specialized doctor works on a daily basis. Most of the materials and medicines have been donated by Doctors Without Borders.
Repair work on the gymnasium is expected to be finished within the next month. The walls are painted, new basketball hoops are installed, and only the flooring remains to be placed. I can say that many of the Bulgarian schools cannot even boast such a facility.
The main reconstruction work that is left to be finished is at the cafeteria and kitchen. The money for it has been granted from the UN. For the time being, food is being brought from a kitchen in Simeonovo.
On the residence floors, one wing is separated for families, while the other is for singles. The bathrooms have been refurbished and new showers put in place. A common laundry room is just being completed on the first floor. For the time being, they wash their clothes in basins.
Nawalia, who is pregnant with her second child, shows me her room. Her son Muhammad energetically runs around, climbing onto anything he finds. The beds are new, and there is reasonable space, compared to other centers I have visited.
She tells me of her past in Damascus, escaping the horrors of war. The journey through Turkey took 4 days.
For months she has been split from her husband, who is in Germany and just recently received a refugee status. Nawalia also has legal status to reside in the EU, but will wait to give birth before reuniting with him. She says she feels well in Bulgaria, and has not encountered any discrimination. Every day she calls friends and relatives back in Syria and also follows the latest events on television.
Mr. Penkov tells me that in the beginning, scuffles would often break out between refugees. The situation was hard to control, as there were simply too many people and too little staff.
Since then, a set of rules has been put in place. Each floor has a person in charge, a woman and a man. These are not staff employed from outside, but people who live there. It is a way to engage them, create a sense of responsibility and a sense of community. There are also plans for other administrative positions, which would be performed by the center's residents. On their part, they are required to participate in the 6-month Bulgarian language courses. This also entitles them to receive monthly allowances.
The refugees are free to leave the center's premises, but they have to register with the guard, and be back by 10:30 pm. There have not been any cases where somebody was reported missing in the city or involved in criminal activity.
The majority of the initial inhabitants have received refugee statuses and left the country, mostly to other EU states. Many of those who still remain here would like to do the same, but simply do not have the money for the journey.
In order to make them feel as much at home as possible, cultural and religious events are organized whenever possible. For example, a celebration in December marked both the Arabic Language Day and Christmas.
"We organized a combined event on December 19. The refugees sang and danced and taught us some words in Arabic. On our part, we invited Santa Clause and he gave everybody, young and old, presents. It is a good way to share our cultures", Mr. Penkov says.
The days of tension and frustration seem to be behind. Of course, every one of these people carries a deep scar in themselves, of the horrors they experienced and of running away from home. However, if their most basic needs can be met here in the host country, their recovery process will surely take much shorter.
When the first big waves of refugees started coming into the country, it became evident that the responsible institutions had not done their job to prepare. Temporary solutions were being worked out on an ad hoc basis.
The Vrazhdebna center shows how with the necessary will, funding, and leadership of committed individuals, transformation can happen in a matter of months.
Col. Ivan Penkov (R) and Red Cross aid worker Manam (L).
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