Roma integration in Bulgaria
Matthew Brunwasser visits two ethnic Roma neighborhoods in Bulgaria to find out how the Roma there view the issue of integration. France’s extradition of Roma to Bulgaria and Romania has set off a debate in Europe about the Roma’s place in European society.
(image: Nikolay Doychinov)
LISA MULLINS: There’s been a huge outcry over France’s expulsion of ethnic Roma, or gypsies. The debate is raging over equality and the role of race in European society. That debate is no less heated among Roma themselves, in their home countries of Romania and Bulgaria. Matthew Brunwasser visited two very different Roma neighborhoods in Sliven, the Roma capital of Bulgaria, to gauge reaction.
MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: Nikola Kochev looks like a typical neighborhood in a typical Bulgarian town. Single family houses are scattered haphazardly up and down the hillside. What’s different about this community is that it’s a middle-class Roma neighborhood. It’s right before Thursday night services at the Antioch Evangelical Church. Pastor Encho Hristov says that while most Roma are poor and illiterate, his congregants are considered successful by Bulgarian standards. But they still feel looked down on.
ENCHO HRISTOV: We’re still visible that we’re gypsies. People have something in mind when they see us, although we are well educated, although we have nice clothes and try to be like them, but still there is prejudice in their minds.
BRUNWASSER: Pastor Encho has touched on France’s expulsion of Roma in his sermons. He says it’s a big topic here in Nikola Kochev.
HRISTOV: They just want to clear their territory so that they can have more jobs for those [INDISCERNIBLE] in France.
BRUNWASSER: Some middle-class Roma have some sympathy for what France is doing. That includes the pastor’s sister Margarita Hristova. She says that many of the Roma living in camps in Western Europe are thieves.
MARGARITA HRISTOVA: We have the same problem here with the poor people who don’t have anything. They just go and steal from the people.
BRUNWASSER: Hristova says Bulgarians are surprised to meet a gypsy like her who is lighter-skinned, educated and well-groomed.
HRISTOVA: They think that the gypsies are not educated, very stupid, stealing, very bad people and dirty and stinking. But when I say to the people I am a gypsy, they don’t believe me. They think I just play some role because I love gypsies.
BRUNWASSER: The stereotype is more like what you see in the streets of Sliven’s Roma ghetto, Nadejda. Nadejda means “hope” in Bulgarian. But there isn’t much of it here, says Sasho Yordanov, a health worker who works in Nadejda.
SASHO YORDANOV: Everyone is just struggling to survive. They don’t think much about what’s happening in France. I don’t think that’s a good thing because we Roma are people, human beings, and citizens of the European Union. The EU was made for people to live freely and to not face discrimination.
BRUNWASSER: As Yordanov shows me around, a local man sees my microphone and insists on showing me something.
BRUNWASSER: Just for one minute he says.
BRUNWASSER: He shows me a PVC tube plugging a hole in the concrete floor of his house. When he lifts it, brown ooze starts to flow out. There’s no sewage system in Nadejda.
BRUNWASSER: We have to go to France, he says. Just look at how we live here. There is one enterprise that’s thriving in Nadejda. Residents gather on streets throughout the neighborhood, men, women and children, sitting among huge sacks of walnuts, chatting, cracking nuts and throwing the meat into plastic tubs. Zdravka Rukova makes about eight dollars a day shelling walnuts. She wants to stay in Bulgaria, but she also says she would leave if it meant a better future for her two children.
ZDRAVKA RUKOVA: If it weren’t for these walnuts, I’d have to go to France to live in a tent and work. I want to go there, but they say they’re sending people back now. If it weren’t for these walnuts, we’d be dead.
BRUNWASSER: In Nikola Kochev, life is a lot less desperate. But people are worried about what France has been doing. Businessman Apostol Savov says he’s less concerned about the Roma’s rights as EU citizens than he is about potential escalation.
APOSTOL SAVOV: You can see how small problems can create much bigger problems. Just look at the former Yugoslavia. Conflicts there between ethnicities became wars. They have to be very careful. These are very delicate political questions and the politicians need to keep that in mind.
BRUNWASSER: Last week, the European Commission decided to take punitive action against France for violating EU laws on free movement. However things get resolved, it probably won’t involve much input from Roma themselves. For the World, I’m Matthew Brunwasser, Nikola Kochev, Bulgaria.