A playschool at Harmanli Refugee Camp has played a vital role in helping traumatised youngsters

Imagine you are running a playschool for children whose parents froze to death while fleeing from persecution. Imagine also that those in your care are not only bereaved and poverty-stricken but also traumatised beyond belief.

But this is only the beginning of your struggle. You get little support from the authorities and you find that funding the group depends on the generosity and goodwill of donors. That’s not to mention the practical problems of dealing with children from varied backgrounds and finding a methodology that will help to calm the children and allow them to form ties. Some react by becoming extremely introverted, others become aggressive. What will work with one child doesn’t always work with another.

These are just some of the challenges facing British expat Sadie Clasby and her mother, Gil, who run the refugee camp’s play school, in Harmanli, 60 km from the Turkish border in southeastern Bulgaria. The school is in the grounds of the camp itself which opened in the autumn of 2013

Sadie with some children from the playschool

Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans, said John Lennon. And so it was with Sadie. She didn’t envisage a permanent stay in Bulgaria but her commitment and growing attachment to the children in her care mean she’s unlikely to return to the UK soon. Her parents moved to Bulgaria from England in 2012 – “for a quieter life!” Harmanli opened the following year and her mother began volunteering, helping with donations of food, clothing and other essential items.

“At this time the refugees in Harmanli camp were living in tents in freezing conditions and had no access to toilets or food etc. This was the first big influx of refugees and Bulgaria was understandably unprepared,” Sadie told me. “Over the next year conditions improved in the camp and the basic needs of the refugees were being met. I visited the camp on a holiday to Bulgaria to visit my parents and was shocked at how many children there were living there with no access to school or any other activities. They had no toys and there was no playground. My mum was keen to start focusing on the children as her background is in childcare. She is a qualified nursery nurse and play worker and I am a qualified primary school teacher and play worker. I was in my first year of teaching in England but wasn’t happy there so decided to move out to Bulgaria for a year to start some sort of project for the children in the camp with my mum. I’ve now been living here and running our play school for over 3 years!”

Many parents will recall the recalcitrance of their children during the first days of kindergarten. Getting traumatised youngsters to play in a group is an even bigger task. Visible signs of trauma can include perpetual rocking, panic attacks or just a reluctance to engage in organised activities. “We regularly have children who are unable to play without it ending in conflict. Or children who cannot relax enough to play, choosing instead to sit against a wall, clutching some toys. It takes time and some support but slowly these children begin to develop trusting relationships with us. They learn that our play school is a safe place.” Of all the activities so far, Sadie says that the children find moulding play dough to be the most therapeutic.

Sadie feels it’s important that the children forge trusting relationships with the adults, so it’s just her and her mother on the team. Consistency is their watchword and so short-term volunteering, although doubtless well-meaning, is discouraged. Thankfully, too, a psychologist is now permanently based in the camp so Sadie and her mother can pass on any concerns about the most troubled children. Once the children get used to each other, Sadie says it’s surprising how quickly they learn to communicate.

Most of the children in the camp over the years have been Kurdish, either from Syria or Iraq. They mostly speak Kurmanje Kurdish. Last year, however, saw an influx of Afghan and Iranian children and they speak several different languages – mainly Dari and Pashto. Dari and Kurmanje have some similarities so the children understand some things that they say to each other. But, says Sadie, they mostly talk in a mix of English and Bulgarian.

Sadie currently has a Syrian fiancé who can help with some of the Arabic. “Knowing a few words has helped both with communicating with the children and their parents – it shows that I care enough to try to talk to them. Most of them have spent months or years in foreign countries not understanding what people are saying. So a smiling face and a few words in a language they know immediately breaks down the first barriers and gets them smiling too.”

Traumatised children eventually learn to play together happily

Bulgaria, at least at state level, has acquired a reputation for not exactly having a smooth bedside manner in its handling of the refugee crisis. But Sadie points out that many Bulgarians have helped out and that negative attitudes to refugees exist in every country. “Bulgarian attitudes towards refugees have always varied. We couldn’t run our play school without the support of hundreds of Bulgarians who have given to our fundraisers over the years or donated their children’s unwanted clothes and toys.”

Education is an ongoing problem for many of the refugee children. In early October 2017 about 20 children from Harmanli camp started school, out of about 100 children of school age, but this is the first time in its four-year history that children there have had access to full-time education. Sadie says that many of the parents at the camp do not want their children to attend Bulgarian schools for fear of bullying and racism.

Many refugees have their eye on Western European countries as their final destination, Germany being a particular target. But will they ever get there? “It depends on a variety of different things like whether they get asylum in Bulgaria and whether or not they get humanitarian or refugee status,” says Sadie. “It also depends on whether they have enough money to travel or if traffickers know of a good route to take (and the safe routes vary all the time). For those travelling with the correct documents it can depend on the mood of the person checking their travel documents. A lot of it comes down to luck.”

Sadie’s commitment to the group is total. She still keeps in touch with those who have moved on from the camp. “Last year we had 7 children attending our play school who were all grieving and in shock after their parents had frozen to death crossing into Bulgaria from Turkey. We became very close to them and I remain in contact with them even though they are now settled in Wales.”

Life in Bulgaria has now acquired a special meaning for Sadie … and there are additional complications, albeit happy ones. For example, her Syrian fiancé would not be able to move to the UK. “I never meant to permanently move here. It was meant to be just a year break from teaching in England! I can’t see myself going back to teaching full-time in England and the longer I live here, the less I want to move back. I love running our playschool and know that we make a huge difference to the children’s lives so I don’t want to stop any time soon! There’s loads of things I love about living in Bulgaria and about Bulgaria itself so, for now, I’m happy here!”

Money is a constant problem, so fundraising is vital for the school’s survival. “Last year I featured in a documentary on ITV about orphaned and unaccompanied refugee children at the same time that I was trying to raise funds and it gave us some publicity which helped us to reach our target and more! This year we don’t have as much publicity so I’m worried that we won’t reach our target and will have to close.* This would be devastating for so many children. The refugee crisis is ongoing and will be for many years yet and we are still supporting traumatised refugee children on a daily basis. I really worry that we will be forgotten.”

It’s a highly worthwhile venture that will, hopefully, continue for many years yet.

* For those who would like to find out more about the Harmanli play school this is their Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/HarmanliRefugeeCampPlaySchool/
There is also more information on their fundraising page in the “Story” section: