Roma: Life as an outsider

Among the most hated people in , are treated as second-class citizens at home and abroad. Nikolaj Nielsen spent some time with members of a Roma family.

8 December 2010

Part one: Being Turkish

Emiliya doesn't want people to know that she is Roma. She wants people to know that she speaks four languages: that her parents scrubbed toilets and washed cars in to put her through the Medical University of Varna in ; that she is a qualified nurse in Bulgaria and that her degree was transferred and approved by 's ministry of public health. In Belgium, she is qualified as a midwife. Michel Van Hoegaerden, from the Brabant Medical Committee, signed her transferred degree and dated it March 30, 2009.

©Nikolaj Nielsen

“I say I have a Turkish background. I never say I'm Roma because people think we are all thieves and criminals,” explains Emiliya in French, speaking as she rolls meatballs on a plate of flour in the kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment in Anderlecht. On the wall in the living room is a framed photo of an unsmiling Emiliya wearing a plain grey jacket over a white shirt. Opposite, a black flat screen Samsung television stands on a cabinet. A child's white plastic pony with a red saddle lies on its side on the boarded wooden floor. Emiliya and her mother, Leylya, sleep in the kitchen on a foldout couch with a leopard-print quilt. Her older brother, Veudsi, and his wife and four-year old daughter share the bedroom. Everyone's shoes are neatly arranged outside in the hallway. Five Roma families, all from the Razgrad region of Bulgaria, live in this building. The building's owner is Turkish and thinks her tenants are as well.

Emiliya joined her parents in Brussels last October. After graduation, she was hoping to find work in her field but for the administrative hurdles in Belgium. She spent five months as an intern with no pay at the hospital in Varna. She could work, but the 300 Leva (€153) a month salary was not enough. Her mother has been pressing her to get her papers regularised in Belgium, to get into the system and obtain a Belgian identity card. “My parents push me to continue with the paperwork, otherwise I would have quit by now,” she says.

Emiliya helps her mother clean the apartments of wealthy Turks in Brussels and earns five to nine euros an hour when on her own. On Thursday evenings, she attends an advanced level French class, which costs her €140 per semester. Last week, she started babysitting a five-month-old baby, whose mother is Turkish and father is a German psychiatrist. She earns seven euros an hour. Altogether, Emiliya's mother earns around €900 a month. Her brother also has a degree, but in biology, says their mother Leylya, as she pours her daughter an orange soda. He taught for three years in Bulgaria and earned €90 a month. Veudsi now works in a night shop in Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis. His boss is the mother of Emiliya's babysitting charge.

“When I was little my brother and I would look for metal to sell,” Emiliya says. “My father could not support us all so he left for Belgium.” This was in Senovo, a village of around 1,500 habitants in the Razgrad region of northeastern Bulgaria. About 500 of the villagers are Roma and live apart from the rest of the population. The collapse of Communism 20 years ago has left a legacy of abandoned factories. Over time, some were stripped for scrap, leaving expanses of cracked concrete, where shrubs and gnarled trees have taken over. A large Turkish minority secured many of the key administrative positions throughout the region. There is one Roma at the tax payment office in Razgrad. But he tells everyone he is Turkish, according to Biser Alekov of the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network.

Emiliya's father, Slavtho, first came to Brussels 10 years ago on a 15-day tourist visa. His wife came a year later and both filed for refugee status. They lived in a dilapidated house in Anderlecht with nearly 30 fellow Roma, and managed to receive limited social benefits. Each family had a room off a long narrow hallway, with just a single toilet between them. Then, in September 2002, the police raided the building at four in the morning. Someone in the house had been running a prostitution ring. A few hours later they were all on a plane bound for Sofia.

“We neither had time to gather our things or our documents,” says Emiliya's mother. “Slavtho was still in his boxer shorts.” She smiles at the experience now. A week later, Slavtho returned and found work on the black market, washing cars. This time he didn't report to the Belgian authorities. Leylya again followed him and they eventually earned enough to send their two children to university, housing and feeding them from abroad.

For the past three years, Slavtho has been transporting Roma from Razgrad back and forth to Brussels, a business that pays better than car-washing. He bought himself a blue Mercedes Vito van and says he drove 140,000 km in 2009. It has 303,3017 km on the clock and in around 36 hours another 2,200 km will be added.

Part Two: E 56 autobahn, Austria

Thirty-eight kilometres outside Vienna and the snow begins to fall.  The large flakes melt on impact.

Slavtho pulls into the right lane and slows to 60 km/h. The headlights of oncoming traffic make visibility difficult. He lights his seventh blue label L&M cigarette since Brussels. “I only smoke when I get stressed,” he says in broken French, before shifting down a gear. It's going to be a long night. For the past 12 hours, Bulgarian and Turkish pop, and the odd 50 Cent track, has been playing non-stop. The compass on the dashboard is stuck on north-east. Wrapped around the base of the gear stick is a worn red wristband with Club F1 in white thread. A wooden American bald eagle and a green necklace with a gold tasselled end dangle from the rear-view mirror. The fuel gauge is broken and the wiper handle has snapped off at the base of the steering wheel. The engine, however, purrs.

Before setting off from Anderlecht early that morning, one of the male passengers from Krivnya, a Roma village near Senovo, made a comment about the tyres. The weight of five Roma, a driver, and a vehicle packed with luggage has had a visible effect. Slavtho double-checked the pressure and then knocked the nearside headlight back into place with the palm of his hand. Satisfied, the passengers boarded, moving bags to reach their seats. Emiliya hugged her father and wished him a safe trip.

Through Belgium, Germany, Austria and finally on the Hungarian side of the border, Slavtho pulls over at a service station for a deserved break. It's one in the morning and rain and cold sweeps across the asphalt. Slavtho sleeps for an hour. There are still 1,200 km left to cover and another 10 hours before they even reach Romania. At 3.45 am, the van passes Budapest in heavy fog. Finally, the morning light begins to reveal the low-lying Carpathian mountains of Romania.

Not yet seven in the morning, bundled bodies on old bicycles emerge, one by one, from the fog. Their slow but steady peddling looks punishing, their breath visible in the morning cold. In Pecica, Slavtho overtakes a cream-coloured Dacia 1310. Plumes of grey smoke billow from the Dacia's exhaust and the smell of fuel enters the van. As the fog lifts, the remnants of Soviet-era cities and towns begin to emerge. Concrete apartment blocks dominate. There is rust everywhere and the soil is black.

Almost all the Roma in Brussels come from the Razgrad region in northern Bulgaria and most have no bank account. Travel by plane is generally not an option. Slavtho charges €80 a head from Brussels; €120 return. “Soon Bulgaria will become a full member of the . Bulgaria vacation; Brussels work,” he says.

For several years, Bulgarians have been emigrating to other countries in Europe. The low income and high rate at home, compounded by the financial crisis, have forced many to seek their fortune elsewhere. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, and marginalised and vulnerable groups such as the Roma face even greater challenges. According to a June 2008 Eurobarometer report, an EU-wide public opinion survey shows that nearly a quarter of all Europeans would feel uncomfortable having a Roma as a neighbour. In some countries, like Italy and the Czech Republic, that figure approaches a half. The figure drops to six percent if the ethnic minority is not Roma. Emiliya's aunt explains that some Roma accept the stigma. Others, like her family, decide to hide it and try to blend into the mainstream.

“I have no pride in the Roma community,” she says. “I am proud of the Roma in my family. Many of us carry the stigma as a burden, others act against the stigma. It's more comforting to do so, in a sense,” she adds.

The EU promotes the of disadvantaged groups into the labour market through its Structural Funds. The funds support projects focusing on education, vocational training, improving infrastructure and social assistance. “It is not acceptable in Europe that there are a people who are stigmatised and excluded,” said EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimir Spidla at a seminar in Brussels for Roma inclusion. But the lack of political will, combined with the corruption of the previous administration in Sofia, marginalised most EU Roma initiatives. Today's administration inherited a budget deficit and a of governance that is largely inefficient and often incompetent. Two months into its mandate, some do not expect significant change.

Bulgaria's new prime minister, Boyko Borisov, met an informal coalition of five Roma NGOs at the beginning of the year in an attempt to spur public debate, explains Liliya Makaveeva, president of Integro Association, a Roma organisation based in Razgrad. ”We met with the GERB (Bulgaria's leading party) on March 2 (2009) to develop a charter on Roma integration,” says Makaveeva. “But after the elections no Roma was invited to participate in the party. There is no Roma representation in the government.”

Borisov ran on a platform promising to weed out corruption and shake off Bulgaria's tarnished reputation. But Bulgaria is currently going through yet another corruption scandal. According to an edition of the English-language weekly The Sofia Echo, a 27-year-old broker and several magistrates in the Supreme Judicial Council were selling high-profile magistrate posts to anyone willing to pay €200,000.

Senovo's mayor, a Bulgarian named Atanas Tsanev, is trying to improve people's lives with the limited resources at his disposal. “We get 100,000 Leva (€50,100) per year and half of that goes on salaries and rubbish collection,” he says. Tsanev is forthcoming and frank as he lays out the situation. “The money from this year's budget was gone by September 9. We are worried. Twenty years ago, things were better. Senovo was the centre of the municipality. Today times have changed, but not improved. Back then everyone was employed at the factory. Our biggest problem is not having enough people working, followed by the lack of funding.”

Tsanev says they received some money from EU funds and were able to lay 5km of road. But Senovo remains a divided village. He's hoping for another 20,000 Leva (€10,000) to dig a drainage system in Senovo and Krivnia. Emiliya's house is in the Roma quarter on top of the hill overlooking what the old people call ludogorie, the wild forest. The house is large with a new roof, several bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with modern appliances. Parked across the street is a grey Opel Calibra: “the Ferrari of the ,” points out a local.

In the valley below, the Beli Lom river winds through the Bulgarian quarter where the streets are paved and rubbish is collected regularly. The Roma, in contrast, bury their waste in the fields. Their streets, with the exception of the main road leading into the quarter, are potholed and for the most part broken asphalt. A yellow school bus collects the children to take them to primary school several kilometres away. Many homes have outhouses; some families grow tobacco, while others raise goats. In a small concrete warehouse, a group of Roma women and children are busy cracking walnuts with pin hammers.

Emiliya's grandfather has lived his entire life in the Roma quarter of the village. He remembers how life used to be. His wife died three years ago. Together they would wake up every day before dawn to milk the cows at a collective farm he helped to set up. He milked 25 cows a day, he says with some pride, until the machines arrived in 1958. Now he receives a small pension that just covers his utility bills.

Emiliya's second aunt, Yukla, has also lived here her entire life. She is the only Roma in the village that works at Kaolin, a local mine and factory that produces silicon for ceramics and glass applications, where she earns 400 Leva (€200) per month. She was due to retire in December after 32 years' service. The village is nearly empty and some houses are boarded up. Most Roma have left for Belgium for seasonal work, but will return to improve their homes and put away what savings they can.

Several hundred metres away, a truck carries sand from a pit belonging to Kaolin. As it speeds up the dirt track, it passes four young Roma kicking a football around in the field.

Brugmann University Hospital, Brussels

Emiliya is waiting in the hallway of the human resources department at Brugmann University Hospital in Brussels.

A friend told her that they treat workers without papers. Perhaps they also hire them. She has in her hand a CV and diploma. There are six empty seats but Emiliya prefers to stand. She is nervous. Dutch and French-language notices are pinned to a board. She first came two days ago, but the orange office door was locked. Today, she is determined to speak to someone. To take a chance. She knocks on the door and enters the office. Fifteen minutes later, she exits and follows a human resources assistant to another building. Impressed by her CV and degree, the woman arranges a formal interview the following Friday with the head of recruitment, Françoise Joudart.

“I would be willing to work for free, just to specialise and learn,” says Emiliya as she returns for her interview with Madame Joudart. But Emiliya believes she has no hope of getting work. Why would they hire someone without the proper paperwork when there are Belgians, more qualified than her, she says, looking for the same job? Madame Joudart greets Emiliya with a firm handshake. Twenty minutes later Emiliya leaves disappointed.

In the hallway, Madame Joudart explains the situation. “She has a qualification equivalence and it's really good. But the problem here is that we have no free positions. We have three people already on our list. We can't take her as a midwife. We need nurses. Not having papers is not a problem for the hospital. We are a public hospital with a social aspect.”

Emiliya is running late for her 11.00 appointment to clean an apartment in Ixelles. She rushes to the metro, buys her ticket and tries to relax. But she is both anxious and upset. “I know what I am. I know what I want to do. I know this,” she says. Her CV and diploma stick out of her white handbag. Then the metro doors open. Emiliya hurries out, runs up the escalator and disappears into the crowd.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Brussels-based independent journalist. His website is

This article first appeared in the October 2009 edition of The Bulletin. Republished here with the author's permission. ©Nikolaj Nielsen.


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2 thoughts on “Roma: Life as an outsider

  • Waks K Altif

    It’s amazing that a peoples who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis in the holocaust, can be still be treated with such prejudice. What’s more hardly anyone raises a finger in protest, if you contrast that with the treatment of Jewish victimhood post WW2 the hypocrisy of some European nations is glaring. Note: I am not in any way saying that the Jewsish suffering should be down played I am actually saying the Roma should be afforded the same understanding.

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    • KhaledDiab

      True, the treatment of the Roma is a disgrace. You’re also right that the Roma are conspicous by their general absence from the mainstream holocaust story. For example, I was disappointed while, visiting the holocaust museum in Washington s…ome years ago, to find no section dedicated to the Roma or hardly a mention of them in all the thousands of square metres of displays.

      Here’s a brief history of Roma suffering in the holocaust from the Jewish Virtual Library


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