By Svetla Dimitrova
Back in February 2005, eight Central and East European nations launched an ambitious ten-year initiative to improve the status of Roma.
“The Roma inclusion programme was a very good initiative. However, it didn’t work in any of the participating countries,” Ilona Tomova, senior research associate at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, told SETimes on November 17th.
Bulgaria, which according to the national population census conducted earlier this year is home to close to 321,000 ethnic Roma, was among the eight countries that pledged to work for the minority’s inclusion nearly seven years ago. The others were Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.
An author of numerous publications on the Roma issue, Tomova believes that one reason why the initiative has produced few meaningful results in Bulgaria is that none of the governments have felt ownership of it since 2005. All projects implemented under the programme have been funded by international organisations, according to her.
The World Bank has been one of the principal sponsors of the initiative, along with the Open Society Institute. In May, the Bank and the Bulgarian government held a workshop to identify both Roma inclusion challenges and good practices.
“The main messages that came out from the working groups are that there are a number of challenges, but also a number of good practice examples in each particular subject, and that some of the existing issues should be addressed through shared responsibility, joint efforts of different stakeholders and in their partnership,” the Bank said in a concluding statement.
Ordinary Roma have a different explanation for why the initiative has not resulted in significant change. They point a finger at their own leaders, who are actively involved in the programme.
“Currently, only people who can easily be manipulated are invited to participate in initiatives under the programme,” Stilyan Stoyanov, a 25-year-old Bulgarian national of mixed Roma and Arabic origin, told SETimes in an interview last month. “To be successful, it should be implemented by people committed to helping the community, i.e., by Roma, who want to work effectively and are not after the money they would get for doing a job under the dictation of Roma political leaders.”
“Those are gangsters,” his landlady, Sonya, cut in. A Roma woman in her 50s, she feels that politicians from her community are pursuing only their own interests.
The employment rate among working age Roma stands at just over 50%, according to official data. One of the key reasons is insufficient education and qualifications. Many Roma children don’t go to school, and Sonya blames their parents.
“They are illiterate and they just don’t care,” she said, noting with pride that her daughters “are educated” and that her grand-daughters “are intelligent”.
Despite his very difficult childhood in orphanages, Stoyanov not only finished school, but is due to complete his academic studies within months.
Aside from that, he is a landscape painter with an interest in kitchen interior design. He grew up forced to use his wits. As a ninth-grader, for example, he felt tooth pain one day. Seeking help from the principal, he was told that the orphanage had no money to pay for a visit to the dentist.
After several sleepless nights, Stoyanov took one of his paintings to the dentist to see if he could barter it to “pay” for the treatment he needed. Five paintings later, he received basic dental care.
When representatives of the Bulgarian branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church arrived at the Strazhitsa orphanage to deliver food donations in 2000, he told them of his experience. About a month later, he was placed with a foster family in Sofia and enrolled at one of the arts’ schools there.
A year after completing his education in fine arts and pottery in 2006, he was admitted into the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” to study social work.
His biggest dream is a home of his own, a wife and children, as well as a job.
He also hopes to have his first art exhibition, but feels many of the people who could help seem prejudiced to members of the Roma ethnic group.
As for that Roma inclusion programme, Stoyanov said he would get involved if invited.
“No one has ever asked me to take part in any such initiative. They are not interested in inviting people like me, who would tell them the truth,” he said.
He also noted that it is important for the Bulgarian media to tone down anti-Roma rhetoric and for only those truly committed to the objectives of the programme to be involved in it.