Anti-Roma feelings are increasing, and nobody cares

By • on November 23, 2012

Six months ago when I was in the USA on an exchange program the organizers asked me to talk about Roma issues. I decided to organize the presentation as photos accompanied by captions providing the context. “Anti-Roma feelings are increasing, and nobody cares” was the caption of one of the photos. I personally never experienced such anti-Roma feelings. Of course I have been the subject of indirect discrimination, but it was usually hard to prove it as such. It made me feel bad, of course. But I imagined that the EU, the laws and national authorities could protect people from direct discrimination. The motto of the EU is “United in diversity”, so why am I talking to you about anti-Roma feelings? Continue reading and you will find out.

A month ago, I was searching for an apartment to rent in Sofia, Bulgaria, so I contacted a real estate agency. I went to the agency because I did not want to waste time with newspaper ads and calling the owners.. When I arrived they welcomed me and started to look up potential apartments in their data base. “Perfect, we found one that would be perfect for you. Let’s visit it this evening at 7 o’clock!” said the woman who was assisting me. I didn’t imagine it could be so easy.

We went to the apartment at the time we arranged, and met an old woman who explained the details for about half an hour. The old woman said that she is retired and receives a pension of 100 euro per month and that she needs to rent the flat in order to make ends meet. She sent us home with a smile on our faces. We agreed that she would talk to her daughter who lives in Western Europe and that afterwards she would let me and the women form the agency know.

The following day, I was impatiently waiting for the call from the agency, which came late in the afternoon. The women started to tell me about other flats. I was confused. I asked about the apartment we visited. She said: “The old woman said that you are a Gypsy and that she won’t rent the flat to someone like you”. I was really shocked and felt really bad, and only because an old woman told me that I am a Gypsy and that “I am not allowed to rent her apartment” because of that. Am I an useless being, or a social parasite? No, I’m not! Am I different from her? Yes, I am! Do I contribute to society? Yes, I do! Am I citizen of Bulgaria? Yes, I am. What the hell does this woman want from me then? I am sure she wants me to stop being a Gypsy. But I am and I am proud of that. Anyway, we arranged for another visit, and you won’t believe it, but something funnier and more tragic happened. The man, who is the owner of the flat, welcomed us with black T-shirt. The T-shirt said “I do not want to live in a  Gypsy country”. Oh, God! This is the T-shirt of the Bulgarian nationalist (I call it fascist) party “Ataka”. Fate was putting me to the test on that day. Of course, I entered in the apartment. The men explained something to me but my mind was somewhere else. I did not rent this flat. I started to joke with myself – “Imagine how this guy invites you to some protest of “Ataka” someday if you rent the flat”. To invite me, who speaks against the racism, who fights for equal opportunities, who grew up with respect for diversity!

One month passed since all of this it happened to me, which looks really funny from this distance in time. But wait, wait, I did not finish the story of all that happened on that day. I took the metro where a friend of mine who hosted me for few days lives. I left the metro at the residential complex “Nadezhda” (Hope!), and was walking towards the exit when I saw many people. I was interested to see what is going on, and what do I see?! It was a protest against the Gypsies held by the biggest Gypsy haters in Bulgaria, the activists of the VMRO and the Ataka parties. I am happy that at least I didn’t see the man whose apartment I was going to rent among them. But I did smile, because I remembered what a friend said: “In Nadezhda (Hope) there is no Nadezhda (Hope)”. It was really stressful day, wasn’t? However, I went home alive and well, and explained to my friend what happened to me. He was laughing. Yes, that could make you laugh, even if it is not funny.

However, I turned on my laptop and started checking my e-mails. My God, and what do I see? A meeting of the National council for cooperation on ethnic and integration issues related to the Roma was organized on the same day. This is the national contact point that creates the policies for Roma inclusion in Bulgaria and implements the national Roma strategy. Its chairman is the deputy prime minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov. I started to laugh. How could this happen?! In the same county, in the same city, in the same day there were meetings on Roma integration and protests against Gypsies going on at the same time despite focusing on mutually exclusive topics. It is important to point out that the mayor of Sofia is from the ruling party. I am really curious how the organizers of Anti-Gypsies protest are getting permission from the authorities?! Under Article 162, paragraph 1 of the Criminal Code, anyone who propagates or incites discrimination, violence or hatred based on race, national or ethnic origin can be held criminally liable. This is not the first such protest, but nobody seems to care.

However, I ask myself: do the European political parties have their own strategies and policies on how to deal with the Roma issue? Or do they have just some ideas about how to buy the vote of the strongly marginalized and dependent Roma during election time? Or do they just wait to be in power and then start the long “negotiation” talks with Roma NGOs? I am not asking if the governments or EC have such strategies, because they must due to the more than 15 million Roma who live in Europe. And these questions are not only mine, almost every Roma activist has them, but few people do verbalize them. They apparently go against “diplomacy”.

But since when official papers replaced acts? Since when the Roma integration turned a show played in the economic arena? Since when the non-Roma have the right to hate the Roma and act in a racist way towards them? When will the leaders recognize the anti-Roma feelings that exist in the all the EU members, and when will they do something effective not only on paper? These are so many questions to be answered!

I would like to tell all the politicians, social workers, and researchers who say that “Some   people don’t like Gypsies because they are not educated, they are dirty, they are dangerous, they are not integrated”: Hey people! Open your eyes, ears and minds, and stop thinking like horses with blinkers. Many people do not like Gypsies only because they are Gypsies. It does not matter if they are dressed very well or very badly, smell awful or incredible, are highly educated or uneducated, integrated or marginalized, wealthy or poor. But these haters are most likely not familiar with Gypsies. And our job is to work on this issue; people have to get to know each other better, because they live on the same street, in the same city or village, country, continent and world. This is our challenge, not only to write or sign papers, to report or implement short-term projects and to show willingness for dealing with the issue by hugging Roma kids in pictures for the international media. I know it is hard, but it’s not impossible.

“The leaders think about the next generation. The politicians think about the next elections”.  That’s a slogan that I saw written on billboard in the USA. I then had a conversation with myself. Are you a leader or a politician? Of course, I can be both. But please, don’t be only the politician.