28 September, 2023
Interview with a British social worker caring for migrant children in Harmanli, Bulgaria
Migration will continue to be a challenge for the EU, but viewing it exclusively through a security lens remains blind to the humanitarian aspects of the problem, related among others to the role of global and regional powers in reshaping the Middle East at the cost of destruction and death (source: Pixabay, CC0)

Interview with a British social worker caring for migrant children in Harmanli, Bulgaria

Anna Krasteva, CERMES and Ivan Atanasov, Sakarnews 

In the joint Marginalia and Sakarnews column “Faces of difference” we present the amazing story of British social worker Sadie Clasby-Jarrous, who has been working for years with refugees in Harmanli (a Bulgarian town close to the Turkish border and home to a migrant reception centre). Teacher Anna Krasteva talks to her about children who desperately need a safe place to play. Many of them are completely unable to play and their behaviour shows signs of trauma. Sadie Clasby tells about herself: “I feel proud to have supported many children through very difficult times in their lives. 

This article was published on the Marginalia website on 1 February 2022.

You are an outstanding innovator in the field of intercultural education. Could you explain the idea of PlaySchool? When and how did you decide to introduce it for refugee children living in Bulgaria?

In 2014, my mother volunteered in the camp for almost a year, helping to meet the basic needs of the refugees living there, such as food and clothing. Slowly, conditions in the camp began to improve slightly, so she wanted to focus on doing something for the many children living there. At that time (spring 2014) there were about 1,000 children with no access to education, no activities, no playgrounds and no toys. I was living in England and working as a primary school teacher, but I visited Bulgaria and the camp during a holiday and saw for myself how great the need was for activities for children. I decided to move to Bulgaria in the summer of 2014 to start something (I didn’t know what yet!) together with my mother for the children living in Harmanli camp.

Both my mother and I have been trained to work with children, and we have many years of experience. We are both very passionate about the importance of play. So we knew that our camp project would focus on play, but we thought that the English lessons would also be useful for the children. However, we weren’t sure how we would manage to communicate with the children and how we would cope with some of the challenges, such as behaviour management and group control (1000 children!). So, in September 2014 we organised a few trial play sessions, followed by a circle time style English lesson. Following these trial sessions, it became clear that the children desperately needed a safe place to play. Many of them seemed completely unable to play. I saw many signs of trauma in their behaviour. However, the children responded very well to us, we were able to communicate with them in a variety of ways, and we had a few teenage refugees who helped with translation.

The next step was to get a room in the camp that we could turn into a safe playground and classroom! The camp provided us with a wonderful, huge room that we worked hard to fill with toys, a playhouse that my dad and I built together, a quiet area, a sensory play area, a soccer table, a dollhouse, a TV area for PlayStation games and movie afternoons, tables for art and hands-on activities, a space for “small world” and building games, a black and white board for lessons, and more.

We were finally ready to open in November 2014 and very quickly had around 300 children attending class three days a week!

Many things have changed since then and are still changing steadily as the number of refugees has waxed and waned over the years, but we maintain the same basic routine in each session because consistency is so important for children who have experienced trauma. Each session begins with 90 minutes of free play, where children can choose from a wide range of art or hands-on activities, a combination of educational and less educational games and toys, reading in the quiet zone, sensory games (games to develop the senses), role-play, etc. This is followed by a 20-30 minute lesson where basic English and math are taught through games and songs. We are an inclusive school, many of the children who attend have special educational needs including Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy. We have also had children with hearing/vision problems. Everyone who attends the school has experienced varying degrees of trauma over the years.

The play school has been a great success for the past 7 years! It has gained popularity with both children and parents, with many children and parents telling us that Play School is the only good thing about camp. When they first start attending our play school, children are often very quiet, shy and scared, clinging to their siblings and sitting only on one side of the room. They show signs of trauma in their behaviour. After just a few weeks of attending our school and having made lots of friends, they develop confidence, social skills and the ability to communicate with other people who speak a different language.

Our play school provides a safe and therapeutic environment where children can play, relax, learn and forget about the adult worry they have been involved with for so long. They are taught or reminded of expected classroom behavior to prepare them for school outside of camp, learn skills that help them communicate and integrate with people from different cultures, and learn basic English that will help them in any European country they settle in.

What stories/successes of the children are you most proud of? What are the biggest difficulties and challenges in your work?

I feel very proud to have supported many children through very difficult times in their lives. In 2016, a family with seven children from Iraq came to our camp, struggling to walk because they were suffering from frostbite and were extremely traumatised. The seven children were cousins, 4 of them had just lost both parents and the other 3 had lost their father during the crossing. Three of their four parents died crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria because the police illegally pushed them back and left them in the snow. One of the mothers, who survived, suffered from very severe post-traumatic stress disorder and had difficulty coping with childcare. We were able to build good relationships with the children and provide a safe place for them to come and play and escape from reality when they needed to, as well as process some of the trauma they had experienced. All 7 children now live in the UK with their British uncle (and the mother/aunt they were with in Bulgaria) and are very happy there. I visited them in London a few years ago and it was one of the best days of my life – to see all the children having such a good time was the best feeling of my life!

Another family I feel proud to have supported is a large family in Syria. The children had a very traumatic journey trying to escape Syria and saw many dead bodies. They then lived on the streets of Turkey while their parents struggled to find work to pay for their housing and food. Their mother was also 9 months pregnant at the start of the journey and gave birth in a remote village in Turkey where they passed through. The three older boys (aged between 9 and 12 at the time) showed many signs of trauma in their behaviour and often became very aggressive both towards each other and other children. One of them had even broken one of the bones in his brother’s face while living in the camp. I worked closely with these boys, helping them learn to regulate their emotions and teaching them different conflict resolution strategies. Over time, their behaviour improved significantly. They have even reached the stage where they can help other children manage their emotions and behavior in our play school! They now live in Germany where they have had access to therapy and all the children enjoy the school they attend. Their lovely mum had a baby in Bulgaria just before she went to Germany and was named Sadie after me!

Running a play school in a refugee camp faces many challenges, such as seeing the children’s mental health deteriorate due to the dirty, cramped and stressful conditions they live in in the camp and seeing them suffer without much support from anyone but us – and therefore feeling this huge responsibility and pressure. Another big challenge is to make people realise and understand how important play is for refugee children. So much emphasis is put on educational activities for children living in refugee camps, but play is neglected.

All refugee children have experienced trauma in their short lives. From shootings, to fear of being bombed, loss of family members, living on the streets, crossing forests, rivers and seas at night, racist abuse and at the very least, a complete change and upheaval in their lives. Trauma has a devastating effect on a child’s development, causing a wide range of serious long-term mental and physical conditions, and in severe cases can even lead to the complete arrest of a child’s development.

Specially designed play and free play have been shown to be very therapeutic for children who are emotionally affected by traumatic experiences. When children feel safe enough in the play environment to immerse themselves in play, they can express, release and process a variety of emotions. This is an extremely important part of the healing process. Through play, children gain control over their feelings and behaviour and become better able to cope with stressful or traumatic situations. Providing access to a play environment where refugee children feel safe can be a powerful and effective tool to stop the lasting impact of trauma.

In our play school, we see how play literally reverses the effects of trauma every day, but we are repeatedly told that formal education is more important.

What is the PlaySchool business model? Who helps you keep this beautiful practice of including children who have experienced the trauma of exile?

“Business model” is not the right term for our PlaySchool, we are not a business, but neither are we a registered charity. We simply saw the need, were lucky enough to be in a position to help and started doing it. The first year of our play school was self-funded, but every year since then we have used online crowdfunding to raise enough money to cover play school resources and a basic salary for myself. In 2014, we started a Facebook group for the play school and have many wonderful people from all over the world following us and supporting what we are doing! Most of the donations that keep our play school running come from Bulgarians and Brits, but also from people in Germany, America, Australia and other countries.

Can you tell us what attracted you to Bulgaria and what motivated you to stay here?

Before moving to Bulgaria, I worked as a newly qualified primary school teacher. I did a 4-year teaching qualification (for ages 4-11) in Brighton, England, but I didn’t enjoy teaching in mainstream schools. I always enjoyed working with children with challenging behaviour and was interested in the support they needed after experiencing trauma. Little did I know that I would end up running a play school for refugee children! Before qualifying as a teacher, I worked as an educator for several years – that’s where my passion for play began. When I first moved to Bulgaria, I lived with my parents in a village near Harmanli, but in 2017 I moved to an apartment in Harmanli with my husband.

It was the desire to help refugees that drew me to Bulgaria in the first place, and I had plans to stay in Bulgaria for just a year before returning to teach in the UK – but 7 years later I’m still here! My parents had lived in Bulgaria for two years before I joined them and I had visited them several times. I loved being in their village, surrounded by beautiful countryside, lots of wildlife and friendly villagers! The play school is what motivated me more than anything else to stay as I continue to see its positive impact on the children, but there are many things I love about living in Bulgaria. Bulgaria really is such a beautiful country with a rich and interesting history, culture and traditions. I love exploring new parts of Bulgaria when I have time, but my favourite place so far is Perperikon, I love how every time I visit there something else has been discovered!

Do you know any English or other expats from the region? Do they have a community life? Do they organise cultural, environmental and other initiatives in the villages and towns where they live? Do refugees and expats communicate with each other?

I’ve started to meet other British immigrants who moved to the region longer ago than us, who seem very nice and keen to start all sorts of cultural and environmental activities and participate in local life. I know there is a group that organises a monthly clean-up in certain areas of the villages around Harmanli, working together to clean up litter sites. As far as I know, there hasn’t been much communication with the refugees, but a few Brits have expressed an interest in volunteering in the camp, so I hope that happens soon. I also had a British woman who lived in a nearby village who volunteered at the play school once a week for a few years, but had to return to the UK to be closer to her children.

What are your plans and dreams for the future?

My dream is to not need our play school at all! I wish there were no more refugee children in the world, no child should be a refugee.

For me personally, I’m not sure. I continue to take each year as it comes. I was only supposed to stay in Bulgaria for a year, but I found a job I love, met my husband here and became a mother a little over a year ago – so who knows what the future will bring.

What else would you like to tell the readers of the human rights website Marginalia and the local newspaper Sakarnewz?

Thank you for reading this article! If you are interested in learning more about the Play School, we have a Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/HarmanliRefugeeCampPlaySchool

Photo: Sadie Clasby-Jarrous in Harmanli (source: Marginalia)

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

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