Thursday, October 10, 2013

What I found after the tunnel

In Nadezhda there are not playgrounds but children willing build them up. As an alternative, they are using a steep ramp inside a tunnel - the one they should cross everyday on their way back from school. Built under the railways, this narrow and yellow corridor is the entrance and exit passage to two entirely different realities: the Tsigani and the white Bulgarians’ one. This is the story of the Roma Neighborhood in Sliven, one of the cities with the highest Roma Population in Bulgaria. 
Tunnel to Nadezhda
When we arrived to Nadezhda´s doors I didn´t even notice we were there. This huge Roma Settlement starts behind the red building of the train station in Sliven, and when the train reaches this stop the neighborhood disappears. It is like a curtain made of wagons which hides for a couple of minutes every two or three hours one of the biggest Gipsy ghettos in Bulgaria.

During my visit to Nadezhda my Polish friend and I were guided by Stefan and Dorothea. Two of the workers of Thirst for Life Association, an NGO founded in 2005, with the main aim of empowering young Roma with risk behavior to exercise their constitutional right of equal access to health and health care. 

The neighbors

According to the last official census, Nadezhda is inhabited by approximately 33.000 people. However, this figure is probably not realistic as from the time the registration was made, Stefan told me that around 10.000 people have emigrated to other countries in Europe searching for a job. Actually, this is one of the undercover reasons of the refusal of France, Germany and The Netherlands for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area.

Nevertheless, regarding Roma community, most of the population censuses are not reliable at all, due either to migrations or to the fact that a considerable amount of people don't want to say they are Roma due to the discrimination and prejudice they suffer. This lack of information related to Roma figures is more important as it seems because it influences (or at least it should) the policies and funds intended to their integration. In Bulgaria, as reported by different NGOs, the number of those perceived as Roma varies from 700.000 to 800.000 people2. 88% of them are at risk of poverty, 72 % live in areas that are predominantly inhabited by other Roma, and more than a half in illegal housing3. Although Bulgaria is one of the signatory states of the Decade of Roma inclusion 2005-20154, the country presents the highest rate of spatial segregation of Roma among EU member states5. Nadezhda is an example of it.

Walnut ghetto

Regarding to jobs, Roma keep facing huge doses of discrimination almost everywhere in Europe. This is certainly a thing that you can smell in Nadezhda. In the central square of the settlement, the owner of a van turned into a coffee bar with the sign “Refrescos” on the top, tells me in perfect Spanish that unemployment there affects the majority of people at working age, which is unbearable.

Listen, we are gypsies, you know? And here, in Sliven, if in a job interview they understand that you are living in Nadezhda, no way. Hard to be selected”. This man in his sixties has been living in Murcia for 13 years, working as chauffeur. At the beginning he didn´t look like willing to talk to us, but eventually he moved his chair to our table to finish drinking his coffee in front of me. In a Bulgarian-Spanish-English-Russian language conversation (depending on which of us took the floor) he explained that unemployment allowance for them usually consists of 20 Leva and 14 days of communitarian/cleaning works. “Not enough. We are screwed. During the communist time we used to have different factories in Sliven. There was work, but not any more¨. The lack of access to the labour market is common among Roma living in Central and Eastern Europe, who are generally unemployed and face substantial structural and cultural barriers when looking for a paid job6. Thus, Roma involvement in the informal sector is on average four or five times more common than for non Roma7. The image of these two facts are the “walnut ghettos”. Leaving the central square to enter deeper in the settlement, there are people cracking walnuts in almost every corner. With more than a 60% of jobless, they are using self- employment as a brave response to discrimination. 
Map of Sliven
 School desegregation

I visited Dorothea´s house and Stefan’s mother, grandmother and aunt. We shake hands with a big smile. Family. This word is really important in Nadezhda and its meaning is different than in the rest of Sliven. Roma Families are frequently bigger and younger than white Bulgarian ones, and they include more children. I saw a lot them in Nadezhda. Stefan says that here is common to get pregnant at the age of 15, 16. Someone tells me that once they give birth, parents are receiving a monthly benefit from the State consisting of 37 Leva per kid, which last till children reach the age of 18, as long as they are attending school. Education is another hot topic in Roma community. On average, only one out of two Roma children attends pre-school or kindergarten8, and there is a high rate of school drop-outs among them. In numbers, 44% of Roma have basic education in Bulgaria, with 20 % of Roma not even completing primary level education, and therefore, just 0,3% of Roma undertaking higher education9. In this field it is important to highlight as well, the trend to educate Roma children in segregated schools or in schools located in rural areas, where the quality of education is lower than in the mainstream schools. It means ghettoization and future barriers which are affecting nowadays to the 75% of Roma children10.
A steep ramp inside the tunnel
 Everybody´s place

We keep walking. People greet me with smiles and curiosity. Everybody greets each other and every so often someone surprises me with one “Hola España!” A lot of them can speak Spanish. Stefan told me that an 80 % of the population in Nadezhda can, although for me, this might be a bit optimistic percentage. In Nadezhda public space is public for real. You can feel it: we are now in everybody´s place. Woman, men and children are standing in the door of their houses talking to each other, saying hello to the strollers, working...Some people are cleaning their pig in the middle of the street. A man is fixing a bicycle. Others are remodelling their houses. The streets of this part of the settlement are clean. They have rubbish collection service as well as electricity and water, though the last one with restrictions. Children are playing freely in the middle of the path. Music. Nadezhda exudes life and people.

Prayers and votes

I meet the Evangelist priest who comes from the city. He talks with his priest voice something in Bulgarian to Dorothea I cannot understand. In Nadezhda you can find all the religions, despite not counting with any temple within its walls. In Bulgaria, 44% of the Roma are Orthodox, 39% Muslims, 15% Protestants and less than 1% Catholics11. This morning I encountered as well one of the representatives of the local authority of the settlement.

I take advantage of the meeting to ask Stefan if in Nadezhda there is any kind of political activism, neighbors’ associations, etc. The answer is no. In Bulgaria, Roma Community presence in the politic world is almost nonexistent. They are basically a tool for politicians. Bulgarian political leaders are following a double manipulation strategy related with Roma. On the one hand they are exploiting them to get their votes, sometimes by buying them, and on the other hand they are using them as a fall guy of economic and social problems.
Community Health Centre

Nadezhda’s Community Health Centre is a humble building in whose doors people crowd queuing. Most of them are men with children. Dorothea knows almost everybody. Her work in the association consists on the prevention and detection of tuberculosis among the neighbours. This illness in from 2 to 5 times more common between Roma than between ethnic Bulgarians12.

Apart from this, life expectancy for Roma is in general 8-15 years lower than other Bulgarians, and child mortality rates are almost three times higher. All this figures are the result of several factors such as the isolation they suffer, the poor living conditions in the ghetto, the lack of health education and preventive health care, and the administrative barriers and discrimination in the access to medical care. Specifically in Bulgaria, approximately half of the Roma population don't have health insurance as a result of unemployment and poverty, and 55% have difficulty accessing doctors13.

Ghetto inside a ghetto

Turning left from the Community Health Center, the streets start to be darker and sadder. Actually this is the saddest part of the article, of Nadezhda and probably of Europe. A ghetto inside a ghetto. A forgotten area which, actually, you can find in almost every country. Here, the streets are not paved and the rubbish collection is not working. Garbage piles up almost everywhere and the smell is terrible. Four children aged between 2 and 6 years stir a mixture which looks like concrete. Houses are crumbling what allows me to see the interior of almost every one of them.

Old and tiny clothes hanging here and there and hundreds of kids. As we are going into this zone I cannot stop wondering how this is possible. How European Union and its States and its citizens (all of us very modern and committed to human rights) can bare this situation. How can WE bare this situation? Where are our priorities? Thirst for Life Association and another French NGO whose name Stefan couldn’t remember are the only organizations working here.

I leave the settlement reflecting of the repercussions of being born in one or in another side of the railway. The tunnel is now full of children running with their bagpacks. I think back all I saw this morning. The conclusion is definitely positive. Nadezhda, despite its difficulties and somehow because of them, is full of life and future, and we cannot let prejudice and discrimination deny them. Europe has much to learn from its citizens who invent slides and combat unemployment by cracking walnuts. Such important things as not give up and always look for alternatives.
Yellow corridor to a different reality

2 NATIONAL DELIVERATIVE POLL: Policies toward the Roma in Bulgaria
3 European Country of Origin Information Network: Bulgaria: Situation of Roma, including access to employment, housing, health care, and education; state efforts to improve the conditions of Roma (2009-September 2012) [BGR104200.E]
5 European Country of Origin Information Network: Bulgaria: Situation of Roma, including access to employment, housing, health care, and education; state efforts to improve the conditions of Roma (2009-September 2012) [BGR104200.E]
6 ROMA IN EUROPE: Issues and policy responses
9 ROMA IN EUROPE: Issues and policy responses
10 Deutsche Welle “Roma: more integration through education”
11 NATIONAL DELIBERATIVE POLL: Policies toward the Roma in Bulgaria
12 Deutsche Welle “Millions don't help Roma integration in Bulgaria”
13 Roma in Europe: issues and policy responses

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