‘Forward Together’ is a youth camp for Roma students in their teens with a good school record. It was founded in 2000 by a group of Peace Corp volunteers in Bulgaria. The first couple of camps were organized for the towns of Shumen and Pazardzhik. In 2003 the camp became nationwide. Through the years ‘Forward Together’ has acquired a multi-ethnic character. This year’s camp was attended by Bulgarian, Bulgarian-Turkish, Armenian, Russian and Turkish teens as well as Roma.
Last year the Youth Foundation ‘Arete’ took over the organization of the camp. ‘Arete’ works towards reducing the social inequality of Roma youth, countering discrimination towards them and including them in the civil and political life of the country. Through ‘Arete’s’ programmes young Roma get motivated to continue their education and to enter a profession. ‘Forward Together’ is mainly aimed at raising the self-confidence of young Roma in Bulgaria – they should realize that they belong to an ethnic group with a rich history that has always contributed to Bulgaria’s development and will continue to do it for as long as the Roma feel part of Bulgaria and think of it as their homeland.
The format of ‘Forward Together’ is unique because it combines lectures with role-play exploring prejudice, Roma history and the opportunities available to young people in Bulgaria and around the world. Two ‘Forward Together’ camps happened this year – one in the town of Varna – for Roma youth from North-eastern Bulgaria, and one in the town of Velingrad – for those from South-western Bulgaria. This year was different for ‘Forward Together’ – after long discussions the participants in both camps expressed their desire to do something voluntary for the communities, where the camps were taking place. The Roma teens wanted to show their awareness of the big issues facing Bulgaria and the world. They discussed different suggestions for community work until in the end their concern for Bulgarian wildlife prevailed and they decided to plant trees. The young people put together a sum of money to purchase the trees and the organizers managed to find additional funds to sponsor the action. The participants bought trees suited to the local climate and planted them near the Proto-Bulgarian archaeological site in Varna and at the Children’s Activity Center in the Aleko Konstantinovo village near the town of Pazardzhik. This was a positive example for all young people in Bulgaria, who feel concern for the environment and think green. Some passers-by appreciated the initiative, while others did not see how it contributed to Roma integration. No, the trees do not do away with discrimination, they are here to show there are big problems out there that we all care about equally.
Through the years ‘Forward Together’ has had over 500 participants from various parts of the country. This camp has influenced the future of many young people, who become inspired to pursue their ambitions and get concrete ideas of how to do it. Especially for participants form small towns and villages, where access to information and guidance is limited, the camp has proved an invaluable opportunity. Every one of these young people is unique in their life story and their ambitions. In the Velingrad camp I met Stefka from the village of Kamen, near Veliko Tarnovo in Northern Bulgaria.
‘My father makes knives, my mother is a seasonal worker at the vineyards,’ Stefka’s story begins. In the vineyards, her mother used to work alongside Stefka’s future mother-in-law. Stefka continues, ‘back in 2003 all teenage women in the village had gotten married and only a friend and I were still single. I had no idea my turn was coming. My marriage was arranged by my parents. My husband’s parents are family friends. I was in the eighth grade. On 8 June a woman stopped in front of me in the village market and asked if I was married yet. I answered there was nothing like that, nobody had even asked me anything. When I got home and started making dinner, our family friends, who had a son, came to visit.’ Little did Stefka know that this was going to be the start of a true relationship, arranged though it might be. ‘I was sitting there calmly, because there was no way I was getting married. Then Penka, the mother of my future husband, told my parents that she and her husband had come to ask for my hand – ‘we are not rich, but she will live a peaceful life with us, our son does not drink or smoke, he’s a good boy.’ Then my parents asked for a symbolic sum of money as the custom requires.
‘Up to this day my husband and I joke about this tradition – we say this money could have paid for a nice washing machine, ‘ Stefka laughs. ‘Then my parents said, fine, we will give you our daughter. When my mother saw I was crying she decided to ask me if I wanted to get married. I, of course, said no, but she answered there was no going back - it was already done. Then my uncle came and saw me crying. I complained about getting married by force and he took me to his house for a talk.’ Stefka went hoping that something would happen to prevent the marriage. Instead, her aunt Stoyanka, upon hearing that Stefka does not want to get married because she does not like the boy, began to persuade her, ‘he is a good boy, smart and well-mannered, his family is friendly and forward-thinking. If you don’t marry him, you will have to marry someone else – better marry this boy; you know all your girlfriends are already married.’
Stefka told her aunt that she wants to study. The aunt said nobody is going to let her enrol in high school. Stefka gave in. She accepted to marry Atanas. ‘I’ll do my mother’s bidding, but after three months with this boy I’ll leave him and marry someone I choose,’ Stefka thought at the time. ‘I’ll make this family regret they took me for a daughter-in-law,’ she resolved. ‘I began to ask for gifts – shoes, clothes. But it was Sunday and the stores were closed,’ Stefka recalls with a smile, ‘they bought me some children’s clothes – after all, I was still a teenager.’ But the clothes did not fit her. She remembers she was a very odd bride, ‘I was sad the whole day. On the first night I kept laughing though, because they had made me drink so much liquor during the celebrations. The whole evening the room seemed to be spinning around me. I was afraid I might not be a virgin, even though I had never had a boyfriend. I was young and didn’t know anything about these things,’ explains Stefka without the slightest embarrassment.
The same evening Stefka realized that Atanas is a good man. ‘A year later he told me he had fallen in love with me. I did not know what to make of it. I even encouraged him to meet other women if he wanted to. It took me another year to realize I felt something for him, too. He left for the city, Veliko Tarnovo, to start his university degree. He came home rarely. I began to miss him a lot and I enjoyed his rare visits to Kamen,’ remembers Stefka. In 2006 Stefka decided she must get a high school diploma. She was afraid of what the people in the village will think of her – that she will become a woman of questionable morals? This is what village people thought of girls who studied in the cities. Yet, she overcame this fear, because she did not have children or a job to hold her back. Besides, Atanas had previously offered to help her continue her education, but she had refused. ‘A bit later I decided it’s important for me. Nasko (short for Atanas) gave me an opportunity to choose. The day I set out to enrol in the local school I met my mother on the road. I was carrying a student mark-book. She asked where I was going and I told her. She then began to berate me – what was I thinking, why would I need to study,’ Stefka recalls with emotion. She did not make it to the school that day under her mother’s pressure. A year later, Stefka told Nasko she wanted to live with him in Veliko Tarnovo, continue her education and work part-time to support herself. ‘I did not tell anyone – not my mother, nor my father, because I knew they would try to stop me. I found a job in the kitchen of a restaurant in the city.’
September came along, the year was 2008. Stefka found a programme for students who had discontinued their education, but wanted to go back to school. ‘I got advice from Deyan Kolev – a Roma activist in Veliko Tarnovo. He was a philosophy and psychology teacher at the school where I wanted to study. I met him at a festival – he won a prize in some game. I enrolled, attended regularly, finished ninth grade. Then I switched to an adult student programme since it was hard for me to work and study as a regular student.’ She studied to become a chef.
This year Stefka graduated with a GPA of 4 out of 6. She was the best student in her class. She took two baccalaureate exams – in Geography and Literature and also passed with 4/6. ‘It wasn’t easy. Through the years my husband and I went on student harvest-work schemes in Western Europe. The money we earned we saved for our daily expenses in Bulgaria. I feel fortunate that I have a good man who listens to me and respects my wishes and my feelings. I also respect him. I do not want to be a burden for him or slow down his development. This is why I try to keep myself up to par and not embarrass him. We support each other, because this is the only way ahead,’ says Stefka with conviction. Several weeks ago she learned that she was admitted to Veliko Tarnovo University to study for a degree in Early Education and French. ‘It will be hard, but I can do it,’ she pledges with a smile. This is, in brief, Stefka’s life – a story that inspires and stirs.
‘Forward Together’ counts Stefka as one if its role models – it will try to show her that she deserves all she has achieved and should be proud of herself. This persistent and committed Roma girl should be a role model for the rest of us, too.
Published at RomaTransitions