This year’s Roma Day on April 8th marked the twenty-year anniversary since the Gypsies of East Europe freely acknowledged their ethnicity. The day has been celebrated throughout the region in gypsy style with music and dance, skewered pork or lamb and plenty of drink as means of celebrating life. The day memorializes the roughly one million Roma exterminated by the Nazis in what has been commonly dubbed the forgotten holocaust, though which Roma scholars have termed Porrajmos, the devouring.
The year also marks the half-way point of the momentous Decade of Inclusion agreement between governmental, non-governmental institutions and Romani civil society to drive the traditionally marginalized Roma minority forward towards integration with priority focus on education, employment, health, and housing.
"The Decade of Roma Inclusion has succeeded in raising awareness of the challenges facing Roma communities and in particular in raising the political profile of these challenges. However, Member States have failed to set concrete goals to improve the situation for their Romani citizens. Unless such goals are defined and worked for, progress will be minimal in the next five years," says Rob Kushen, Managing Director of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC).
In the ways of employment little has changed. Unemployment for the Roma of Hungary remains at an explosive 80 percent (the national average stands at 7.7) with similar unemployment figures for Roma in the surrounding nations. Coinciding with high unemployment is a poverty rate ten times higher than the majority. Meanwhile life expectancy for Roma falls ten to fifteen years below the national average. Romani Baht Roma organization in Bulgaria reports on outbreaks in Roma ghettos of hepatitis and tuberculosis.The living conditions in Roma ghettos and isolated rural settings move many to point and ask – "this is Europe?"
"The situation is grim," proclaims Maria Metodieva, Roma program director at Open Society Institute in Bulgaria, one of the Decade of Inclusion’s main supporters. "The situation in terms of integration has made little steps
In my opinion, keeping Roma marginalized is something in the local authorities’ interest. They use their poor standings to keep them hostage and use them in times of elections. There is no other explanation for the lack of political will."
Journalists attending the many Roma Day events across the region flash photographs of Roma dressed in traditional flowery costumes and as honored speakers at the podium. The Romanian Roma party President Nicolae Paun was among those dignitaries celebrating this year’s Roma achievements.
Roma in marginalized communities far away from the Roma day parades and concerts have little knowledge of the day’s events. For the over 1000 inhabitants at Pata Rat, Romania situated in the Cluj city industrial zone, the day is spent wading knee deep in freshly dropped trash at the neighboring dumpsite in search of recyclable metals and plastics.
Pata Rat is just one of numerous dumpsite colonies formed after the collapse of the communist regime and subsequent shutting down of state owned factories that employed vast numbers of Roma. Chronic unemployment led to debts, many lost their homes, driving them to shelter in hidden away places tolerated by the authorities. A second generation of children raised in these ostracized communities where education services rarely penetrate have already begun following in their parents’ footsteps with a third generation soon coming of age.
Lotina Luczi was six years old when she came to Pata Rat hand in hand with her widowed mother. By age ten she was working the landfill. "I know it’s unhealthy here but what choice do I have. This is where I was born and will die," the twenty-six year old says, bearing a toothless grin.
New member states Romania and Bulgaria, home to roughly one quarter of European Union’s Roma population, still scramble to reach EU requirements including a nationalized recycling program that will once again force Roma from their adapted workplace without prepared alternatives. This time last year Mitica Munteanu and the approximately twenty other families living a hand to mouth existence from the waste collected at Piatra Neamt city dumpsite were suddenly refused entry driving the illiterate, unskilled thirty year old who had been digging at the dump since age ten to scavenge the city trash bins and dumpsters.
"On a good day we take in about five dollars," his wife Crina commented from her wagon seat. "It’s not going to be enough to feed three mouths," her eyes pointing below to a bulging midsection. "I don’t know what we will do."
The inhabitants at Pata Rat are next to face the shutting of the gates. Unskilled, illiterate Alexandru Ciorba, resident of twenty years at Pata Rat and whose own children now earn a living from the dumpsite harvest replies in just two-syllables about how they will manage, "don’t-know."
While the Decade of Inclusion has emphasized education as a key element towards improving Roma standards many still find education to be a luxury that they just can’t afford. The government agency for Roma in Romania claims fifty percent of Roma do not succeed a fifth grade education.
The Borzos family living in the isolated village Hetea in central Romania can barely print their own name. They have no knowledge of the holocaust. Roma Day is spent like any other spring Thursday in the forest gathering wild spinach that they will hawk through the village streets.
The school bus scheduled to transport the children of Hetea the two-mile distance to and from the local public school for fifth grade learning rarely appears. The teachers at the Hetea grammar school (grades one to four) suggest the cause of the lack of transportation is that local authorities consider the education of Hetea’s impoverished Gypsy children as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Although much has remained the same, Roma leaders still contend progress has been made particularly in the field of desegregating schools. Two years ago ERRC reported that Roma children pursuing an education were often being unfairly detoured into remedial schools; as much as 80-90% of Roma children in Bulgaria are enrolled in these special schools, with 75% attending them in the Czech Republic. In Slovakia special schools are so associated with Roma that they are popularly called "Gypsy Schools." Recent figures publicized by the Czech Republic show that today only 28% of Roma children are enrolled in special schools.
A press time reply from Rob Kushen at ERRC contents that the Czech numbers measure the percentage of Roma children in special education as opposed to the ERRC figures which count the proportion of children in special education who are Roma. "This is not an indication things are improving," he says.
The European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg has helped even the scales. A March court decision upheld the claim of 14 Croatian children that they had been unfairly placed in Gypsy-only classes due to alleged language difficulties. The decision awarded each plaintive 4,500 plus 10,000 for cost and expenses.
Each morning the Roma ghetto Fakulteta in Sofia Bulgaria is awaken by the rumble of the buses transporting 300 children into public schools outside their segregated community. This and other educational incentives in the Roma communities have contributed to a present number of 2,163 Roma University students in Bulgaria. Meanwhile the Roma education fund claims to have reached 30,000 Roma students throughout East Europe and has helped ensure more than 800 students reach the university level.
"We don’t want quotas. It’s more effective if you see your neighbor advancing. We hope to make Roma education more fashionable," says a grinning Ludmila Zhivkova from Bulgaria’s Roma Students Organization. "I was recently at a wedding where the parents stood and made a toast wishing that their children will become university students It shows that change is possible."
Chuck Todaro is a freelance journalist based in Romania working exclusively on Roma issues. He is presently working on a book about the Roma tribal system. Email: CKBTonroad@yahoo.com. All photos by Todaro.