Life for Roma back home

Life for Roma back home

This week the European Commission will decide if it will take action against France over its expulsion of Roma migrants. Correspondent Matthew Brunwasser reports on how the Bulgarian government has tried to help Roma integrate in Bulgarian society.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(image: Nikolay Doychinov)

LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Ethnic Roma, or gypsies, have never been treated well in Europe. France in particular has made a policy of its antagonism toward the group. The government has deported more than 8,000 Roma migrants back to Bulgaria and Romania this year alone. The expulsions have been popular in France. But some European Union officials accuse France of violating European laws that guarantee free movement and ban racial discrimination. Matthew Brunwasser tells us how Roma are integrating, or failing to integrate, in Sliven, Bulgaria. That’s the city with the highest proportion of Roma in the country.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER:  Roma culture resists integration in mainstream society. Roma tend to mistrust state institutions. So Bulgarian cities train health mediators like Margaritsa Hristova to improve Roma’s access to care.

MARGARITSA HRISTOVA:  We are visiting one of our patients. I’m working as a health mediator and I have to check if everything is alright with my patients.


BRUNWASSER: Hristova’s chatting with a young Roma mother name Maya Alekova. Hristova asks Alekova if she’s kept up her twelve dollar monthly state health insurance payments. Alekova says no, money’s tight these days.


BRUNWASSER: Alekova says she appreciates the health mediator’s concern, but in general, she says, Bulgarian care givers treat her and other gypsies like second class human beings. For example, when she goes to the hospital.


MAYA ALEKOVA: I always make sure I’m very well dressed and the child too, or else they’ll throw us out. Especially if the child is a little dirty, that would be the end of us. When we are waiting in line and if some Bulgarian comes up from behind, the doctor tells us “Hey you guys, hold on.”

BRUNWASSER: And Alekova says she has nowhere to turn to object.


ALEKOVA: Where can I go to complain? I don’t know. Me, a gypsy woman, complain? Who would listen to me? I’m a no one to them.

BRUNWASSER: Part of the problem is communication. Many Gypsies speak Roma as their first language. Sometimes their Bulgarian is poor. Then there is another problem. Romas traditionally place little emphasis on health awareness. Margarita Hristova, the health mediator, says gypsies often not only can’t explain what’s ailing them, they don’t know.

HRISTOVA:  They don’t know the part of the bodies. They don’t know the organs. What organs, where is, what is the function of this organ. So I’m trying to explain the problem.

BRUNWASSER: Most Roma here in Sliven live in the Nadezhda ghetto. It has its own parallel state and city institutions, such as a medical clinic, a post office and social services. The idea is to give Roma less reason to leave. But more isolation means less integration. This school is on the other side of town. It was one of the first schools in Bulgaria to participate in a national desegregation campaign. Nikolai Stefanov is a coordinator of the Roma youth organization in Sliven. He says the United States was the model for the desegregation program in Bulgaria.


NIKOLAI STEFANOV: Americans have accepted African Americans in the same way that Bulgarians are learning to accept us Roma. In the same way you now have President Barack Obama, who has dark skin. It’s a very long process. It has to start from somewhere.

BRUNWASSER: First grade teacher Dora Ivanova has had Roma in her classroom for the past ten years. She says, like it or not, Bulgarians and Roma will have to live together. Ivanova says she has noticed improvements among the Roma children. She says the Roma in her class last year learned to read, write from dictation and do math.


DORA IVANOVA: 15 or 20 years ago there was none of this. They were massively illiterate, without any elementary habits of hygiene or social behavior. At moments, I felt desperate. At moments, I felt like I’ve reached the end. At moments, I’ve even hated them.

BRUNWASSER: It’s true that some of the Roma bussed in, from the poorest part of the ghetto, have never seen soap, a sink or a decent toilet before. School Director Diana Kuneva says desegregation is a big job, and integrating Roma into Bulgarian life can be one-step forward, two steps back.


DIANA KUNEVA: What we’ve succeeded in building here, even for a little while, becomes very fragile when they return to their home environment and some things are lost. We have to start over from the beginning when they come back here. That’s why it takes a lot of time. Desegregation is not only a problem for the schools. It needs to be a process for the whole society.

BRUNWASSER: But some elements of Bulgarian society actively oppose desegregation. For example, the far-right Ataka political party has won seats in parliament by keeping ethnic tensions high. Few in Sliven expect things to get better before they get worse. For The World, I’m Matthew Brunwasser, Sliven, Bulgaria.

Comments are closed.