Building a future for the Roma
Roma are the third-largest minority group in Serbia. Their existence and way of life within the Balkans is longstanding, complex and challenging. They often live on the margins of society, subject to widespread poverty and discrimination.
In Serbia alone there are more than 600 settlements without access to essentials, like water, sewage and electricity. Recently the UN released a statement of concern about the Romas exclusion, inequitable access to education, housing, employment and legal protection.
Serbia, currently in accession talks with the EU, now has an obligation to address integration of minorities as part of its entry requirements. In a collaborative project with the EU & UN, Serbia is building social housing.
Unfortunately, many of these are built without the communities’ input and their success rate is underwhelming. So the question arises: how can shared but finite resources and services be distributed in a more effective and inclusive manner?
One project, the Dweller Driven Upgrading of Roma Settlements, run by the charity HEKS and their Serbian partners EHO, takes a more holistic approach. It helps Roma families upgrade their existing, substandard domiciles, step by step, by themselves.
From initial application to actual construction, the families are in an active position. Once the application is approved, the municipality must supply deeds to the land and provide access to water, electricity and sanitation.
The project’s innovative and intricate structure has a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. The exchange of help, potentially creating dependency and expectation, is carefully considered and provides real incentive for the different stakeholders – Roma families, the surrounding communities and the municipality – to work together. The hope is that this interaction potentially creates new perspectives and a new understanding of each other’s lives.
These issues of immigration, particularly pronounced here in economically disadvantaged Serbia, are in fact the same all over Europe.
“How should we distribute our shared but finite resources and services?”
“Who should be entitled to what?“
“How much must minorities conform to established social norms for integration to be successful?“
We all need to urgently discuss these questions, whether we are looking at minority groups, migrants or refugees.
While staying with these families, I realised that longstanding poverty in a monetary-based society is so much more eroding then I had ever understood. It slowly seeps into every aspect of life. It corrodes one option for improvement after another, until the person is rendered truly powerless.
From the small tooth infection left untreated because there is no money, which potentially is leading to a disfiguring abscess, to the more mundane but daily invasion of fleas: the experience is often that of a hostile environment.
In Western Europe we have successfully controlled our environment to make it as non-invasive and non-aggressive as possible. Now we contemplate its beauty and maybe even mourn the loss of the wild, but it is kept at a manageable distance and we engage with it on our terms.
In Serbia, that process of controlled environment versus wild environment is at a different stage; certainly, at least, for people with no means.
The environment is still untamed, abundant and invasive. Its beauty and power are obvious and with this uncontrollable force comes also a tangible cruelty, a struggle for survival of the weakest creatures. This cruelty is mirrored in the lives of the people I have met.
I wonder about the interplay of control and success in our societies and the value we attach to individuals who exert control over their environment.
It makes sense, then, that our capability to dominate is a very important factor in determining how well we integrate into the mainstream.
So what does that mean – in Serbia and in Western societies alike – for people who either choose not to, or are unable to dominate their environment, and can’t exert the same degree of control over their lives?
How should they go about finding their place in our society?
I would like to explore this facet more in future visits, as I feel this is a crucial aspect in the story of integration and acceptance within the modern world.
HEKS & EHO provide access and support for this project. They neither influence nor finance this story or its narrative.
Text & Photos by Claudia Leisinger
Cirila i Metodija 21
21 000 Novi Sad, Serbia