In the panel discussion “Early Childhood Intervention – Challenges in the Bulgarian Context in Light of the Refugee Crisis,” we examined the results of our project supported by EASPD and UNICEF, which utilized the capacity of the Ukrainian community in Bulgaria and its specialists – educators, social workers, and others – directing it towards support for families and children who have fled the war in Ukraine.
To date, the National Network for Children has trained 77 family consultants, with 30 of them actively working. The trained facilitators number over 100, with 59 of them already working with mothers and children in 27 locations throughout the country. Over 2,000 consultations have been conducted with individuals from the Ukrainian community. Supported children aged 0 to 7 amount to 997, including those with disabilities and at risk, totaling 486. Group sessions for mutual support among parents have exceeded 1,150.
We heard the perspective of the people without whom this would not have been possible – the individuals from the Ukrainian refugee community in Bulgaria who have undergone the training. Svetlana Chichirko and Alla Timashkova shared their stories and how they work with families and children who have fled the war. Svetlana was a child psychologist in her home country and worked at a resource center for child integration in Ukraine. Now she is a family consultant after completing the training, providing support as a family consultant for Ukrainian children and families since January of this year. As refugees continue to arrive in our country, they arrive frightened, with anxious states and post-traumatic stress disorder. Consultations on how to cope with stressful conditions, find a way out of the uncertainty they find themselves in, adapt to an unfamiliar country with a foreign language and customs – all of this is valuable support they receive from prepared individuals from their own community. Svetlana directs mothers to local assistance services, provides guidance on enrolling in daycare centers, schools, finding personal doctors, and specialists for children with autism, epilepsy, and other conditions. The work of consultants like Svetlana naturally evolves into support groups where mothers can share not only with the consultant but also among themselves, facilitating faster contact exchange and solutions. Alla’s story is similar. She arrived in Bulgaria while five months pregnant, unsure of how to provide for herself and her child. Through the internet, she came across information from the National Network for Children that they were recruiting consultants for mutual support and went through the facilitator training. Previously a lawyer in Ukraine, today she supports a group of families and children from her home country not only with legal but also with psychological and organizational support. A significant victory in her work was arranging the mechanism for receiving maternity benefits from Ukraine for the mothers who fled the war.
For our project, there is still the finalization of the assessment of the national capacity for early childhood intervention and the development of recommendations to local and national authorities and institutions for improving the regulatory framework and strengthening existing services, as well as developing new ones. We still have work to do in raising public awareness about the possibilities of early childhood intervention as a whole.
In the first panel of the Annual Meeting, Vanya Kuneva from UNICEF-Bulgaria participated with a presentation on good international practices in early childhood intervention. The main goals of ECI systems are to improve children’s development, social and educational achievements. A part of the ECI philosophy is also to support parental caregiving skills and the development of children within the family environment, as well as strengthening families to maintain the bond between parents and reduce feelings of stress and isolation. ECI also has its economic benefits as it reduces public expenditures on healthcare and special education, as well as the risks of poverty and social exclusion for people with disabilities. In Bulgaria, it is necessary to adopt a Strategy for Early Childhood Intervention, ensure quality and accessible services nationwide, implement special qualification programs in higher education, conduct information campaigns, and work with parents.
As part of this panel, Vanya Traikova, Neli Bahchevanova, and Magdalina Ivanova were also present to present the activities related to UNICEF-Bulgaria’s pilot services for early childhood intervention in Stara Zagora and Nova Zagora. At the end of the session, all 55 representatives of organizations from across the country in the room participated in consultations and group work on the results of the Assessment of the National Capacity for Early Childhood Intervention.
The topic will continue on the second day of the 2023 Annual Meeting with two training workshops: one on quality and accessible ECI services led by “Karin Dom” in Varna, and another on advocacy for the development of a functioning ECI system in Bulgaria led by Trendafil Meretev from the “For Our Children” Foundation.