Trip to Harmanli Refugee Camp in Bulgaria: Your Questions Answered

Published 31st March 2017

Shyamantha and one of the families Doctors of the World has helped

Earlier in March, communications officer Shyamantha Asokan visited the Harmanli refugee camp in Bulgaria. She was visiting

the Doctors of the World clinic in the camp to learn

more about the people being helped and how they came to be in Harmanli.

Ahead of the visit we e-mailed our supporters to see if they had any questions they would like Shyamantha to ask whilst she was visiting.

We received numerous responses and have printed some of the questions and 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 several of our doctors, social workers, and translators about the conditions in the camps.

“The people I met will stay in my mind for a long time. Thank you so much to everyone who donated so generously. I look forward to sharing the stories and photos.”

We are also grateful to everyone who donated to pay the travel costs of the visit.

You can still give now and any additional gifts will be used to fund future trips.


Your questions answered

Question 1: What do the refugees you meet most hope for?

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

“I want to complete my studies. I want to be someone useful.” Sisin Ali, 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.

“I would like to be a teacher. I have applied for [refugee] status to remain in Bulgaria. I hope they will accept me as I want to start studying.” Sunila Mohammedi, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee and one of our translators in Sofia.

Question 2: What are the main health problems we see in the camp?

Dr Stephany Spìndola, our medical co-ordinator in Bulgaria: “We see a lot of people with bronchitis, colds, and flu because of the recent cold weather. 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. 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.”

Question 3: Is there a school in the camp?

Thierry Dutoit, who runs our projects in Bulgaria: “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. 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.”

Question 4: 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. 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.

Question 5: What’s the situation with organised supplies to these camps, e.g. which organisations supply nappies, sanitary towels, books, translators, clothing etc.? Who covers all the various areas?

Doctors of the World:  This varies by camp. Some supplies come from local volunteers and local organisations. Some other agencies, such as Save the Children provide some of these in some places. We give out hygiene and baby kits in some of the camps. Translators are an issue and we try to find them locally.  Last year we sent over 20 volunteer translators to Greece to work in camps.

Thierry:  Harmanli residents face a lot of gaps in access to essential items, because handouts of such supplies are quite random and not organised. 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.

Question 6: Are there targeted mechanisms for diagnosis and treatment in any of the camps to deal with HIV/AIDS and the various HCV viruses?

DOTW: There are no targeted mechanisms. We deliver primary health care services, and in the event of blood screening being required, we routinely refer clients to local hospitals. Be aware that a screening programme would be sensitive for the population, as anything that could define their “status” could be problematic for them.

Thierry: 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. We have started to provide drugs to patients diagnosed with HCV, but HIV will have to be a future step.

Question 7: Which major pharmaceutical companies stepped forward to assist with medicines supply chains? 

DOTW: We work with organisations such as IHP, (http://www.ihpuk.org)  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.