Valentine Mitiev. Photo by Don Russell.
When I was at university, I had to work at a factory every summer to earn money. I worked with many Turks there. Before 1998, we didn’t emphasize any difference between Turks and Bulgarians. You had to hike a lot to get to their villages in the Rhodope Mountains, where women and men dressed in unique ways. When they came to the cities, they dressed like the rest of us. The name-changing campaign created an abyss between us.
Many of these people don’t speak Bulgarian until they enter school. They speak Turkish within the family, and watch Turkish on TV. So the government introduced a preschool year in which to learn Bulgarian. But this is not enough. When we talked with Turks in the municipal administration, their main concern was the fact that many of their youth remain poorly educated because they are not speaking Bulgarian well. This is a concern for both communities.
I was involved in organizing a seminar at which a Roma was participating. I discovered that the Bulgarians wouldn’t accept staying in the same room as this participant. So I stayed in the room with him. He was a wonderful person. He told me stories about his kids. At that time there was not an issue as strong as that of identity. They have since shifted perceptions of themselves.
When I was organizing seminars for the Roma community, I realized that this community contained many people with leadership potential. When you talked with them, you were left with the impression that they could be very competent on a number of issues. But at same time, when you go into details, you realized that they didn’t have the capacity to design very good projects.
We designed some projects related to the economic situation, some of which aimed to improve access to schools. It was often very difficult to reach a consensus. It was simply impossible for the Roma to speak collectively. This was the easiest way to manipulate them. If one wanted to avoid reaching a solution to the problem, one could simply leave them to discuss it, and they wouldn’t be able to reach common ground. We also had to build some bridges. At that time, it was impossible to work with youth and women – which were, naturally, two priority groups – without doing something with the men. Sometimes we would end up supporting three projects in the community, starting with the men, to get the women, and eventually the children, involved.
Distinguishing between different groups of Roma is very important to us. Roma from rural areas are quite different from Roma in cities. Some of the projects in rural areas, such as providing access to land, have been more successful than projects financed in the cities. Why? Often, there is this positive attitude towards projects that occurs when people hear they can get money from the EU without breaking their bones to get it. Generally speaking, people in the countryside are do-ers who possess a level of integrity when fulfilling obligations. In the city, people are more influenced by Bulgarian NGOs, and everyone knows that not all projects are fulfilled in the same way.
It is easy to be tempted to see things in a negative perspective. There was something close to a Roma riot in Sofia. It is still not clear how it was provoked. But for one reason or another, the Roma in that quarter decided to react publically. They came out as a group. This is something positive, because they now have the courage to speak out publically. The whole environment has changed. In the past, it was perhaps unthinkable to express yourself in this way, even though it might not have been pleasant for the people participating in it.
On designing programs with Roma
Before one of the Bulgarian elections, a group of Roma came to me and asked whether we could do a seminar for them. We agreed on the topic. “Can you secure funding for this?” they asked. “Yes, I think we can,” I replied. Then they said, “Okay, can you do it in two weeks?” I said, “Oh, mama maria!” Then I realized that they wanted a kind of political rally – it was only two weeks before the elections. I said, “We can’t organize political events. But, okay, we’ll organize a seminar, and after the seminar you can do whatever you want.” At the seminar, we met with guys in silk suits and ties who demonstrated that they could do things in the best way. They were extremely sharp, and right on time. Everything went fine. In the evening, the Roma dignitaries were there. One of the wealthiest Roma from Russe was there in his Mercedes. There is this very strong desire to demonstrate that they can do things even better than the Bulgarians.
It is important when doing this work to acknowledge the particularities of the different ethnicities. Roma, for instance, are more often motivated by immediate results. It is hard for them to do a 10-year project. That said, the idea that Roma are not industrious is a complete myth.
About a year ago, I was monitoring projects on lifelong learning that would allow children from disadvantaged families to acquire a vocation. There was a group of 10 trainees, nine of whom were Roma. My obligation was to visit them two to three times, observe the educational process, and make sure that they got everything for which they were qualified. After the first visit, it was clear that these children didn’t desire my presence. They were focused on what the teacher was saying; I was an annoyance.
I began to visit them unannounced, and more often than was required. I was happy to see that the students were there. I asked the project leader, “How come the children are always there?” The project leader said, “At first, we had difficulty recruiting people for the course. Then I realized I was not approaching people the right way. They didn’t trust me.” He decided to act though an intermediary. He spent time with every applicant. They were surprised that he used the polite form of respect, even though he was older. He talked about how they could benefit from the course. They were impressed, and maybe that was the initial spark behind their motivation. Then, when the teachers talked with the students, they found out what they specifically wanted. Some of them wanted to get jobs quickly in factories. Two or three others wanted to set up design studios. There was one student interested in computer design. The teacher took her to the factory to learn computer-aided design. This was a strong motivation.
So, here are three important things to keep in mind when working with Roma.
1) Address them with respect. Acknowledge that they are human beings equal to you.
2) Focus on individual needs.
3) Set up courses that lead to particular results, so that they will be able to get better jobs.
My wife was beaten as a child by Roma kids. Once, we stopped in the Roma quarter to buy a drink. She said, “How can you stop?” It was as if the drink was contaminated. She has generalized Roma from her experience as a child. She hears that I think Roma are equal. Her attitude is very negative. But I’ve managed to change her attitude somewhat.
Basically, I was managing programs funded to about three million Euros. That’s a lot of money. There were a lot of fights concerning this money. Often, particular Roma groups think the money is earmarked for them. But it is a competitive world. They need to augment their capacity to use these funds. After all, such assistance can reinforce the mentality of dependency, and can be a very easy excuse for not developing one’s own capacity.
One of the Roma leaders stood up and said, “We very often complain that we are discriminated against. But you want to know where the discrimination starts? Here, in our heads.” If you are expecting to be discriminated against, it is very easy for this to happen. But it is also not so easy to find modern, socially acceptable ways in which to defend your rights and prevent this discrimination.
On Islam in the Balkans
One issue that has not been addressed is the Islamic legacy in the Balkans. It’s quite different from other parts of the world. Islam in the Balkans is very tolerant, very peaceful. It has left a significant legacy in architecture, in infrastructure. It is easy for people to demonize Islam and Islamic nations. So, highlighting these traditions can be very important. The youth in our societies, however, can be easily abused through radical ideas. We saw this happening in Kosovo, where it was much easier for international associations to intervene. Twenty such organizations were expelled from Kosovo, but not before they had time to do some harm. Perhaps this Balkan experience with Islam can hold good lessons for the EU. The Balkans are seen as the powder keg of Europe. But Balkan people tend to appreciate the more peaceful side of human relations.
On Bulgaria and Kosovo
When I was working in Kosovo a few years ago I remember thinking how the society I was observing looked a lot like the one I recalled from my own childhood. It was very patriarchal, very communal. If you found yourself in the house of a neighbor after evening of socializing, you simply slept there. There was a lot of togetherness in this lifestyle. Then, all of the sudden, people built new houses. Now in Bulgaria you have to call in advance to go and visit them. There have been so many changes over the course of the past 30-40 years, since the time of that patriarchal, pre-modern lifestyle. In Kosovo, it’s happening even faster. It must be terribly shocking for many people there.
I went to Kosovo from Vienna. Afterward, I looked at the map and, after some calculation, saw that Pristina is much closer to Sofia than the Bulgarian city of Varna. It’s only about 200 kilometers away, by road about 300 kilometers and six hours. I was surprised to discover a society that is so different – indeed, one that I know so little about it – yet so close.
On Slavic identity
There were British newspaper articles, which I find manipulative and offending, that distinguish between Macedonian Albanians and Macedonian Slavs, with the implication that being Slav is negative. This perception of Slavs stretches from Macedonia to Bulgaria and to Russia. Sometimes in Kosovo I would come across Albanians not from Kosovo, or Kosovars from the mountains who, when I spoke Bulgarian, thought I was Serb and got very upset. When I gave the password – Sofia, Bulgaria – then they went from wanting to kill me to being really warm and friendly. I can’t recall a single case of being considered a Slav.