Huddled at the foothills of the Pirin Mountain, the town of Bansko attracts both Bulgarians and foreigners. This place has preserved the equilibrium between ecology, flora, fauna, and national character, combined with unique folklore and Old Bulgarian architecture. The inhabitants of this winter resort town number some 8 500 people. More than 500 of them are Roma. Until the autumn 2006 and just like the Roma in other Bulgarian towns, they had to cope with insufficient housing, poorly-maintained infrastructure, limited access to services, and discrimination.
In November 2006 however, Lilia Makaveeva and Milena Ilieva visited them for the first time. Lilia is the Executive Director of Association Integro, and Milena had just started work as a coordinator at Integro. In the first three hours the Roma they talked to only complained, and described various problems: the lack of adequate housing for the families, the need for sports grounds for the children, the need for computers and internet access for the youth, bad infrastructure in most of the neighborhood. Unlike in other places, however, the Roma in Bansko worked and unemployment was not the foremost issue.
“After this first meeting, my head swell as a balloon from their complaints”, Lilia Makaveeva said. “For Christ`s sake, Lili, how do you manage to endure all this? They only complain. They don’t want to think that they also have a responsibility to resolve their problems!” Milena told Lilia. This was their first meeting with the Roma community in Bansko.
After their 3-hours of complaining, Lilia asked the Roma: “OK, I understand that you have many problems, but what have you done thus far in order to resolve them? Have you ever visited the mayor to present your problems and to insist that they be resolved?”
COMPLAIN AND BLAME
According to Lili, at these first meetings people always complain and blame others for their problems. In addition, when you ask them this question, they usually answer: “Who are we, who will pay us any attention?!” Then Lilia and Milena asked them how exactly they have presented their problems at the municipality, but they could not answer. Sometimes somebody had said something to the mayor, but exactly what and when—that wasn’t clear. It became clear, however, that they had never visited the municipality to state their problems as an organized group. Usually, before elections, when the mayor went to see them, they have mentioned their problems, but more or less chaotically, with yells and shouts, and after the mayor went away, the problems just remained.
When asked why they did not go to meet the mayor as a group, the Roma answered that they couldn’t unite, that everybody looks after his or her own interest and is not interested in the others. “And even if we succeed to get organized and arrange a meeting with the mayor, usually at the meeting we cannot manage to say what we want”, said the Roma present at the meeting. It became clear that the Roma of Bansko did not have the skills to help them of formulate their own interests in order to unite around them. Also, they stated that they do not know how to formulate the questions and issues in which they are interested, how to arrange and express these questions and issues. “They even did not know how to arrange an official meeting. The people had neither the skills and knowledge nor self-esteem as citizens, to go to see the mayor”, according to Lili.
After a long analysis of the meeting and the community, during 2007 Association “Integro” included the Roma community from Bansko in its programme “Strengthening the Roma Voice”. Sheker Tyumbelkchi took charge, the coordinator for South Bulgaria, a well-educated Roma with appropriate experience. He organized a second visit to the community and met only with the Roma who were showing interest and willingness to cooperate in a group and learn together. From the 40 people, who were present at the first meeting, only 10 young people showed such interest, but later only Sasho Manov, Slavcho Kostadinov, Atanas Mitrev, and Tzvetomir Mihailov continued to work actively. The coordinator Sheker built close relationships with them, gained their trust and inspired confidence. Integro’s team elaborated a special programme for increasing the local activists’ capacity, taking into account their individual qualities and needs.
This programme is far from being only about the traditional few days’ trainings. Integro’s experience shows that no matter how good such type of trainings might be, they are not enough to change the people’s skills and their understanding about their own role as citizens.
“Much more is needed than 3-day trainings even if interactive. In fact the truth is that it is very difficult to make somebody come to a three-day training as every day out of work is fatal for the family’s budget”, shared Lili Makaveeva. And for the Roma who do not have permanent and secure work, one day of absence from work to attend a training means one day without wage to feed the family. Thanks to the preliminary motivation work of the coordinator, however, the activists from Bansko attended a series of such trainings. “The trainings that we have organized were related to how to make them understand what a community is and what makes them a community. Then, to determine themselves what type of community they are – active or passive one”, shared Kadrin Hasanov, one of “Integro”´s coordinators. In his opinion, the coordinators should not decide alone what the problems of one community are, nor give readymade recipes for their solution. Patience is needed, as well as skills how to involve people in a process in which the Roma themselves alone assess their community and outline steps for seeking solutions.
Another important step in the development of the Bankso activists is leadership-related training. “For us it was important that the Roma understood what a community responsible leadership means. We did not aim to create grand leaders, but rather people with skills and qualities, who apply team principles and improve their relationships with each other and who involve their peers when addressing their common problems and interests”, Lilia said.
TALKING TO MAYOR
After these trainings, more training followed on communications with the local authorities, advocacy, NGO management, project planning and management and much more… Between these trainings, Integro’s coordinators provided continuous support to the group of activists from Bansko, by sending them appropriate information, helping their written communications. They also went together to the first meetings in the municipality, and elaborated together the first plan that was submitted to the mayor. In parallel with all these activities, “Integro” hired experts for on-the-spot visits and to give practical advice on how to negotiate with the local authorities and to advocate for their requests.
This was the programme for capacity building of the young Roma from Bansko who expressed willingness to work. Nobody paid them to participate in these trainings. They spared their free time to raise their social skills, because they understood their own role for the improvement of their own position. According to Kadrin, this is the correct work method, because the people themselves build their self-esteem as citizens, who exercise their right to request that to have asphalt-paved streets, children playgrounds built and maintained, computer rooms, etc.
After trainings and consultations, the moment came to apply the learned in practice. Sheker Tyumbelekchi, Sasho Manov, Slavcho Kostadinv, Atanas Mitrev, and Tzvetomir Mihailov organized themselves and went to meet the town mayor. Bansko’s mayor was pleasantly surprised with the constructive ideas of the young men and their will to work. The good thing in this case was that Bansko is a rich resort municipality and can afford to allocate funds for the improvement of the Roma position. Step by step, the Roma’s concrete ideas began to be implemented, as the Roma participated in this implementation. During the whole period, Integro continued to provide support, ensuring expert assistance to the young men.
Today, the Roma neighborhood of Bansko has a sports and children playground, all streets are asphalted, there is a computer room, as the municipality bought the computers and one of the local activists, Slavcho Kostadinov, provided the room. The most important gain is that the municipal council decided to give regulated land plots to the Roma, where they can build their dwellings. At present, Bansko has elaborated a municipal programme for integration of the Roma population, which is to be approved at a municipal council’s session in the nearest future. Thus the problems of the Roma will be included in the municipal long-term plans and the Roma themselves will learn how to follow up their implementation.
Of course, not all of the problems of the Roma in Bansko have been resolved, but one substantial step in the right direction has already been made that certainly gives them the sense and the understanding that they are also citizens of their municipality. The progress is a result of efforts over a number of years which have now proved worthwhile.
Published at Roma Transitions