While heavily pregnant, Darina fled from Ukraine to Bulgaria, where many hands guided her towards critical health care

Darina’s journey from Kharkiv, Ukraine, to Bulgaria took 4 days by train and bus. She was heavily pregnant. Now, holding her peaceful baby in her arms, she wipes her eyes as she lists the names of the volunteers who helped her in those early days when she fled the war in her homeland.

“These women – Maria, Katya, Rumi, Stanislava – people who I met by chance and all they wanted to do was help,” she says.

When refugees first started arriving in the country, the Bulgarian Red Cross leapt into action, mobilizing paid staff and volunteers to provide practical help to people seeking refuge, food, medical and hygiene products, and clothing. 

“We all put in approximately 34 000 hours of volunteer work,” says Dr Nadejhda Todorovska, Vice General Director of the Bulgarian Red Cross. “Around 5000 volunteers got involved, not just in the capital Sofia, but at all the access points for refugees within our country.” 

Coordinated support for Ukrainian refugees

The Bulgarian Red Cross is just one member of the Bulgarian Government’s coordination body that includes the WHO Country Office in Bulgaria, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other international non-governmental organizations. Together they have been working to meet the refugees’ wide-ranging needs.  

The Red Cross, with support from the WHO Country Office in Bulgaria, is making sure that Ukrainian refugees like Darina are connected to medical and psychosocial support.

“I was taken care of when I was in the maternity ward and had the medicine from the Red Cross,” she says. “Thankfully, they provided everything, including for my child, which meant I could rest easy. I gave birth at the hospital in Sofia. I wasn’t worried, because the staff were so kind. It was all like a fairy tale.” 

Alexandra, who was also pregnant when she arrived from Kherson, Ukraine, recalls, “There was a lot of moral support from the Red Cross. They provided a stroller, nappies and clothing, medical and legal information.”

Dr Skender Syla, WHO Representative for the WHO Country Office in Bulgaria, heads a team of 3 in Bulgaria. “With our small team, we have needed to spend more time engaging with our partners, but also meeting refugees themselves, to understand the main priorities that need to be invested in,” he says. “We also have support from our regional office to assess the situation, identify key priority areas and to provide support to people in need, wherever they are, irrespective of their origin.”

The WHO Country Office in Bulgaria is working to ensure that the distribution of medicines at Red Cross centres can happen more promptly, and their successful partnership with the Red Cross in Sofia will be expanded into other cities with high concentrations of refugees.

Civil society support

The Bulgarian people have also opened their hearts and their homes to accept refugees.  

“When they are in a foreign country, they don’t know the language or the laws. They need a helping hand,” says Juliana Kolukina, Head of the Educational and Integration Centre, Ukrainian Beehive. “We shouldn’t forget that these people come from war, some of them have lost everything; their homes, family, loved ones. They’ve come emotionally and physically drained; a lot of them have different health issues.”

She explains how volunteers at Ukrainian Beehive support refugees with language education, legal advice and information that helps them integrate and adapt to life in a new country. 

“Navigating the health system in Bulgaria is the biggest issue. There are lots of disabled people who have come. They came without their papers, because they were left behind in the rubble.”

The refugees, not surprisingly, also need mental health support. Rima, 23, who fled with her boyfriend and pet dog from Odessa, describes how, when she first arrived in Bulgaria, she used to panic at the sound of a garbage truck, thinking it was a bomb going off. “You feel powerless. You could be killed any second and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Expanded medical and psychosocial support

Although the numbers of refugees in Bulgaria have fallen since the peak of the influx, coordinating bodies are making contingency plans to ensure the physical and mental health of Ukrainian refugees are supported during the coming winter months. In addition to boosting access to medication, the WHO Country Office in Bulgaria is also providing psychosocial training for those who work with refugees and hiring Ukrainian speakers to work on an expanded helpline.


* This article was amended on 21 October 2022. It incorrectly referred to UNICEF as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund when it should have been United Nations Children’s Fund