Can Europe Make It?

EU citizenship, but no shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria

“I cannot remain quiet on this glaring and incongruous hole in its otherwise incredibly welcoming culture.”

Yuliya Shyrokonis
20 January 2020
Sofia, Bulgaria: child standing in debris after homes were razed in a Roma quarter, April 2018.
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Jodi Hilton/PA. All rights reserved.

In 2017, Burgas was voted Bulgaria’s number-one most liveable city. Thanks to its prime location on a peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea, Burgas offers a pleasant subtropical climate, numerous beaches, and plenty of restaurants and nightlife. I spent a year living and working in Burgas, and on many a sunny afternoon as I strolled down the seaside and watched the waves crash melodically onto golden sand, I caught myself thinking: “This is a piece of paradise.”

But only a short drive from Burgas, the view tells a very different story.

No two houses look the same. Some are no larger than a one-car garage and barely tall enough for the average adult, while others hint at a multi-room interior and loom a meter above their neighbours. Some are fenced in, but most are exposed to passing eyes, and they face every which way. Yet they all share a few telling characteristics: walls of greyish mud or red brick tenuously held together by sloppy mortar, topped with asymmetrical tin roofs and punctuated by windows that often lack glass and are left gaping black. The dry earth around them is peppered with a rainbow of trash: cans and bottles, wrappers and plastic bags, entire clothing items and unidentifiable rags.

The settlement might look abandoned if not for one thing: the children.

They yell at one another as they run, kicking a half-deflated soccer ball, a cloud of dust rising in their wake. It is summer, so like the children of Burgas, they do not wear shirts; unlike the children of Burgas, they are also barefoot. Their glistening skin is brown with dirt, and still browner underneath. This, along with the community into which they happened to be born, is what sets them apart in Bulgarian society. They are members of the Roma ethnic minority, and though they live only a few dozen kilometers from Burgas, their lives are a world apart.

The term “Roma” encompasses numerous factions which are believed to have descended from a single group that left northern India around 1,000 years ago and settled in Europe around the fourteenth century. Their cultural and ethnic distinction made them easy targets for persecution, and shortly after their arrival Roma were being enslaved or even killed in many parts of Europe. Roma enslavement in the Balkans lasted many generations, and although emancipation finally came in the middle of the nineteenth century, as in the case of the end of slavery in the United States, freedom was not synonymous with equality. Discrimination remained omnipresent, and advancement opportunities limited. Less than a century later, the Roma faced another horrific tragedy as victims of Nazi genocide during World War II. An estimated 500,000 to 1,500,000 Roma were massacred in one of the largest mass killings in human history. In the aftermath, the population’s harrowed survivors were subjected to forced settlement and sterilization in several communist nations.

Due to the difficulty of reliably measuring marginalized communities whose members are often disincentivized from identifying as such, estimates of the percentage of Roma in Bulgaria’s population vary anywhere from 4.9% to 20.9%. Even the lower end of this range would make Bulgaria’s percentage-wise Roma population among the highest worldwide. Yet while exposure breeds tolerance, there is still a long way to go before Bulgarian Roma will be treated as equals to their ethnic majority neighbours.

Many Roma live in self-built homes in de facto-segregated neighbourhoods with limited access to running water and electricity. Bulgaria has a temperate climate, but winter temperatures in the mountainous regions can drop far below freezing, at which point residents have few options for heating their homes beyond rudimentary and dangerous fires and wood stoves. Poor sanitation contributes to a variety of health problems, and Roma who seek medical help are often given differential treatment – for instance, a nationwide investigation of maternity wards by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Bulgaria’s largest human rights group, revealed that over 96% of hospital staff openly admit to separating patients by ethnicity. As if this weren’t enough, the very existence of many Roma dwellings is actively under threat: in 2014, the mayor of the city of Stara Zagora, Zhivko Todorov, ordered 55 Roma homes to be bulldozed because their owners did not have proper paperwork. Similar moves occurred in 2015 in the towns of Garmen and Orlandovci – crucially, despite the fact that Bulgarian-owned illegal housing, which is also prevalent, is rarely demolished.

For Roma children, the possibility of a better future is limited by woefully poor access to education. Research by the European Roma Rights Centre reveals that in addition to growing up in severe poverty, many are assigned to schools for intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) students – not because they show evidence of such disabilities, but due to their “disadvantaged background” or simply “because the teachers do not know what to do with them”. A 2001 report by the Open Society Institute showed that a majority of students in 130 Bulgarian IDD schools were Roma. When they are not subjected to inappropriate curricula, residential segregation nonetheless confines many Roma children to academically inferior classes in dilapidated neighbourhood schools. These classrooms are overcrowded, lack basic facilities, and are led on irregular schedules and by unlicensed teachers. As many as 70% of Roma children attend such schools.

In both the public and political spheres, violent anti-Roma attitudes are widely expressed and accepted. In 2011, following the implication of a Roma crime boss in the murder of a Bulgarian man, crowds of protesters across the country chanted “Gypsies into soap” – a reference to the Holocaust practice of manufacturing soap from the corpses of concentration camp victims. In 2017, Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament and vice-chairman of the nationalist IMRO party, Angel Dzhambazki, left a Facebook comment beneath a photo of a group of Roma men that read: “Euthanasia”. And Bulgaria’s own Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has been quoted as labelling the Roma “bad human material.”

With the Roma highly underrepresented in Bulgarian politics, such statements face few repercussions beyond a handful of critical reports by progressive media outlets. Instead they foment violence, as in the case of anti-Roma riots that erupted in the town of Gabrovo just this spring. After three Roma men attacked a Bulgarian shopkeeper, widespread anti-Roma sentiment on social media culminated in riots of several hundred people, who took to the streets and destroyed three homes belonging to Roma individuals – homes whose owners had no known connection to the attack aside from their shared ethnic identity with the attackers.

When thinking about anti-Roma discrimination in Bulgaria and Europe more broadly (for though Bulgaria’s Roma population may be uniquely large, similar racism plagues Roma communities across the continent), it is hard not to draw parallels to the history of a different dispersed population that also left its homeland to spread across the world, faced many centuries of discrimination and segregation, and was also targeted by the Third Reich in its inhumane bid for power.

It is hard not to draw parallels to the history of a different dispersed population that also left its homeland to spread across the world, faced many centuries of discrimination and segregation, and was also targeted by the Third Reich in its inhumane bid for power.

To me, the similarities between historical antisemitism and anti-Roma sentiment are difficult to ignore – and Bulgaria’s anachronistic lack of progress on the latter at once alarms and saddens me.

As the US State Department’s 2016 Human Rights Report for Bulgaria succinctly puts it, “the marginalization of and societal intolerance towards the Romani minority” is “the country’s most pressing human rights problem”. As much as Bulgaria will always have a place in my heart, I cannot honestly say that anything I have seen disproves this conclusion.

On the upside, some comfort can be found in the many nongovernmental organizations that have taken up the mantle. The Romani Early Years Network advocates for Roma professionalism, access to early childhood education, and inclusion in the workforce. Areté Youth Foundation supports Roma youth and communities with mentorship, camps, and professional development. Areté is funded by the Trust for Social Achievement, a sizable grant-making NGO that aims to reduce poverty with a focus on the Roma. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee gathers statistics on anti-Roma discrimination and other human rights issues, advocates for public discussion thereof, and promotes legislative reform. The issue of Roma marginalization has not gone unrecognized by Bulgaria’s progressive factions. But like many nonprofits, these organizations must balance daunting tasks with limited funding.

In the private sphere, progressive Bulgarians try to shift the conversation. During my year in Burgas, I had many discussions on the topic with Bulgarians who viewed the treatment of the Roma as unjust and supported change. These conversations convinced me that the Roma are far from without allies, and that improvement is possible.

Yet many more of the people I spoke with remained resistant, expressing doubts about the Roma’s ability to live lawfully and productively alongside, let alone within, Bulgarian society. I do not think I will ever forget a particular discussion I had with one elderly Bulgarian man. In an effort to convey the strength of his stance and growing increasingly frustrated with my opposing views, he said to me: “You know, Hitler did something right. After him, Germany had no Roma.”

It is an understatement to say that this remark shocked me. But when I remembered the context of how the Roma are portrayed in Bulgarian media, politics, and daily discourse, I felt foolish for even being surprised. Both this individual’s opinion and his comfort in expressing it are a reflection of how he was raised, in the same way that my own assessment of the situation is coloured by my American upbringing and ideals. I do not excuse his culpability, but neither do I believe that he is the only one to blame.

Nurturing compassion over judgment, openness over segregation, and acceptance over hate is the responsibility not only of individuals, but of governments. It is the duty of Bulgarian leadership first and foremost to change what is taught in the education system, exemplified in political dialogue, and promoted in the public sphere. Until Bulgaria’s leaders take the initiative to end this cycle and start taking responsibility for the lives of all of its citizens, not just the ethnic majority, the prospect of Roma equality will remain a very, very long way off.

Progress takes time. In stark contrast to that of the Roma, my own experience of Bulgaria is full of warmth and hospitality, of strangers who opened their doors to me at the drop of a hat and became fast friends. I will never know how my experience would have differed were I not a white, gender-conforming American – but what I do know firsthand is that Bulgarians are more than capable of openness, respect, and intercultural exchange. I genuinely believe in Bulgaria’s ability to move beyond segregation and mistreatment, and that is exactly why I cannot remain quiet on this glaring and incongruous hole in its otherwise incredibly welcoming culture. It is up to Bulgaria’s leadership to find the courage to acknowledge the Roma’s humanity and address their needs as equal members of Bulgarian society.

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