ONE UNREAD MESSAGE: 'Has Tsvetanov ever seen... how a single family lives in a Roma neighbourhood?' Photo: Krassimir Yuskesseliev
Photo: Spas Spassov
We are either a "nomadic tribe" or an "incubator for generating crime". These comments made by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov last month in Brussels provide a glimpse into what it feels like to be Roma in my home country. Despite claims by Tsvetanov that the media had twisted his words, the damage was already done for me, for my family, and for the 800 000 Roma living in Bulgaria.
The European Commission called the Interior Minister's comment "unacceptable" but I wonder if his remarks are also unacceptable for the average Bulgarian. Do we realise that the way Roma are treated in our country is not right? Why are we so quick to defend attacks on our national identity, yet silent on the treatment of the country's largest ethnic minority? Instead of debating the validity of these statements can we simply think about how we treat our Roma countrymen?
In 2009, Bulgaria's elected officials and the general public reacted with outrage when the country was depicted as a "squat toilet" by artist David Cerny. It felt wrong to sit idly by and accept such a stereotype.
The same is true for our image in Italy. Bulgarians are portrayed in the media as criminals and the vast majority of Italian news stories about Bulgarians focus on criminality. Of course, the average Bulgarian would never accept this generalisation. But when it comes to our stereotypes of the Roma somehow we forget what it is like to be treated in such a derogatory manner. It is easy for us to simplify our thoughts about a certain group of people when we read only bad news about them. But it is not just, it is not correct, and it is simply not right.
Tsvetanov made his statement without thinking about the consequences of his words. Later, he even claimed that it was based on findings regarding the number of registered crimes in the country. Well, one could easily ask Tsvetanov whether or not he knows the real number of Roma in Bulgaria so he could make a good comparative analysis of the number of crimes committed by various ethnic groups. But we ignore this point.
Why is it that when a Roma commits a crime he is labelled only as a Roma but when he wins a European boxing championship, like Boris Georgiev, he is labelled as simply Bulgarian? Criminality does not have ethnicity, and negative criminal stereotyping does not serve anyone apart from populist politicians. Yes, we need to open our eyes and look our problems in the face, but stigmatising Roma and blaming previous governments for failures of integration is not a way out.
Instead, we should look for solutions to how Roma can have the same opportunities, rights and obligations as the rest of Bulgarian society. Roma should not live as outsiders in ghettos and/or in segregated neighbourhoods on the outskirts of our cities. Roma should live together with the majority, and this will only happen when it is no longer acceptable for our elected officials to make these sorts of statements.
Has Tsvetanov ever seen for himself how a single family lives in a Roma neighbourhood? Has he ever asked them about their problems or the opportunities they have had in life before making such a claim? Roma, like many other Bulgarians, leave the country in order to make a better living. Most of those Bulgarians who leave the country are driven out by poverty. For the Roma the situation is even worse as their unemployment rate is the highest in Bulgaria. Roma leave Bulgaria in search of a better life because they face rampant discrimination.
We need to wake up and look around us and see what is going on. We live in a country that since 2007 has been a member of the European Union. Our government agreed to be part of the EU based on values such as respect for human dignity, liberty and equality. Everybody has the right to live with dignity in normal living conditions and enjoy equal access to quality education, health care, and employment, but the majority of Roma in Bulgaria do not enjoy any of those rights.
Our insistence on stereotyping the Roma is why they are seen as "strangers" by the majority population. These same stereotypes are those that led to Bulgarian parents in Pazardjik pulling their children out of classes with Roma students.
This is not how I imagine my life or my children's lives. I do not want to look for opportunities in another country. I want to enjoy my rights and live in dignity as a Bulgarian, a European, and a Roma.
Mr Tsvetanov, we should open a dialogue and talk to the Roma. We need both the government and the Roma to work together toward successful integration and an inclusion strategy whereby Roma become citizens with a full set of rights. Today, the EU is giving us a hand. Mr Tsvetanov, let's work together to build an open and just society where our Government is accountable for all Bulgarians – Roma and non Roma alike.