Ukrainian Education Hub offers a glimpse of hope for refugee children in Sofia
This UNICEF-supported centre in Bulgaria provides learning opportunities and a safe space for children forced to leave their homes back in Ukraine
"Only three of my classmates remained in my hometown in Mykolayiv,” says 10-year-old Anya, scribbling in her maths exercise book in a sunny classroom in Sofia, Bulgaria. “I miss my old friends, but many of them fled to other cities and abroad due to the war.”
This school year, Anya is one of 180 Ukrainian refugee children attending the Ukrainian Education Hub in Sofia, created to respond to the learning needs of Ukrainian refugee children. The centre fosters academic growth, and offers a safe space for children who have fled war in Ukraine.
"Ukrainian mothers said they would rather go back and face the dangers and hardships of war than endanger the future of their children by staying where they may struggle to access education," explains Andrey Nikolov, education advocate and founder of the Hub. “We wanted to create an educational hub where children study on-site, all day, within the Ukrainian educational system, while also attending Bulgarian language and culture lessons, and receiving psychosocial support."
“The Education Hub is a second family to our child,” says Natalia Nebeskaya, a mother of one of the children enrolled. “It's socializing with peers, it's making new friends, it's learning with professional, goal-oriented and very dedicated teachers. We are very grateful and excited to have it, and wish the best of luck to this little piece of Ukraine here in Sofia.”
The Education Hub hosts over 180 students aged 6 to 17 and who study in two shifts. It provides full-day, on-site academic classes, Bulgarian language lessons, IT training, psychological support and extracurricular activities in partnership with local schools, ensuring that children experience a gradual and smooth transition into the Bulgarian education system.
The process of integrating Ukrainian refugee students into the Bulgarian education system can be fraught with challenges. Language barriers, trauma and adapting the Bulgarian system to refugee education all create a complex landscape for learning.
But the hub works to overcome these challenges – providing critical mental health support, as well as assistance with integration and learning support, to over 700 Ukrainian children living in remote areas of Bulgaria. These children benefit from a hybrid model of weekend and holiday schools, online learning and certified remote exam centers, ensuring continuous learning access, which is especially crucial for those who are unable to return home to take their exams.
“The Hub became a shelter for our daughter where she feels safe,” says Natalia Stoyanova, the mother of another young student. “The very good and attentive attitude of the teachers created a warm, cozy, almost homely atmosphere for our children.”
Coping with the trauma of war can be difficult, but the Hub ensures a safe and secure environment where young learners can heal and thrive. After almost a year and a half of war in Ukraine, refugee children living in Bulgaria can rebuild their social networks and access psychological support, which is also available to their parents.
9 -year-old Yaroslava fled Odesa, Ukraine, to Sofia with her parents and twin brother Igor. They both love attending the Education Hub.
"I have favourite subjects at school – mathematics and fine arts,” says the young girl. “I found good friends here, with whom I spend time outside the Hub. I feel at home in a Ukrainian school, because the lessons here are conducted in the Ukrainian language with Ukrainian teachers.”
UNICEF, with funding from the Government of the United States, supports the Education Hub and other similar learning spaces in 16 locations across Bulgaria.
“Education and schooling are crucial for every child,” says Christina de Bruin, UNICEF Representative in Bulgaria. “Thanks to the generous assistance from the U.S. Government, we ensured continuous access to education – including through Bulgarian language classes and safe learning and play areas – to nearly 5,000 Ukrainian children this school year. In addition, 55,000 Ukrainian and Bulgarian students enrolled in the national education system benefited from the education supplies and materials delivered to schools and kindergartens to encourage play and interaction.”
UNICEF continues to work with local partners to expand its education programmes and ensure a gradual and smooth transition for Ukrainian children into the Bulgarian education system. Together, and with the help of projects like the Education Hub, we can secure a brighter future for children and families.
"For us, enrolling our children here is not just about education,” says one parent. “It's about giving them hope and a chance to reclaim their futures."