Your questions answered: Harmanli refugee camp

Published 31st March 2017

In early March our communications officer Shyamantha Asokan visited Harmanli, Bulgaria’s largest refugee camp.

Doctors of the World is the only medical organisation in Harmanli, where roughly 2,500 people live. Our clinic there sees 80-100 patients a day. We also run clinics in three refugee camps in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Everyday, we find and treat people who would otherwise be unable to see a doctor.

Shyamantha (pictured left) visited Harmanli to document our work there and learn more about the people we’re helping. Ahead of the visit, we e-mailed our supporters to see if they had any questions for Shyamantha to ask during her trip. We received many great questions and you can see some of the answers below.

“This trip was so important for Doctors of the World. I met and interviewed many of the refugees we’re helping, from unaccompanied teenagers to entire families. I also interviewed our doctors, social workers, and translators about their work,” Shyamantha said. “The people I met will stay in my mind for a long time. I look forward to sharing the stories and photos on our website soon.”

We are grateful to everyone who donated to cover the costs of the visit. You can still give now and any additional gifts will be used for future trips.

What do the refugees you’re meeting in Harmanli most hope for?

“Just to be safe.” Leena Zakhil, a 28-year-old Afghan refugee in Harmanli.

“I want to complete my studies. I want to be someone useful.” Sisin Ali, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee and a translator at our clinic in Harmanli.

“I would like my grand-daughter to become a government minister in the UK!” Farhad Hassan, a Syrian refugee whose 3-month-old grand-daughter was born in a Bulgarian hospital soon after the family arrived in Harmanli.

What are the main health problems that Doctors of the World sees in the camp?

“We saw a lot of people with bronchitis, colds, and flu during the winter. We also see skin conditions such as bed bugs and scabies, because people do not have enough access to hot water, soap, or a clean place to wash their clothes,” says Dr Stephany Spìndola, our medical co-ordinator in Bulgaria.

“All of these illnesses and conditions spread quickly in crowded conditions, and in Harmanli around 6-8 people often have to share a single room. Another thing is that many people in the camp have walked for days just to reach Bulgaria from Turkey, taking journeys over the mountains on the border, so we see fractures or serious muscular strains too.”

Is there a school in the camp?

“The Afghan community in the camp has set up an informal school, which one family told us is only available for children over the age of 7. There is nothing that is provided by the authorities,” says Thierry Dutoit, who was running our projects in Bulgaria until late March. “Alongside our medical work here, Doctors of the World is running a project where we support unaccompanied minors and we advocate for them to have access to a local school. We’re starting to have some successes with this, but the challenges remain huge.”

I would like to donate some books to the camp. Is this possible? Is there an NGO that I can send them to?

“Currently there is no NGO that deals with handing out books for the refugees in Bulgaria,” says Thierry. “It’s sad to say, but for Doctors of the World we have to focus on medical needs and protection first. Another issue regarding donations of books is that many of the refugees speak languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Dari, but only a few speak fluent English.”

What’s the situation with organised supplies to Harmanli, e.g. which organisations supply nappies, sanitary towels, books, translators, clothing etc.? Who covers all the various areas?

“Harmanli residents face a lot of gaps in access to essential items, because handouts of such supplies are quite random and not organised,” says Thierry. “People living in the camp are allowed to go out during the day and there are shops in the town, but of course many people struggle to afford to buy the supplies they need (many camp residents had very good jobs back home but are now not working).

“We currently focus on helping people access good and clean bedsheets because this prevents scabies. During the winter, when it was -20c, we also distributed winter jackets, shoes and blankets for unaccompanied minors who didn’t have them.”

Are there targeted mechanisms for diagnosis and treatment in any of the camps to deal with HIV/AIDS and the various HCV viruses?

Doctors of the World has begun its medical work in Harmanli with an emergency response, so we currently focus on primary health care and emergency cases,” says Thierry. “We have started to provide drugs to patients diagnosed with HCV, but HIV will have to be a future step.”

Which major pharmaceutical companies stepped forward to assist with medicines supply chains? 

Doctors of the World works with organisations such as IHP to access medical supplies at the lowest possible cost. As such, we have not been in contact with pharmaceutical companies directly. We do not usually deal with pharmaceutical companies directly, as there is a clear possibility of a conflict of interest.



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