We are not sure how to explain it, and we were not sure that we understood it enough to correctly tell you what it is. However, we feel it is time to start trying to explain our work. We will NOT be able to do this in one blog entry. (See Lynn’s blog following this for more insights.) We believe we will be talking about our work in several blog entries over the two years we are here. So… this is the first of many installments. This will be a long entry, and there is a link at the end which provides more background. Please feel free to send us an email if you have questions, clarifications, ideas, or whatever.
So… Let’s get started!! We imagine all of you have heard about “Gypsies”. I know we had heard about them before we arrived from movies. They were transient, migratory people traveling around Europe in wagons. They were kind of like circus performers, or the medicine man in “Wizard Of Oz”. In Bulgaria and Eastern Europe Gypsies are also called ROMA. What Lynn and I did not know was that Gypsies are very real, and there are millions of them. They are also the poorest; most disadvantaged, and segregated people in Eastern Europe. They live in separate areas called Mahalas (the Bulgarian word for Ghetto). Mahalas are located in small villages (where my NGO focuses) and large cities (where Lynn’s school is located).
Mahalas are very unique, and have their own society, and cultures. In every mahala, there are the better parts, and the worse sections. But you must remember that all of the mahalas are very poor to begin with. Lynn works in a mahala called Stolopinovo. Stolopinovo has approximately 60,000 ROMA crammed into a relatively small space. It is the largest mahala in Bulgaria, and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Buses do not drive into the mahala. Some of the streets are paved or cobblestone. A few of the streets have “grey water” running in them. Most of the streets are very narrow, dirt tracks with sub standard houses lining all of them. There are not many “tin shacks” in Stoliponovo. Most of those were removed during the hepatitis “scare” in 2006.
The ROMA have their own language, culture, morals, work ethics, educational aspirations, … and very few dreams. Centuries ago, they emigrated from India, and their skin is slightly darker than most east Europeans (although they are similar to people of Turkish descent). The ROMA social issues are similar to the segregation of the blacks in the US early in the 1960s. However you have to combine this with some social issues of the American Indian. If you mix these two, you begin (just begin) to get some insights into what the problem is like. But you also have to remember how most Americans felt about blacks back then. Today Bulgarians and eastern Europeans - - even the most educated - have STRONG prejudices against ROMA. The Bulgarian say that: “They are lazy, and dirty. They steal! They don’t pay their bills!. They have too many children. They are stupid. They don’t work. My taxes (Bulgarian welfare) is taking care of them, and they should take care of themselves.” Those are the nicer comments Lynn and I hear! The problem is that a few of these comments have some facts to support them. But, if you dig, you can quickly come up with reasons for this. For example, ROMA don’t work. Well, that is true. But it is because the unemployment rates in the mahalas can be 40 to 70% of the male population. ROMA schools are sub standard, kids leave early, and employers will not hire them - - even if they do want to work (which most of them do).
Peace Corps volunteers are not generally focused exclusively on ROMA. Out of the 62 who came over with us, there is only one other who is 100% ROMA. Because Lynn and I are a couple, and both completely focused on ROMA, we have a unique opportunity to see this issue from different perspectives. I get to view it from the small village perspective because my NGO focuses on ROMA mahalas in small villages. Lynn sees it from the very large mahalas in the big cities like Plovdiv. In the states, Lynn and I used to have very interesting conversations when we got home from work talking about what had happened each day. We still have those types of conversations, but they are more intense, interesting, and emotional than they ever used to be. I visit the villages a couple of time per week, so I spend more time reading and learning. Lynn is in the middle of things every day at school. We are constantly comparing experiences, and trying to learn as much as we can in order to be better at we are trying to do.
We are a very small part of a much bigger issue. The profile on our blog says that “we hope that whatever effort we put forth in the next two years helps at least one person better their life.” Now Lynn and I believe that we have the potential to impact many more than that. But we also have no illusions about how hard this may be to do, and that we may not succeed, and we may be like Don Quixote simply jousting windmills.
But now you know a little more about this experience. We hope you will follow along with us. No matter what, we expect this will be a major life learning experience. Please be sure to read Lynn’s blog entry which follows this. Compare her “walk to work” with the blog I did a couple of months ago about my walk. I am also attaching a link to a very long article done in March 2007. It gives some good background on ROMA in Sofia and Plovdiv. I will also try to complete a blog entry on what I do in my work by the end of November. In the meantime, here is the link: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-04-22-popkostadinova-en.html
Thanks for all your comments in the past. Please keep us in your thoughts.