Introduction to the Roma with the Trust for Social Achievement
The Trust for Social Achievement is an organization based in Bulgaria dedicated to helping people reach their full potential. Its staff focuses on aiding the Roma community, also known by the more disparaging term Gypsies, of which 72 percent live below the poverty line. In this episode, Eugene speaks with Maria Metodieva, the Institutional Development Officer, and Ognyan Isaev, the Educational Achievement Official, about who the Roma people are, and the challenges they face both at home in Bulgaria and abroad. They share parallels with many other historically margianlized groups.
How does the Roma people relates to Bulgaria?
Ognyan: The Roma community is the biggest ethnic minority in Europe. It doesn’t have its own state, but it lives in all member states of the European Union and in the other European countries. In Bulgaria, the number of Roma according to the last national census is about 320,000. But according to the Council of Europe, it’s about 800,000.
The Roma community faces different types of challenges related to access to education, the labor market, different types of social services and equal treatment, or general representation in state institutions.
How did the Roma people come to be in Bulgaria?
Ognyan: Maybe we should start when the third Bulgarian state was established after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire. At that time, in the capital, out of 26,000 citizens, about 5000~6000 used to be Roma, and they were living in different parts of the capital. But slowly with the development of the state and the capital, they were forced to live in the suburbs of the city. In that way, they established settlements.
After the First World War and during the Second World War, the position of Bulgaria was very strategic. Along the Jewish people, Roma also were targeted by the Nazis’ policies during the Second World War, but it’s not a very well known and researched part of Second World War history. Bulgaria used to be a kingdom, but then it became a republic, and it was 45 years of so-called communist regime. A lot of developments are ongoing regarding the Roma, some of them good, some of them not very good. But here we are today.
Maria: Let me just do some clarifications on the attitude toward the Roma by mainstream society, not only in Bulgaria, but overall in Europe. It was extremely negative. Their lifestyle was pretty awkward to the other citizens: they were nomadic, and they were exercising different types of crafts like fortune telling. That was something that was scary for anyone from the mainstream society. People were afraid to actually get closer to their community, so they were living quite isolated for the most of their lives.
At present in Europe, there are more than 10 million Roma. This is a huge minority compared to the huge waves of migrants that are coming to Europe nowadays from countries that are undergoing riots and resistance. Across Europe, Roma tend to be isolated, noneducated, not allowed to go to school. Therefore, the consequences of that negligence and lack of desire to live together with the Roma community means most of the Roma nowadays continue to suffer a lack of access to these primary services like education and healthcare.
How did the Roma people become separated or a stateless, nomadic people?
Maria: They started off from India, as far as I remember, from an area closer to Punjabi. Then they dispersed through Persia and Egypt. There were different cohorts that dispersed through different areas, but the main one went through Persia and Egypt. At some point in the early 14th century, they came to Bulgaria. The largest cohort came to Europe, while there were a few that went to other parts of the world as well. The states have a tiny community of Brahma, or Gypsy. This is what they’ve been called around the world. This is the known term about them. In the 14th century, a lot of Rama established in Bulgaria.
What is the difference in the challenges Roma people face in Bulgaria versus elsewhere in Europe?
Maria: Perhaps in Western Europe, they enjoy a better life than the ones that are based in Eastern Europe, and that’s due to a different life standard. For instance, the life of Roma in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland is different from the life of Roma in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. That’s because there are better developed policies with regard to social groups that face severe economic challenges, while in Bulgaria and other countries in Eastern Europe, there is a struggle economically because policies are not well developed and not well implemented by governments, together with the increasing discrimination and negative attitude towards those communities that actually makes it even harder for them to to make a better life.
How did you get involved with this organization?
Maria: I grew up in a mixed neighborhood. Most Bulgarian Roma live in segregated neighborhoods in the so-called ghetto areas across the country, but I had the chance to live in a mixed neighborhood with lots of ethnic Bulgarians and ethnic Turks. I had the chance to go to school, which was compulsory, and the state during the communist time was persecuting parents who were not getting their kids to school. So I went to school, and then I had the chance to continue my education because my parents encouraged me to continue school.
It was quite difficult. My classmates were not very polite or tolerant. Most of the Roma nowadays, and actually for all time, suffer severe discrimination because of their origin. I ended up being invited by a local civil society organization working in Sofia, which is the capital of Bulgaria, in the largest Romani ghetto. I was invited to help them with English; they were having trouble finding a person to help them translate documents in English. I started working there when I was 17. They persuaded me to continue my education at the university. I ended up going to the university and graduating. Since 1996, I’ve been closely involved with the Roma movement and the development of including Romani communities in mainstream society in Bulgaria and in Europe. So I was able to see how people suffer and how they tackle challenges on an everyday basis, having no electricity, no sewage, no water at their home. That’s something that’s had a deep impact on my life, my understanding and my values. I decided that I will continue to work for that cause.
Ognyan: My story doesn’t differ much from Maria’s story. I grew up in a small town where I was only with my mother. I was visiting a mixed school, but with majority Roma and Turkish students, who also belonged to a minority. When I entered the university in 2015, I went to study journalism. For the first time I felt a different attitude toward me. But at that time, I was not able to recognize these attitudes as discrimination because I never heard about this term.
It made me stronger and more motivated. Then I found an opportunity to volunteer in a nonprofit organization. Despite the fact that I am Roma, I never heard the Roma issues that were discussed on the state level, but I was actually experiencing them every day. I didn’t know that there are people who are fighting to overcome these challenges. I decided that I also will work to help more people like me to escape and to grow professionally, and to enter the labor market, the institutions to work as professionals. It makes me a kind of Roma activist. I also have two occupations as a journalist and as a psychologist, but I devoted my professional life to the Roma cause because I think it’s worth it. The issues they go through are really astonishing.
How do people know that you are Roma, and what is the basis of discrimination?
Maria: There are some external features that could distinguish an ethnic Bulgarian from an ethnic Roma. It could be the color of the skin, or something vague like the outfit of a person coming from a ghetto. Despite that, we have serious evidence that has been collected during the past years from various research institutions like Open Society, UNICEF, the World Bank, for instance, that discrimination is most often exercised by medical professionals.
In Bulgaria, there are still traditions of ethnic Romani women giving birth in isolated birth rooms, separated from other mothers. For instance, a Romani mother that’s pregnant most likely won’t be able to go to see a doctor until the time of delivery. That’s because most of them have no health insurance because they are not employed. Romani girls tend to give birth to their first kid at an earlier age compared to ethnic Bulgarian girls, that would be 15~16 years old. Romani kids are enrolled in Roma-only schools. The legislation was changed recently, like two years ago, but prior to that, it was saying that kids have to enroll in the closest school in their neighborhood of residence. During the communist time in Bulgaria, there were lots of schools built within the ghettos. So Romani kids had no other option but to go to the Romani school. Whenever they are willing to get enrolled in another mainstream school, most of them have been refused. That’s also another evidence of severe discrimination against the community.
Ognyan: The quality of education in the segregated schools is much lower than the quality of education in schools the majority students attend. The other main issue regarding education is that the services provided in Bulgarian schools are mainly oriented toward the needs of the ethnic Bulgarian children. The cultural and linguistic needs of children from different minorities are not taken into account. Even the infrastructure is designed in a way that students can recognize themselves in the symbols that are put in the classroom, but the students who are not Bulgarians cannot identify themselves with the institution, which is very important for children to feel secure in this environment.
How is the United States related to the Roma situation?
Maria: I would say that although the States went through similar challenges with people of color, most of the successful practices were developed there. For instance, we are implementing a practice that we took from the States called Nurse Family visiting program, where nurses and medical professionals are visiting young mothers who are expecting their first child at an early age. That program has proven successful and beneficial to the Romani girls that are expecting their first child at a very early age.
Another thing that I have seen in New York in Harlem was an initiative that would support entrepreneurs, people that are willing to develop their own small community-based business as a source of income and economic independence. We transferred and adjusted the model each year. We implemented it for about five years, and now we have more than 40 young entrepreneurs that have started their own business as a source of income for their families. These are just a few of the examples that we took from the States, and we’re happy to have had that chance to implement them in Bulgaria.
Do you think the Roma situation in the U.S. is better than it is in Europe?
Maria: The only thing that differs between our societies is the chance that’s given to anyone in the States, regardless of ethnicity and origin, which is incomparable to what young people can achieve in Eastern Europe. If you have the inspiration and the motivation equally, having difficulties and struggles, you can still achieve a better life for your family and for yourself, while in our country, that’s quite difficult, almost impossible. Because if you grow up in a community, like the ones here in Bulgaria, you most probably wouldn’t have left the community, the geographical borders of that community, for the entirety of your life. That’s a huge difference between the two.
How does the theme of family separation relate to the Roma people?
Maria: We have some specific traditions when it comes to raising a family in the Roma community. It is true that years ago, Romani girls tend to get married at a very early age. But that’s because of keeping a specific tradition in mind by elderly community representatives, and the code toward virginity. Girls were not allowed to leave the community or to develop their potential. Their primary goal was to set up and raise a family. Most of them, however, because they were marrying earlier, at some point, their husbands would leave them with the kids and get married to another woman or just leave the community. This is an implication that had a severe impact on many women in the community who had to raise their families by themselves.
Ognyan: In terms of the economical situation, in the northwest part of Bulgaria, there is a significant Roma community. According to the statistics, 40 percent of the parents live abroad, and their children are here alone. Most parents in Bulgaria, not only Roma, but the majority of them Roma, are forced to work abroad. Here are children, girls and boys, they leave alone, who go to school, take care of themselves, due to the lack of jobs and normal salaries with which their parents can afford normal life. The parents are forced to go to work in Western Europe in order to maintain better life for their children.
What are the challenges that Romani women face?
Maria: In the rural areas of the country, communities continue to live in isolation. It’s worrisome. Through our partners, we are trying to help educate and empower those girls to persuade their own development. We implemented a project that we call “alma mater.” It’s a European Union-funded project, and we implemented it in three locations in the country. Our idea is to work with girls and women at an early age, so 13 to 15 years old, and tell them that they’re equally important as the boys. They have the choice to go to school, to graduate, and to find a meaningful way to live their life. Not that having a family is not meaningful, but have their dreams achieved.
Ognyan: We also have a program that supports organizing camps for Roma girls to open their horizon for achievement not only to elementary, primary or secondary, but also to university education. In many cases, especially in small localities, our investments and initiatives became a board, which takes a lot of people who have labor market access. In many cases where the parents are abroad and students are alone, we replace the role of parents, which is very crucial because children, when they are left alone, don’t care for orientation: which is good, which is bad. In this regard, I think our programs play an important role, especially in small localities.
What does the Trust for Social Achievement do?
Maria: The TSA was established eight years ago. We thought that we should follow the human development cycle, so our investment starts from a very early age. So from birth, it goes through giving a healthy start to babies, where we support young mothers by providing access to medical professionals who teach them about healthy nutrition of babies. Then we go to early education, attending kindergarten and nursery. For many kids across the country, these are solid ground for achievement at the latest stage at school and the job market. Then we go through supporting young people to enroll in elementary, primary, high school and university. We support all stages, through various means: scholarships, tutorials, teacher support, mentorship, purchasing textbooks, helping them with transportation costs, and more. And then we move on to helping kids prepare for the labor market, developing all these soft skills, ideas for entrepreneurship, or starting their own business. Our final goal is to provide a solid ground for everyone to achieve economic independence and live in a stable and safe home.
As I said earlier, most of Romani in Bulgaria live in segregated neighborhoods, which means that they actually live in illegal houses, which can be demolished at any time. Therefore, there is a risk of people becoming homeless. This is the cycle that we go through. We have a lot of success stories to share. We are serving nearly 80,000 beneficiaries across the country and we work with more than 70 partners across the country. We extend our support to the extent possible because we depend on available funding. Although we are constantly looking to establish new partnerships with various NGOs, exchanging ideas and knowledge, we’re also looking for financial support so that all these ideas can get support to be achieved.
Do you have any success stories that you’d like to share?
Maria: There was a girl named Annie, and she grew up in a small town close to the border with Macedonia. She lived her whole life in a ghetto and had not many option. But there was this NGO that we support which has started classes in English language. We support improving English language proficiency of young people across the country, so she enrolled in that course for 18 months. She persistently went through the course, improving her language skills to the extent possible. She’s now teaching other kids in the neighborhood from ages eight to 13. She’s teaching them English. At the same time, she volunteers at the local children’s hospital where she helps kids that are sick. She went to various oratory debates where she won first place, which was amazing. She wanted to enroll at the American University in Bulgaria and she made it through the enrollment exam. We are now looking forward to helping her with the tuition so that she can get into the university.
What do you want listeners to take away or remember about the situation Roma people are in?
Maria: Everyone, it at a certain point of time, went through severe difficulties. Young kids go through bullying because of their skin color, hair color, or whatever. But what is most important is that being different doesn’t make you bad or worse. Being different is actually a value. This is what I believe people have been ignoring or refusing to recognize: we are all different, and that’s what makes us successful. That’s what makes us better.