SCHOOLING FOR REFUGEES

text and photography by Nelly Tomova

Bulgarian state education is free but can be difficult to navigate

schooling for refugees.jpg

"Be Good," is written on the blackboard by the Bulgarian language teacher at the Refugee Integration Centre in Sofia's Ovcha Kupel district. Several men and women of different ages bend over their notebooks to copy down what they have just been shown. They have come from Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Nigeria and are now having their first lessons in Bulgarian grammar and spelling. Not knowing the language of the country would leave them helpless and unable to adapt.

Several hours later, the same room will be occupied by more than 20 refugee children who already go to Bulgarian state schools in the region. When not at school, they can do their homework at the centre, draw and paint in the art room or hang around until their parents have finished class.

Even foreigners with permanent residence experience difficulties and may need help to navigate the Bulgarian educational system. Rules and documents are rarely translated into any other language, most of the schools do not have websites, and communication with teachers and principals might be difficult. People who have come to this country with enough finance or who have a well paid job, however, will definitely get by, as they have the choice between state and private education.

But there can be a huge problem if a foreigner has just arrived illegally, with no money or belongings. Even if they have already applied for protection to the Bulgarian Refugee Agency, access to education will probably be the last thing they care about. And even if they do care, it can be hard to ensure their children get into school without assistance. Fortunately, there is a place where such people can get help.

The Refugee Integration Centre was founded in 1997 and is managed by the State Refugee Agency.

It provides accommodation and educational support for immigrants who have applied for or have been granted protection by the state. These refugees can take advantage of free Bulgarian language lessons and take professional courses in beauty therapy, hairdressing and sewing and design, which will give them a chance of finding a job in Bulgaria.

A special expert takes care of all educational issues and helps parents enroll their children at school.

At first they study Bulgarian at the centre and then take an exam to check their language level and are assessed as to which school grade they should enter. More than twenty children have been enrolled in Bulgarian state schools up to now and according to specialists from the centre, they are doing pretty well. The centre is also trying to ensure access to kindergartens for children of refugees. Some of the parents participate in the Bulgarian National Refugee Integration Programme and are encouraged to let their kids study, with targeted financial aid for clothes, books and other educational items, and they receive child benefits as well.

BULGARIAN EDUCATION

Children in Bulgaria usually start school at the age of 7, after two years of pre-school. Even Bulgarians find it hard to get access to state kindergartens, which have been fully booked in recent years. For foreigners, things look worse because of the language barrier, the diverse administrative procedures and the long waiting lists.

State school education is compulsory for children between the ages of 7-16 years. It is available free for Bulgarian citizens and for four categories of foreigners, defined under the Education Law: those with permanent residence in the country, which includes children of compulsory school age who are members of a permanent residence family; foreigners who have been allowed into the country by way of the Council of Ministers or by intergovernmental agreements; children of compulsory school age whose parents are EU, EEA or Swiss citizens. This include refugees, as well.

However, it is hard to find a multilingual primary school which is not private. State schools should provide special individual programmes for foreign children, including Bulgarian lessons. According to the Education Act, students of compulsory school age whose parents are EEA or Swiss citizens and who work in the territory of Bulgaria, are entitled to free Bulgarian classes, as well as classes in their native language and cultural heritage.

Secondary schools offer a wider choice, as many of them are language oriented and most of the subjects are taught in the corresponding language – whether it be English, German, Spanish or Italian. As far as higher education and universities are concerned, foreign students with permanent residence are accepted on the same terms as Bulgarians.

However, a foreign student must provide a valid certificate of completed secondary education, translated in Bulgarian and notarised, and must pass a Bulgarian language exam if necessary.

Open Society Institute - SofiaThis periodical has been selected to be supported in media pluralism promotion contest, funded by the Open Society Institute - Sofia. The content of publications in it is responsibility of the authors and in no circumstances should be regarded as an official position of the Open Society Institute - Sofia.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

OPEN BUZLUDZHA 2024
The fourth iteration of the OPEN BUZLUDZHA festival is scheduled to kick off on 8 August and will last for three nights/four days.

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

TRAINING BULGARIA'S YOUTH HOW TO DEBATE
Оne of the (many) notable things Marcus Tullius Cicero said over 20 centuries ago is that "to live is to think" – and if we are not ashamed of what we think we should not be ashamed to voice it.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM AND ITS BULGARIAN CONNECTION
Where are the Bulgarian Oscars? For years this question – coupled with the notable lack of a Bulgarian Nobel Prize winner in anything – has troubled the Bulgarians, perhaps bespeaking a very deeply ingrained cultural inferiority complex.

ANGRY SOFIANITES
From job opportunities to entertainment options: living in Sofia, Bulgaria's largest city, has its perks. It also has its downsides.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
"Dimitrina?" I have not heard from her for more than a month, which is unusual. "Почина." "Po-chi-na?" I type the word phonetically in an online translation tool. "What?" "Почина. Me, Dimitrina sister. Bye."
ARRIVAL CITY
As an airplane is swooping over a field beside Sofia Airport, two horses and a donkey do not look up, but keep grazing among the rubbish. Shacks made of bricks, corrugated iron and wood encroach upon the field.

AMERICA FOR BULGARIA FOUNDATION CELEBRATES BULGARIAN SUPERHEROES
Everyday Superheroes was the main theme of the event, celebrating the efforts and the energy of ordinary Bulgarians who work in spite of the difficulties and the hardships to make Bulgaria a better place.

TRADITIONAL MUSIC AND DANCE
As you hold this book in your hands, a Bulgarian song travels in outer space. The song in question is "Izlel e Delyu Haidutin," a traditional Rhodope tune sung by Valya Balkanska.

WHEN A ROSE IS NOT EXACTLY A ROSE
Attar-bearing roses and beautiful girls in traditional attire picking them dominate the images that Bulgaria uses to sell itself to both Bulgarian and international tourists.

DECIPHERING BISHOP'S BASILICA OF PHILIPPOPOLIS
This May, for two days, historians, archaeologists, restorers and experts in other fields shared their findings and ideas about the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis at a scientific conference in Plovdiv.

VERY SUPERSTITIOUS
Once you start paying attention to Bulgarians, you will observe some inexplicable actions. Dozens of men and women wear red thread around their wrists. An old woman cuddles a baby, and then spits at it.