Roma Rising from Status as a Despised Minority

Roma Slum in Bulgaria

Sofia        Bulgaria and other Eastern European and Balkan nations with significant populations of the Roma minority can easily be compared to African-Americans and their situation in the American South of fifty years ago.  They are a despised minority that has begun to see some improvement after years of forced segregation, disempowerment, and secondary status, but they are still impoverished and largely powerless.  The good news, after several hours of meeting with key Roma activists in Bulgaria, where the largest Roma population in Europe lives, is that they are rising with ambitious organizational and political plans that, if successful, could be transformative over coming decades.

The statistics are dismal and contradictory.  Roma populations are seriously undercounted in the Bulgarian census with some stating their ethnicity and as much as 10% of the population leaving the question unanswered with arguably even answering disingenuously to protect themselves and their status.  Recent census figures, though disputed, count 325,343 Roma in Bulgaria or 4.4% of the population, but other figures including the European Union estimate, claim there are 800,000 or more than 10% of the total population.  Some nongovernmental groups argue that the population is increasing by 35,000 per year, and that the number is significantly more than one-million, and perhaps twice the EU estimate.

What is beyond dispute is the level of poverty in the community.  Though decreasing, 21stcentury figures hover above 60% of the Roma population below the poverty line with unemployment figures over 50%.

Illiteracy is decreasing but the situation in the schools constitutes de facto segregation even if not de jure segregation.  The government contends that there has never been a mandatory segregation policy, but that it is a matter of “administrative districts.”  There is no pretense of “separate, but equal,” rather the government argues that this situation is simply a matter of people living in close communities.  An Open Society Institute report cited in Wikipedia is explicit:

A monitoring report by the Open Society Institute found that Romani children and teenagers are less likely to enroll in primary and secondary schools than the majority population and less likely to complete their education if they do. Between 60% and 77% of Romani children enroll in primary education (ages 6–15), compared to 90-94% of ethnic Bulgarians. Only 6%-12% of Romani teenagers enroll in secondary education (ages 16–19). The drop-out rate is significant, but hard to measure, as many are formally enrolled but rarely attend classes.[66] The report also indicates that Romani children and teenagers attend de facto segregated “Roma schools” in majority-Romani neighbourhoods and villages. These “Roma schools” offer inferior quality education; many are in bad physical condition and lack necessary facilities such as computers. As a result, Romani literacy rates, already below those for ethnic Bulgarians, are much lower still for Romani who have attended segregated schools.[67]

Activists argue that housing is the key issue since the lack of a governmental support policy has led to informal and often haphazard construction everywhere, often on municipal lands without title.  Other key objections are dealing with the large youth cohort which means supplementing education and developing new community leadership styles, and ending “hate speech” and blatant discrimination.

Organizational ambitions are analogous to the civil rights movement focusing on pressuring parties and office holders without aligning or forming a separate party, but holding feet to the fire on programs and accountability both in elections and socially.  One-hundred organizations of Roma have already coalesced around some issues and demands.  Leaders have set a goal of mobilizing more than 100,000 Roma in Bulgaria over the next year, and are looking to build organizational and communications infrastructure to make the movement sustainable and powerful.

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Please enjoy Natalie Jean’s What Would You Do for Love? Thanks to KABF.

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Hopelessness and Hope Among Young People in Albania

high school students

Ndroq and Tirana       We drove to Ndroq, a village of about 5000 people, that is part of the municipality of Tirana, Albania, even though it took us almost an hour to get there.  Most of the country we drove through was a mixed industrial area interspersed with some vineyards and truck farms yielding produce.  We were scheduled to visit a high school where Marsela Allmuca, my associate, had done work with women and girls on education and awareness projects focusing on empowerment as a prevention against potential domestic violence and abuse.

Most of the young people we visited with here were the equivalent of sophomores and juniors in US high schools.  Their English was good, and they were at that tipping point where they were still mostly children, even as they looked more like adults, but increasingly trying to sort out a path as adults and all of the craziness that goes with that in knowing both too much and way too little.  The dynamics were such that some of the more confident in speaking English and more accustomed to dominating class discussions held sway in the beginning, but gradually, the more we talked about organizing, the more we broke through.  In the beginning we largely heard what their fathers felt, but later we got closer to what they really thought, but it was a struggle.

The opening tone was one of hopelessness about their community and their country.  On a show of hand, almost all of them wanted out, seeing no hope for change or employment in Albania or this small village.  Surveys indicate that 79% of young Albanians want to emigrate to other countries.  Marsela told me that there were some forecasts that projected the current population of more than two million could be halved to only one-million in coming years given the existing outflow of the young and aging of the general population.  Their fathers’ issues were the conditions of roads, the inability to get paid for work performed, and the ever-present issue of resolving land ownership, which one teen thought required a $2000 fee to process, almost as much as a year’s annual wage at the minimum standard.  Finally, one girl at the back spoke up and with help eventually rallied the majority of the students around the issue of needing a playground or cinema.  The argument bizarrely focused on whether or not that issue was too trivial compared to the so-called “big” issue of better roads.  Eventually, we carried the day on a show of hands about whether we should organize for an immediate win on playgrounds, but given the permeation of hopelessness in the room, it took everything I could muster to convince them that picking issues was not a zero-sum game, but both could be handled, and both were important.

activists and volunteers at Human Rights House

Our next meeting was in Tirana at the Human Rights House with some of their volunteers and several activists.  This smaller group ranged from 21 to 25 years of age with most in universities at some level.  Here, I caught a break.  One Roma activist told the story of how he and his friends supported a community of sixteen families being forcibly relocated from a river bank where they were living.  Launching a determined campaign against the municipal housing agency, they eventually won resettlement and a land grant for the Roma families, so that they could rebuild their homes, which gave me a great community organizing story in order to push them more clearly in the direction of building power and creating change.  Several other activists had long experience in disaster relief after a fatal explosion of an unsafe plant in their area and were now trying to create some of the first social enterprises, or so they claimed, in the country.

well-known graduates of the high school

Perhaps if a young person can make it away from their local village and out of the homes of their families who have suffered through cataclysmic changes in the country throughout their generation, including the fall of Communism and mass deprivation and migration, there’s hope as they hit twenty for both themselves and the country.  It’s a mountain to climb, but some at least seem to be making it, so we’ll have to help them build the bridge for a better Albania.

he school’s namesake in NDROQ which is the name of the village

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