When I was nine years old I realized I was different and did not know why. I had always been a happy child. I had many friends in school. But this all changed in the fifth grade.
In Bulgaria, like many parts of Eastern Europe, Roma children often don’t have access to quality education. Roma children in segregated schools graduate without knowing how to read or write. In my hometown, we have a segregated primary school up until the fourth grade. That school was only 100 meters from my house but my mother would not let me go there. She knew I would not receive a good education and so she enrolled me at the public school for Bulgarian students.
Her decision was not easy. The trip to and from school was difficult. Even my father and my grandparents did not agree with her decision. They did not understand why I should go to a school so far away from my home and be separated from my cousins. But my mother knew why. She knew that education was key. My mother tried to protect me from being mocked by the children at school. My parents agreed only to speak to me in Bulgarian so that I would not develop an accent. But they could only protect me so much.
When I was in the fifth grade, the Roma children from my neighborhood began attending my school. They were my friends from my neighborhood and so I spoke to them and played with them. But one by one my classmates drew back from me when they saw me interacting with the new Roma kids. They pointed to me and called me “gypsy.” I did not know why. Was it something bad? Why did they think I am different? I felt guilty, as if I had done something wrong.
From that point on I faced insults, humiliation, and aggressive behavior from my classmates and even from some teachers. I never told my parents or shared with anyone what was happening at school. I felt ashamed.
Despite these difficult years I always had my mother encouraging me to continue my education. I graduated high school and began studying journalism at Sophia University. But even at the university I could not escape people’s prejudices. At my very first lecture the students began discussing “stinky gypsies.” For a moment I worried that I had been recognized. But they did not know I am Roma. It never crossed their minds that there would be a Roma student attending school with them.
It was at the university that I became interested in the history, language, and culture of Roma people. I read books about Roma history, and I had the chance to meet other students, teachers, journalists, and intellectuals of Roma origin. After I graduated, I began working as a reporter for the Roma newspaper Drom Dromendar. Soon I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of. I am a Roma woman, and I am proud of who I am.
Many of my peers do not share this view. Many young Roma today grow up without ever learning about their history or who they really are. Many successful Roma hide from their true identity. They hide just like I did. Deeply rooted stereotypes in our society made us feel like second-class citizens; like we are not part of society and that we only belong in ghettos and mahalas.
The Roma are Europe’s larges minority group. They suffer from high rates of illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty. Yet we do not have a targeted or coordinated approach to deal with this problem. Europe cannot ignore the Roma any longer.
Europe needs to provide access to quality education for all children. Despite rulings ordering reform by the European Court of Human Rights against the Czech Republic, Greece, and, just last month, Croatia, Roma are regularly denied equal access to education. Europe must begin challenging issues of identity—making sure that schoolchildren learn about each other, about their differences, and about the fact that diversity is not bad. On the contrary, diversity is something that enriches everyone.
My mother’s decision to send me to the public school changed my life. Now I work to help change the lives of other young Roma. At the Open Society Institute I help young Roma from Central and Eastern Europe obtain internships and educational training. These opportunities teach young Roma how to become their own best advocates and better their community.
But we can’t do this alone. Europe together with us must be committed to ensuring that all Roma have equal access to quality education—and expand and consolidate a new generation of Roma women and men who will lead their community to a real change in all public spheres of their life.