How to summarize everything I’ve seen and learned in Bulgaria in a few paragraphs? You can read about the numbers of refugees in this country here. You can read about the legal rights to education of children here . Or, you can read about what the Corporation for Voluntary Service is doing to help in the camps here . In the short time I have been able to spend here, I have been able to see what is only a small piece of the picture. Perhaps the best I can do here is to give you a piece of the piece of that picture. I will start by describing two people I met here, both Bulgarian, who represent what many others are doing as well.
I happened in on “Naomi’s” first day in what’s called a “non-formal education” class. Naomi (not her real name) is just out of college, and eager to start helping. I asked her how she came here: “the internet.” Seeing the news, hearing nothing but negative news about riots by “dissatisfied refugees,” hoards of newcomers draining Bulgaria’s already scarce resources, she knew there had to be more going on; there had to be some light of hope. So she searched online for a way to volunteer, and found her way here. She doesn’t tell her friends that she is volunteering at the camps; this is a divisive issue which has already cost her some friendships. Many Bulgarians are resentful that so much money and effort is being spent on refugees, while their own citizens still suffer in poverty. Some even look at the refugees and think they have it too easy, that everything is handed to them, while they themselves had to work very hard for what they have.
Naomi has no educational training nor experience; she will shadow an experienced volunteer here today, and begin planning her own lessons next week. The room she is in looks like many American kindergarten rooms: space for storytime on a rug, brightly painted walls, and student work hanging on display. Unlike the American rooms, however, there is no attendance list (the makeup of the classes change every day), no parents to call if the child is missing, no reports home or plans for next year. Here, the focus is today; who knows what tomorrow will bring, and the past is often too painful to think about.
At another place, I met a technology staff member, hired to administer the computer labs in the camps. They’re not huge, 8 or 12 computers in each, but they are nicely equipped. This IT (information technology) man is very patient with the children coming in, and assures those he has to turn away that they can come back later for another class. He walks the group through concepts such as a USB plug versus a headphones plug, opening a browser, google, and “shut down,” with the help of a translator provided by the Bulgarian Red Cross. The children are excited to find their favorite cartoons at YouTube, and to play games they find (at this point, I couldn’t resist showing the child next to me CoolMath.com, and sending her off on a trail of fun math games!)
Besides the “native” Bulgarians, there are also many “temporary Bulgarians.” People who are here for jobs, or as spouses or children of those here for jobs, university students here for a period of years, and people sent by churches to be representatives of Christ reaching out here in this crisis. People working with the Bulgarian Red Cross, Unicef, Caritas and The Refugee Project overlap in complex ways – many people and many projects are seeking ways to help answer the needs here, and solutions are pieced together to form an imperfect patchwork which tries to cover the needs but leaves so much unanswered.
In answer to one big question I’ve had about this online mentoring concept: yes, there is technology available. It seems the camp computer labs are unfortunately not accessible to anyone at any time, only when the staff is present, and I was only able to see children using them (again, that’s just my piece, I can’t speak for what happens elsewhere and at different times). However, I noticed a cyber cafe near one of the camps, and there were certainly smart phones be used prolifically. So, the technology is there; what is missing, however, is the training to use that technology, and specifically to use it for educational purposes. Things I take for granted, such as khanacademy.org (which has courses available in many languages), are unheard of over there. The motivation to study online is not there; the refugees are not clamoring to have the computer lab opened more hours and to more people. It seems to me it would take a huge advertising/awareness/motivational campaign to promote the use of these resources, with people trained in education and what’s available online to specifically come and teach in the computer labs and help kids get signed on and started. Then they would be ready for mentors to continue the educational journey, but not until after they’ve had a real human interaction with someone over a prolonged period of time.
I am leaving Bulgaria with more questions than answers. We shall see what Greece holds next!