Europe Revisited

Building a future for the Roma

One of the first houses in Bangladesh, a Roma Settlement on the outskirts of Novi Sad that got access to the water mains.

One of the first houses in Bangladesh, a Roma Settlement on the outskirts of Novi Sad that got access to the water mains.

Premise

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.

Dino & Marija listen to a mutual friend talk about employment and his life abroad in Germany. Finding employment is one of the biggest problems for Roma and Serbian people alike.

Dino & Marija listen to a mutual friend talk about employment and his life abroad in Germany. Finding employment is one of the biggest problems for Roma and Serbian people alike.

A very typical interior wall decoration of a Roma family home: memories of the ancestors hang on the wall, however there is not enough money to buy a frame.

A very typical interior wall decoration of a Roma family home: memories of the ancestors hang on the wall, however there is not enough money to buy a frame.

Balkaza, Daliborka & Gilbana are three women married to three brothers. Together they have 12 children and grandchildren. Nineteen people in all live on this small patch of land with no access to the water mains or the sewage system.

Balkaza, Daliborka & Gilbana are three women married to three brothers. Together they have 12 children and grandchildren. Nineteen people in all live on this small patch of land with no access to the water mains or the sewage system.

Gilbana, mother of five, is the furnace of this “tribe”. She works tirelessly from dawn to dusk. At times she leaves the family for months seeking better-paid season work. Here she chops down an old wooden window frame to start a fire in their stove.

Gilbana, mother of five, is the furnace of this “tribe”. She works tirelessly from dawn to dusk. At times she leaves the family for months seeking better-paid season work. Here she chops down an old wooden window frame to start a fire in their stove.

Sunday morning and Balkaza cradles her grandson Nebojśa. His parents, Balkaza's son and daughter-in-law, went to work early in the morning to pick plums for a local farmer.

Sunday morning and Balkaza cradles her grandson Nebojśa. His parents, Balkaza's son and daughter-in-law, went to work early in the morning to pick plums for a local farmer.

Balkaza’s outside wall is testament to her ingenuity.

Balkaza’s outside wall is testament to her ingenuity.

Music is one way in which Roma people traditionally have been able to forge a better living. Martin’s trumpet is his livelihood and his passion, as it was his father’s. He is very eager to hand this tradition down to his three-year-old son Damian.

Music is one way in which Roma people traditionally have been able to forge a better living. Martin’s trumpet is his livelihood and his passion, as it was his father’s. He is very eager to hand this tradition down to his three-year-old son Damian.

Kristina's life hangs in the balance: having just finished her mandatory schooling, which she excelled at, she has realised that her family doesn’t have enough money for her to attend secondary school. They can't afford the bus fare, lunch or book money that a school further away entails. Without that Kristina is destined to become a labourer like her mother, who sometimes has to works for as little as 5 € day.

Kristina's life hangs in the balance: having just finished her mandatory schooling, which she excelled at, she has realised that her family doesn’t have enough money for her to attend secondary school. They can't afford the bus fare, lunch or book money that a school further away entails. Without that Kristina is destined to become a labourer like her mother, who sometimes has to works for as little as 5 € day.

Balkaza cleans the dishes.

Balkaza cleans the dishes.

Kristina pours water from the well onto her father’s legs, so he can wash himself. All nineteen wash themselves outside with water from the well. Sometimes they heat it up on the stove and wash themselves in a tub. None of the houses have indoor toilets yet. They use two makeshift toilets in the nearby woods instead.

Kristina pours water from the well onto her father’s legs, so he can wash himself. All nineteen wash themselves outside with water from the well. Sometimes they heat it up on the stove and wash themselves in a tub. None of the houses have indoor toilets yet. They use two makeshift toilets in the nearby woods instead.

The current toilet area is in a little wood just a few meters above the houses. The two toilets are very basic - a hole in the ground with a couple of pieces of wood laying across it for the feet to stand on.

The current toilet area is in a little wood just a few meters above the houses. The two toilets are very basic - a hole in the ground with a couple of pieces of wood laying across it for the feet to stand on.

Gilbana’s neighbours complain that her new bathroom window is too big. EHO project manager Sladjana (in white T-shirt) knows that dealing with these jealousy-driven arguments head-on is an important part of her job.

Gilbana’s neighbours complain that her new bathroom window is too big. EHO project manager Sladjana (in white T-shirt) knows that dealing with these jealousy-driven arguments head-on is an important part of her job.

Daliborka’s daughter sweeps the floor amid all the new building blocks. Daliborka never went to school, so cannot read or write. Neither can her two daughters, born with yet to be diagnosed disabilities.

Daliborka’s daughter sweeps the floor amid all the new building blocks. Daliborka never went to school, so cannot read or write. Neither can her two daughters, born with yet to be diagnosed disabilities.

The earthen floor in front of Balkaza’s house.

The earthen floor in front of Balkaza’s house.

Slavisa, Daliborka’s husband, on the field.

Slavisa, Daliborka’s husband, on the field.

My experience

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.

Gilbana & Balkaza collect tomatoes from a Serbian farmer just down the road.

Gilbana & Balkaza collect tomatoes from a Serbian farmer just down the road.

Iviza, Gilbana’s husband works as gardener for a municipal organisation in Nis. Pictured here is their office before work. One of the biggest issues facing the younger generation of Roma is the lack of social mobility, caused by inequality in education and a high unemployment rate, but also very clear social exclusion and open racism, which I have witnessed many times during my stay.

Iviza, Gilbana’s husband works as gardener for a municipal organisation in Nis. Pictured here is their office before work. One of the biggest issues facing the younger generation of Roma is the lack of social mobility, caused by inequality in education and a high unemployment rate, but also very clear social exclusion and open racism, which I have witnessed many times during my stay.

The village school in Babusnica has seven students, all from Roma families. The school is quite a way above the village and doesn’t have a toilet.

The village school in Babusnica has seven students, all from Roma families. The school is quite a way above the village and doesn’t have a toilet.

The community of Babusnica has come together to dig a hole for a septic tank. The first step in building a toilet for the local primary school.

The community of Babusnica has come together to dig a hole for a septic tank. The first step in building a toilet for the local primary school.

The new school toilet, built by the community.

The new school toilet, built by the community.

The Them & Us mentality regarding Roma people is not at all confined to Serbia; rather it is a Europe-wide issue.

The Them & Us mentality regarding Roma people is not at all confined to Serbia; rather it is a Europe-wide issue.

Roma in Serbia _2018_01_Claudia Leisinger-2.jpg

Text & Photos by Claudia Leisinger

2018

Supporting NGOs

EHO
Cirila i Metodija 21
21 000 Novi Sad, Serbia

www.ehons.org/en/


HEKS
Seminarstrasse 28
Postfach
CH-8042 Zürich
http://www.heks.ch