By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
A group of refugee children from Somalia and Afghanistan may end up going to school in Sofia after residents of the Bulgarian village of Kalishte in the Kovachevitsa area campaigned against the children being admitted to the local school.
On September 15, the first day of the Bulgarian school year, a special meeting of the Kovachevitsa municipal council issued an “ultimatum” for the Somali and Afghan families to leave the national children’s ecological complex in the town by October 30.
At the complex, 82 men, 79 women and 105 children are being housed.
Residents of Kalishte rallied against admitting the children to the village school, arguing that the immigrants would infect them with “lice, worms and chicken pox.”
The controversy in Kalishte has made headlines in several national media in Bulgaria, which saw a significant increase in the number of refugees arriving in 2013, and which is heading to early parliamentary elections on October 5.
Kovachevitsa mayor Vassil Stanimirov denied that there was racism in the decision by the municipal council to call on the refugees to leave.
Both he and the headmaster of the school were informed only on September 12 that the 12 children from Somalia and Afghanistan would be brought to the Kalishte village school.
Stanimirov asked how the immigrant children, whom he said did not know Bulgarian, would learn alongside the Bulgarian children at the school.
He said that there had been a case of malaria at the camp, but the local authorities had learnt about this only from the media after a one-month quarantine at the camp had expired, during which time residents of the camp had been walking around in the village.
Parents were concerned that there was no clear communication between the State Agency for Refugees and the local authorities, according to Stanimirov.
“Why should our children suffer? What integration will there be when there will be two local pupils and seven little Somalis in the class who do not speak Bulgarian?”
However, for all the claims that the children from the camp did not speak Bulgarian, at least those who were interviewed by television reporters gave their interviews speaking Bulgarian.
A Bulgarian child who spoke to a television reporter about his supposed objection was – as could be clearly heard – being prompted off-camera by an unidentified adult.
A report by Nova Televizia said that the Somali and Afghan children had not arrived at the school on the first day of the school year and “in all likelihood” their families would be moved to Sofia and the children would be sent to study at schools in the Bulgarian capital.
A report in daily Sega said that the situation in Kovachevitsa was complicated by an already ongoing institutional war between the State Agency for Refugees and local authorities.
The conflict began smouldering last year when the refugees were brought to the complex last year by night without the mayor being notified in advance.
“If to protect their interests is a war, then we are at war,” Stanimirov told Sega.
He alleged that the children should have taken a three-month course in Bulgarian but this had started only in August. The State Agency for Refugees said that this was untrue, and that the refugees at the centre had completed the course last year.
The chairperson of the municipal council, Ventsislav Todorov, said that the declaration calling for the refugees to be removed from the complex would be sent to the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Education, head of the State Agency for Refugees and the regional governor of Pernik.
“We do not accept integration, in which the Bulgarians are a minority, and Somalis and Afghans without (refugee) status are the majority,” he said.
Kalishte’s school has only 18 children. Commentators on the situation noted that with such low numbers, it was likely to face being closed down.
Caretaker Education Minister Roumyana Kolarova said that she was ready to discuss the situation with the municipal council and the mayor “but at the same time, I am ready to stand up for what I believe in, that all children are equal and should have equal access to education”.