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"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.
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.