When sores turn into wounds on a refugee’s long road to a better life

Refugees’ lifelong journey of ups and downs manifests with severe long-term repercussions for their children

Radostina Belcheva, Deputy Chairperson of the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria
4-year-old Jamila
Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria
18 September 2020

The European Union ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative helps UNICEF and the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria (CRWB) connect refugee families to often life-saving health care. For one refugee woman and her daughter, that continuous support, even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been vital.


SOFIA, September 2020 – Zahra, 36, arrived in Bulgaria just over a month ago, with her family. Born in Syria, she had already endured many hardships on her way here. Looking for a better life, away from the horrors of war, Zahra, together with her husband, Ahmed, and their three daughters and one son, left home to escape the armed conflict there. "It hasn’t been an easy journey. We knew it was very dangerous to cross the border and we were very scared we might not survive," says Zahra. Preoccupied about their children’s lives, the parents did not notice a little sore on the foot of their daughter Lilan. The 13-year-old had been in pain for a long time, but severe, immediate and existential threats had pushed the girl’s physical discomfort to the back of everybody’s mind.

When they arrived in Turkey, the family stayed for a while with some relatives and Zahra managed to find a doctor, who recommended treatment for her daughter that would need to be conducted over a certain period of time. Shortly after that, Zahra, Ahmed and the children were on the road again, and Lilan’s treatment was interrupted. "Sometimes it hurt me as I walked, but I would say to myself that I was perhaps too tired or that the shoes pinched my feet,” Lilan says. “When you are on the road and you have to hide in the bushes, you don’t have much time to think about what causes you pain, all you care about is saving your life."

The family arrived in Bulgaria and was placed in a refugee centre. Their need for special support and humanitarian assistance was heightened by the risks of COVID-19 and the measures being taken to contain its spread. Zahra and her family went to the office of the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria (CRWB).

The organization has kept its doors open throughout the pandemic, working in strict compliance with Bulgaria’s anti-COVID-19 guidelines to provide continued consultation and support to refugees and their families. "The past few months have been a serious challenge also for social workers and cultural mediators,” says Radostina Belcheva, the CRWB Deputy Chair. “There has been a significant increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers asking for help, while the cases become increasingly complex. More and more people are becoming unemployed and unable to buy food for their children or to pay the rent for the homes they live in. Symptoms of mental disorders like anxiety, depression, as well as cases of family violence, are becoming increasingly common."

Diana Yovcheva, Refugee and Migrant Children Programme Officer at UNICEF Bulgaria adds: "While providing consultations on various cases in the daily practice, the team of the CRWB prepares thorough and systematic assessment of the needs and vulnerabilities of refugees and asylum seekers, including their needs with regards to their medical status. The objective is to make sure that the refugees receive comprehensive support, including psychosocial assistance and referral to specialized care, where necessary.

“We also aim to increase their awareness of the availability of state-led health care in Bulgaria as well as their literacy on a range of health-related subjects, such as vaccines, breastfeeding and nutrition for infants and young children. All of these services are provided within the framework of the project ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children's Health Status in Southern and South-Eastern Europe’, funded by the European Union's Health Programme (The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative’).”

Zahra has talked to a CRWB social worker about the hurdles her family has been forced to overcome along the way. Her daughter’s wound, which still hasn’t healed, had become somehow less important during the journey. Zahra recalls that the sore first appeared on the girl’s foot while they were still in Syria, but it wasn’t particularly big. Recently, however, the sore had turned into an open wound, and the pain had intensified, forcing the girl to restrict her movements.

Zahra was really concerned about her child, but believed that the deterioration was the result of the constant wearing of shoes and long periods of walking. "I knew that because of all the suffering they’ve been through, refugees are inclined to ignore their health issues, especially when girls are concerned,” says Teodora Koleva, a social worker with CRWB. “That is why I insisted on checking the wound. My first thought was that this was a severe infection which made a visit to the doctor an urgent necessity."

Lilan’s situation was further complicated by the lack of documents related to her previous treatment. With the support of the social worker, Zahra understood that her daughter needed an urgent examination – a recommendation ignored, at first, by her husband. After several referrals to different medical establishments, Lilan was finally given an appointment for an examination at an infectious diseases’ clinic.

Tired of running from one hospital to another, Ahmed, who had been desperately looking for a job in order to pay the family bills, refused to join his wife and daughter because the appointment clashed with a scheduled interview with a potential employer. So, Zahra was forced to postpone the appointment. A few days later, when Ahmed got the job, Zahra called the social worker once again and, together with her husband, agreed a time to visit to the doctor’s office. And once again, it didn’t work out – this time because the clinic was quarantined as a result of COVID-19 infections.

The team of CRWB continued to keep in touch with Zahra and managed to arrange another appointment for Lilan at the same clinic. After many days of disappointment, the girl ultimately got the medical care she needed. She had all the tests done and was prescribed the treatment appropriate for her condition. Lilan is now feeling better and the wound on her foot is beginning to heal, albeit slowly.

"To make sure it heals completely, the parents must take proper care and make deliberate effort to follow the doctor’s orders” says Linda Awanis, Chairperson of the CRWB. “This is particularly hard to do in a pandemic, but we remain at the frontline, available to provide consultations and information to refugees and asylum seekers and facilitating their access to health care in Bulgaria.”

The partnership of UNICEF, the European Union and the CRWB demonstrates that it is possible to provide flexible support to people in urgent need, including the most excluded communities.


This story is part of the Project Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative).

Health Programme of the European Union

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