A Divided Society

Posted by in Thoughts in English

Every big city in Bulgaria has a Roma ghetto. Some have more than one.

You may see these places from your car or train window when entering the city. Clusters of poorly built cottages with laundry hanging between them, with children playing in the mud and with the signature horse-drawn carts in between the homes.

These are pictures we, Bulgarians, are used to. So much so that we hardly ever notice them.

The Roma minority in Bulgaria was for a long time referred to as “tzigani”. Some time after 1989, in Bulgaria came the notion of political correctness which required the “tzigani” to be called “Roma”. Society was told that “Roma” shows much less prejudice and is not offensive (unlike the older term).

However, it was just a change of words.

Today, the Roma remain the same – or even more – encapsulated minority within our society. A capsule that has a life of its own, laws of its own and limits of its own. Years after the change of name and years after Bulgaria joined the EU with all its policies for integration the Roma minority remains a startlingly non-integrated group that is used by politicians, especially around election time.

The problem

When I was little, I was used to associating Roma (“tzigani” for me then) with stealing. A generalization, a stereotype that for a little child leaves an impression for years to come. Then, when I started studying journalism, I learnt about diversity, multiculturalism, dialogue, tolerance and the complex role of stereotypes. I learnt that the so-called stealing Roma are a group that the state has completely rejected and left in the invisible capsule of ignorance and lack of opportunities.

Many people, however, haven’t learnt that, one of the reasons being the lack of the relevant citizen education from a young age.

As a result, a great part of contemporary Bulgarians still view Roma the way I did as a child – as a stealing people who cause trouble and smell badly.

Most of the Roma do live in ghettos with little or no hygienic facilities, with no regular jobs, some of them with no IDs, and with the habit – or necessity – to steal in order to feed themselves and their numerous children. The children rarely go to school, growing up to be socially disadvantaged and permanently excluded from society. Many Roma families live in houses that were illegally built – a problem that authorities choose to deal with only after natural disasters like the flood in and around Varna in June 2014 or according to a political agenda. Lacking opportunities in our society, many Roma choose to leave Bulgaria and are found camping in Western Europe, often causing trouble with the local population.

The prejudices

The situation with the Bulgarian Roma makes prejudices inevitable. A group that lives its difficult life shut out from the rest of society is bound to provoke negative stereotypes and prejudices.

In my observations, these prejudices affect all parts of society, including educated young people. Ideas like pushing the Roma people out of the country or even physically wiping them off (the latter is hopefully an exaggeration) can be heard in informal conversations but also in some media, including social media. Conflicts like the ones with the illegal housing bring all the dormant conflicts to the surface.

Moreover, many people tend to laugh off Roma problems in ways that are horrifying if you think deeply about them.

For example, there was a case in Plovdiv (the second largest city in Bulgaria) when some Roma people received apartments from the city as socially disadvantaged people do. Many Roma, however, have carts and horses. Therefore, some put their horses in the apartments, urging them up the stairs of the apartment buildings.

This case provoked all sorts of reactions in Bulgarian society, including laugh and mockery. The comic side of the case may be obvious – it is, after all, a horse in a flat, – but this way of seeing minority problems is actually terrifying.

It shows the way that we tend to see things superficially, without realizing what the real problem is. It is like giving an uneducated man a book and laughing at him because he cannot read it.

This story reminds me of the numerous stories of the unsuccessful attempts of Western explorers and anthropologists to “civilize” native tribes in Africa or South America.

You can’t expect people with horses to move into a flat and leave their horse outside. What you can do is examine the situation beforehand and take such steps that take into account the specifics of the particular case.

The fears

Prejudices against the Roma minority turn into fears – fears of Roma people as criminals and, most of all, a fear of the increasing numbers of this population.

Being an uneducated, socially excluded group, Roma people tend to have a lot of children. Girls have their first babies at a very young age and Roma population tends to grow. This is seen as a threat to an already diminishing due to emigration and low birth rate Bulgarian population.

I recently heard a young Bulgarian woman who had just had a baby say that she was the only non-Roma woman in the hospital giving birth. She said that with a fear that is common to many Bulgarians with regard to Roma birth rate.

On one side, there is the fear of Bulgarians as a group that they are supposedly disappearing in favour of minorities like the Roma. On the other, there is the Roma group with little girls giving birth and raising children while they are themselves children because they don’t know any better.

The state

The actions of the state with regard to the Roma social inclusion have been inconsistent, chaotic and futile in the past decades.

Apart from renaming the minority, little has been done to integrate them into society. There are many programs and policies of the EU that remain poorly implemented or not implemented at all. (It is common knowledge that the money from integrational programs tend to disappear while the Roma remain non-integrated.) Roma children continue to grow uneducated, girls get pregnant at 15 without ever having the chance to get proper sexual – and general – education and the problems of the minority replicate themselves with every next generation. You won’t find Roma people in schools, universities or specialized jobs. You will find them in their ghettos where they probably don’t have running water. Or doing low paid unqualified jobs for little money. Or stealing rails from railways, threatening the safe passage of trains.

The media and mass culture

One of the principles of good journalism is avoiding to mention the race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc. of a person if these circumstances are not an integral part of the story that the journalist tells.

This principle is breached in a great part of the stories where Roma are concerned. Their ethnicity is not only mentioned without sufficient cause but it is also often the central focus when crimes are concerned.

“Roma people break into houses, beat old people” – this is just one example of the tendency of media to further demonize the image of Roma people.

The stereotype of the stealing, unclean, uncivilized Roma minority is a potent audience magnet that never fails. I makes me think that we, as a society, love to indulge in stories of conflict with the Roma because these stories feed our own feeling of cultural superiority.

Another relevant example is that in Bulgarian the adjective “tziganski” (from “tzigani”, meaning something typical of the Roma) is used in various negative connotations – when a thing is done poorly, when someone tries to get unjust benefits for themselves, or when something is noisy or ugly.

The political uses

All these aspects are interconnected and they are also connected with the political usage of the Roma minority. It will probably be seen again in the upcoming fall 2014 parliamentary elections.

One of the problems most discussed around elections in Bulgaria is the buying of votes. Needless to say, the people who sell their votes are the poorest and the most socially disadvantaged. The Roma minority is often the focus of attention in such cases.

It has become something of a joke – another example of mocking a serious problem – to say that Roma people sell their votes to political parties in exchange for “kebapcheta” (traditional Bulgarian food – long pieces of minced grilled meat). The idea of “food for vote” in the 21st century may sound fictional but unfortunately it isn’t.

It is a sad truth that poor uneducated people make the best voters. They are easiest to convince, manipulate and ultimately use. Therefore, the political class has no interest in actually educating and integrating Roma and other disadvantaged groups. Integration makes political use more difficult.

Thus, the circle seems to close.

What is the future

As with all complex problems with a long history, there is no simple answer. When you have a modern country with a minority that is in the habit of selling brides the answer cannot be simple.

It should all start with education. And not just on paper, but actual general, citizen and sexual education from a young age for Roma people. This may prove to be difficult at first, but the state has the instruments to make it happen, should it wish to do so. NGOs, media and European bodies could also be of a great help in this great social change that is needed (for example, European institutions could find a better way of controlling the implementation of integration strategies). An educated person is much less likely to be politically manipulated, to become a criminal, or to live in a ghetto. Education is what creates the impetus for self-development.

Part of such strategies should be the general citizen education for all young people in Bulgaria with the aim of promoting understanding, tolerance, and dialogue.

That way, real integration would be possible. And it is highly needed, too, because otherwise we are going to remain a divided society engaged with petty conflicts and susceptible to manipulations.

Divided societies do not tend to be successful.