Two months ago, hungry Syrian children were shuffling around barefoot in the snow in Bulgaria’s biggest refugee camp, while their miserable parents shivered inside ragged tents.
But now the threadbare khaki tents have disappeared, families have moved into freshly-painted rooms and the United Nations is providing each refugee one hot meal a day.
Donations of food and clothes as well as 5.6 million euros ($7.6 million) in EU money have helped ease the grim conditions that greeted Syrians fleeing almost three years of civil war.
“I’m starting to like this place. It’s better than Syria anyway,” shrugs dental technician Husain Khatba, 23, one of about 11,000 refugees who fled from Syria to neighbouring Turkey and then sneaked across that country’s porous border into Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is a key entry point for Syrian refugees hoping to make their way further into the European Union, but the bloc’s poorest nation found itself overwhelmed by the massive influx.
Dire conditions at Harmanli, a former military camp, as freezing winter weather gripped Bulgaria, prompted government appeals for help as the UN refugee agency raised alarm over a “human emergency”.
The aid response has brought a touch of cheer to the camp, home to about 1,800 people, as well as six other similar sites in the country.
Rows of metal containers housing people remain, but those who had been living in tents have now moved to two renovated buildings. Each family has its own room furnished with new bunk beds, mattresses, blankets and bed linen. Another building is also being prepared for single mothers with babies.
Portable toilets line up along the main alley and there are several extra showers, even if people say they are still too few.
Construction debris from the ongoing refurbishments steal part of the glow from the newly painted rooms and hallways. But as Khatba joked: “It’s just very bad now but not very, very bad as it used to be.”
A tiny medical clinic has also been set up in one of the buildings, while an improvised school organised by the refugees themselves offers English classes for the adults and English and maths for the children.
‘Many things have changed’
Even the sounds around the camp are cheerier, as the shouts of children playing football mingle with music blaring from a stereo in one of the buildings.
“Many things have changed. There’s aid coming from different people and organisations and it’s good,” said another Syrian refugee, Rasheed Jamil, 35.
One major improvement has been the distribution by the UNHCR of one hot meal per day. The Bulgarian government is preparing to give out two meals a day in all camps from February.
On the day AFP visited, a truck stuffed with 22 tonnes of aid including clothes, food, bedding, toys and even washing machines arrived from Poland after a campaign there by volunteers Michal Borkiewicz and Maciej Pastwa.
“It’s a small thing but it is better than nothing,” said Pastwa, 46, who drove all the way to Harmanli this week to see the truck unloaded.
His friend Borkiewicz, 33, said he was “ashamed and angry” that the European Union had failed to take in larger numbers of refugees.
Amnesty International said in December that EU leaders should “hang their heads in shame” at their failure to provide safe haven for Syrian refugees, estimating only 55,000 asylum seekers had been accepted into the EU.
An estimated 2.4 million have fled the war.
The magic ‘green card’
Despite the improvements, the UNHCR earlier this month slammed “deplorable” conditions in Bulgaria, such as a lack of food and healthcare and arbitrary detention.
The agency also flagged concerns over measures taken by Bulgaria to stop more refugees from entering the country.
However many only see Bulgaria as a stopover to a better future elsewhere in Europe.
After months of living in administrative limbo, the Syrians were recently fingerprinted by Bulgaria’s refugee agency, boosting hopes they might soon receive what they call a “green card”, the magic word on everyone’s lips.
The green piece of paper allows the refugees to leave the otherwise closed camp and is the first step in the lengthy administrative process towards obtaining refugee status or asylum.
“Being here is our biggest problem. We just want to take our documents and go,” said Sahar Ibrahim, 21, who came with her family from Aleppo and, like most Syrians here, wants to go to Germany.
“I can’t stay in Bulgaria. It’s impossible here. I will try Germany or Sweden,” added Malik Morkis, 32, from Homs.