Millions of Ukrainian citizens have fled their country since the conflict with Russia erupted a year ago. It was the European countries that took most of those refugees, provided them with shelter, and gave them the opportunity to start new lives.
Even the EU's poorest nation – Bulgaria – opened its doors for Ukraine refugees: More than half a million of them arrived in 2022. Tens of thousands decided to stay and try to rebuild their lives.
For many of them, Bulgaria's second-largest city Plovdiv is already a new home. Their adjustment to the new environment starts in an old Soviet-era building that was once a hospital. After being abandoned for decades, the local authorities repurposed it as a temporary shelter for Ukrainian refugees.
Thanks to the amazing around-the-clock work of one woman, called Nata Elis, it is now a liveable place, full of life. It offers new hope to the poor, unfortunate souls that have chosen to go down this path.
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Entrepreneur Elis was born and raised in Odesa in Ukraine, married a Bulgarian businessman and moved to Plovdiv some seven years ago. She's putting in a lot of work and getting a lot of help from the locals to support refugees from Ukraine.
There CGTN met Mariana and her eight-year-old daughter Ismira, who had just arrived from Western Ukraine. They were happy to share with us their first impressions of the country.
"I don't feel that I am in a foreign country," Mariana said. "When I came here, I thought that people would be suspicious of us, in fact, everyone, starting from the capital to a small city of Plovdiv, greeted us warmly, gave us directions, and helped with everything. It feels like we just moved from one to another city in Ukraine."
With the help of local volunteers, many activities are available in this center, including Bulgarian language classes, martial arts training for the children, dancing classes, and many others. Little Ismira is already finding a new friends here.
"I like to be here," Ismira told us. "Everything is very good, and I like the kids here. And the only thing I don't have here is wi-fi, but the rest – I like it. And we can stay here until we have a new home."
Elis told us that many of the refugees are considering staying in Bulgaria for good, as the country is welcoming them with open arms.
"In September, when the educational year started, only 10 percent of kids went to Bulgarian schools, offline education," Elis said. "Now, 70 percent of kids attend Bulgarian schools. The same will happen with people here. If they would find good job, good place, good school for kids, and good environment, for sure they will stay. Maybe not forever, but for years."
As Bulgaria itself faces an unprecedented demographic decline, many here welcome the arrival of refugees from Ukraine, hoping to fill the population gap.
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