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Thursday, March 3, 2011

It can't be news to anyone who has ever stumbled upon this blog even briefly that I absolutely love my job and the kids I get to work with and advocate for on a daily basis. Because of this, however, I don't often broach the "touchy" areas of Roma issues in this forum. I would rather post pictures and stories that show these kids in the light that I see them, so anyone out there in the internet world can appreciate these kids for who they really are - not who the world wants, expects, or tells them to be. 

I'm going to break that rule today, because I think it IS important to shed some light to the real situation at hand, even though I know that whatever I say here will not do true justice to the reality faced on a day to day basis. 

Since the moment I opened the Peace Corps Welcome Book for Bulgaria back in the spring of 2008, I knew that God was bringing me to Bulgaria to work with the Roma/gypsy youth population. Despite Peace Corps best efforts to prepare me for my work here during Pre-Service Training, though, it wasn't until I actually moved to Samokov and started working that I truly started to see the disdain, disgust, and all-around racism towards Roma. To be honest, though, I have yet to truly understand where this resentment comes from, even though everyone you meet has their own theory. 

A few weeks ago I mentioned that a friend of mine was reading Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Griffin was a white Texan, and the book describes his 6 week experience traveling the deep south on greyhound busses and hitchhiking in 1959, all while passing himself (undisputed) as a black man. I've often heard people comparing modern day Roma issues to the Civil Rights Era in the United States not so long ago, but it wasn't until I felt inclined to pick up my own copy and found myself unable to put down Griffin's story that I began to realize how true that comparison must be. I don't have page numbers because I read this on my Kindle, but one of the quotes that made me think of the life my children have been dealt here is this: "When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no quality. My skin was dark." I've seen Roma kids get chased away from vendor stands because they are all automatically labeled as thieves due to their darker hair, eyes, and skin. I've seen paying adults from the same community denied rides on public transportation even though there was plenty of room for them. I've seen Roma families approach a table with a 'reserved' sign in a restaurant, only to be turned away because the table is reserved only for suitable (read white/Bulgarian) patrons. 

It breaks my heart to see such a beautiful, loving, generous, community-based demographic deemed void of all of these positive attributes, and be judged by their skin color or the sins of a minuscule minority. It also makes me proud to be serving in the role I do here - to be working alongside determined, passionate advocates for the Roma population in Samokov - but unlike the start of the Civil Rights movement in America, I wonder if there are enough enraged individuals out there willing to take a stand for population that has been denied their own voices.  


pliok said...

hi there, i had your blog bookmarked for the entry on AIA's visit last year, and just now i came back to it...only to spend the last nearly 3 hours on it :) thanks for all your great work in bulgaria! so, after all this time here, how bad do you deem the roma "issue"? i was more surprised than not that the situation is so bad in samokov because in sofia it's more about all neglected children, especially orphans and disabled, and when there is a problem, it's usually on the more violent side - you know, that side of the issue where a few thousand violent individuals spoil the image of the other hundreds of thousands....
but then again, a big city where everyone wants to go...
and i really do not think it can be compared to the civil rights movement. for me it's a matter of making the best of it all and not having a negative attitude (that economist article, i can imagine how it came to the conclusion), and it's a matter of fighting and not blaming the state, which under communism was responsible for everything
my early childhood was right after '89, so toilet-paper-roll animals were actually one of the best things we had
a matter of perspective, that's all..


Katie F. said...

Hey! Sorry. I thought I posted a response to this, but don't know where it went. Thanks for following along and commenting!

I think the Roman "Issue" nation wide (and probably across Europe) is a bigger problem than most people realize. Yes, it is only publicized when a newsworthy story arises about neglect, death, or racial violence somewhere, but the lack of opportunity for this demographic is an ongoing, daily challenge.

I see a community here in Samokov with illiteracy and unemployment rates well above 90%, and 2 entirely segregated schools where the expectations on a quality education are entirely different from those of the predominantly Bulgarian schools (yes, a number here are integrated, but capped at a 30% Roma enrollment). Cultural issues aside, these kids just don't have the opportunity to access the same resources and future that their Bulgarian counterparts do.

When I compared the modern day Roma issue to Civil Rights, I was specifically making the comparison to the entire Era in the US, as opposed to the actual Movement, because there is no semblance of a movement here to compare it to. I work with an incredibly determined team of women here, but there is no mobilization across the country of people willing to protest when Roma students are denied an education, refused passage on public transportation, beaten or provoked, or turned away from a restaurant (I've seen all of these situations occur in town).

One of the points made in "Black Like Me" is that there cannot be a movement for progress without a strong unity between leaders from both the Roma and Bulgarian communities, and I just don't see that happening anytime soon.

But Bog Znae!! I have faith in that. :)

Thanks again for commenting!! And sharing your perspective.

pliok said...

ah yes, we'll see, i hope it gets better
i got it, you're comparing it to the era prior to the civil rights movement, but i still disagree, as conditions here were never as bad, and before the Bulgarian version of 'democratization' slowly started creeping in, the situation was quite better
i'm not sure if it has to start with the leaders since, as i'm sure we've both seem, their interests just don't lie together with the welfare of the people they so ambitiously promise to lead to a better life or whatever else they say
i think in this case it has to start with smal things at grassroots level - lots of small things, and more inter-school interaction for sure
because when i see, in downtown sofia, roma workers not even being checked for a ticket on the tram, while at the same time i will inevitably get a fine unless i start running and pushing...well, who has more rights then, who is the more equal? i would not say it's me, the unemployed student who does not even have any discount rights because of some weird inscription rules, or the working people? it's not about ethnicity here, it's about perception of the population about the so-called proclaimed equality before law...
yes, conditions are bad, but the issue is not that.
the issue is that instead of encouraging and supporting grassroots initiatives for safe houses for young mothers or local entrepreneurship with micro lending, what happens is the so-called leaders from all concerned sides say 'oh, let's improve the situation by letting the community go without paying their bills' - not helpful, especially when thousands of elderly people cannot afford any of their bills and barely any medicine with the pensions...
result: justifiably perceived unfairness and strong subjectivity
now i'd compare this in principle with development aid versus supporting local entrepreneurship, i hope you'd agree.
ah anyways, final point - you know how if someone does not want your help, no help would lead to a sustainable solution? well, that's the case here. and aid or any sort of preferential treatment will not improve the situation because the wider society won't see the fairness in that...
ok, done with the issue, i hope you'll agree with at least a part of what i'm saying ;)