Stereotyping the Roma in Bulgaria

The following op-ed originally appeared in Bulgarian in Dneven Trud and 24 Chasa.

We are either a “nomadic tribe” or an “incubator for generating crime.” These comments made by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Vice Minister and Minister of the Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov last month in Brussels provide a glimpse into what is feels like to be Roma in my home country. Despite claims by Tsvetanov that the media had twisted his words, the damage was already done for me, for my family, and for the 800,000 Roma living in Bulgaria.

The European Commission called the Interior Minister’s comment “unacceptable” but I wonder if his remarks are also unacceptable for the average Bulgarian. Do we realize that the way Roma are treated in our country is not right? Why are we so quick to defend attacks on our national identity yet silent on the treatment of the country’s largest ethnic minority? Instead of debating the validity of these statements can we simply think about how we treat our Roma countrymen?

In 2009, Bulgaria’s elected officials and the general public reacted with outrage when the country was depicted as a “squat toilet” by the artist David Cerny. It felt wrong to sit idly by and accept such a stereotype.

The same is true for our image in Italy. Bulgarians are portrayed in the media as criminals and the vast majority of Italian news stories about Bulgarians focus on criminality. Of course, the average Bulgarian would never accept this generalization. But when it comes to our stereotypes of the Roma somehow we forget what it is like to be treated in such a derogatory manner. It is easy for us to simplify our thoughts about a certain group of people when we read only bad news about them. But is it not just, it is not correct, and it is simply not right.

Tsvetanov made his statement without thinking about the consequences of his words. Later he even claimed that it was based on findings regarding the number of registered crimes in the country. Well, one could easily ask Tsvetanov whether or not he knows the real number of the Roma in Bulgaria so he could make a good comparative analysis of the number of crimes committed by various ethnic groups. But we ignore this point.

Why is it that when a Roma commits a crime he is labeled only as a Roma but when he wins a European boxing championship, like Boris Georgiev, he is labeled as simply Bulgarian? Criminality does not have ethnicity, and negative criminal stereotyping doesn’t serve anyone apart from populist politicians. Yes, we need to open our eyes and look our problems in the face, but stigmatizing Roma and blaming previous governments for failure of integration it is not a way out.

Instead, we should look for solutions how Roma can have the same opportunities, rights and obligations as the rest of Bulgarian society. Roma should not live as outsiders in ghettos and or in segregated neighborhoods on the outskirts of our cities. Roma should live together with the majority, and this will only happen when it is no longer acceptable for our elected officials to make these sorts of statements.

Has Tsvetanov ever seen for himself how a single family lives in a Roma neighborhood? Has he ever asked them about their problems or the opportunities they have had in life before making such a claim? Roma, like many other Bulgarians, leave the country in order to make a better living. The majority of people in Bulgaria are driven out of the country by poverty. For the Roma the situation is even worse as their unemployment rate is the highest in all of Bulgaria. Roma leave Bulgaria because they face rampant discrimination and are in search of a better life.

We need to wake up and look around us and see what is going on. We live in a country that since 2007 has been a member of the European Union. Our government agreed to be part of a Union based on values such as respect for human dignity, liberty, and equality. Everybody has the right to live with dignity in normal living conditions and equal access to quality education, health care, and employment, but the majority of Roma in Bulgaria do not enjoy any of those rights.

Our insistence on stereotyping the Roma is why they are seen as “strangers” by the majority population. These same stereotypes are that led to Bulgarian parents in Pazardjik pulling their children out of classes with Roma students.

This is not how imagine my life nor my children’s life. I do not want to look for opportunities in another country. I want to enjoy my rights and live in dignity as a Bulgarian, a European, and a Roma. Tsvetanov, we should open a dialogue and talk to the Roma. We need both the government and the Roma to work together toward successful integration and an inclusion strategy where Roma will become citizens with a full set of rights. Today, the European Union is giving us a hand. Tsvetanov let’s work together to build an open and just society where our government is accountable for all Bulgarians—Roma and non-Roma alike.

10 Comments

It's been some time since I last looked at the site, but isn't Bulgaria a signatory to the Decade of Inclusion initiative? Is the Decade of Inclusion having any positive outcomes?

Dear Brian, yes Bulgaria is a member of the Decade. Positive results there are but very little. We need to do more and we are working hard in that direction. Here you can find more info about the Decade http://www.romadecade.org/
Greetings, Violeta

Thank you Violeta for sharing your article with us and all you do for Roma people. You need to make an appointment to meet with Tsvetanov. After meeting with you he might never be the same. I have had successes and respect from politicans and officials when I used a direct approach in meeting and phone calls and email. Perhaps they did not want to be shamed in public media which I never used yet. Tsvetanov might have an assignment for you.

Dear Al, certainly, Tsvetanov will change his mind. Now he has another idea to prevent the mass Roma migration to other EU states. I really don't have a clue how he can stop people to travel where EU citizens can travel freely 3 months withing the EU. Greetings, Violeta

dear violeta, i am italian and living in burgas, bulgaria, where we have just set up a task force involving roma, non roma and municipality in launching the Open Mahala project, a new approach to end up roma urban segregation adopting art for social change, designing collaborative programs between international artists-in-residency and the local residents to turn the neighborhood into a creative laboratory for discovery of young talents and resources, uplifting of public spaces and inspiring a daily celebration of the living heritage of the community. ultimately we want to put burgas on the map of the european route of roma heritage and culture (a project sponsored by the council of europe)and to attract cultural and philantropic tourism into the mahala as a vehicle to alleviate poverty and generate business for viable microentreprises. you are most welcome to provide us with comments and suggestions.

Dear Vitorio, Thank you so much for explaining me the project you are working on. This is great. If I have a way to Bourgas I would like to contact you. We suport one NGO their for a project related to Roma Women. I will be glad to know more about your project and tell you also what we do. Bests, Violeta

Dear Vittorio,

I am in Burgas, Bulgaria at the moment. I am an artist and I would be very interested in voluntary work with the Roma population. Can you give me more information about your project? How was it organized? Do you have an address of a Roma Center that I could go to and talk to? Thank you! Anne

Violeta, thank you so much for your article. I am a human rights researcher from the United States, living in Sofia for one year, and I would love to speak with you if you are available.

Dear Violeta,
I am originally from Bulgaria but have been living in UK for the last few years. I have only recently became aware of the Decade of Roma Inclusion Initiative and was a bit surprised that this international initiative has, in my opinion, a low profile in Bulgaria.
It is a shame that your article has provoked such negative comments in the Bulgarian Trud and 24 thasa on line. These comments however reflect the extent of the problem and could be addressed constructively by the Decade team and the EU community. Certainly,articles like yours encourage the debate. I also thought that media in Bulgaria needs to promote the positive public image of the Romani People and in particularly those who are working hard to meet up the ends. I am interested to find out how the integration of the Romani children in Pazardjik has been carried out (e.g whether the teachers have received enough support, were the parents informed about the process and encouraged to support it etc)and would appreciate your help in finding out more.

when I was inmigrant a roma guy helped me first. he gave me home and shelter free. GAVE ME BED , CLOSET, TV,RADIO, KITCHEN, TABLE AND CHAIRS , AND ASK FOR NOTHING IN RERURN.
a simple hairdresser who did not took advantage from my situation- and only did the most human- helping and not asking.
I totally disagree with roma politics
all this blabalaba does not work.
you want to do right.
I saw on the red that french first lady goes crazy for flowers and spends fortune in it. thousands of dollars . well flowers are nice.
rich persons who want to protect this poor romans who gave the world flamenco and many wisdom should send her every day a car with black rosas and roma music in front of the palace.
every day - in a car with someone playing violine
until politics change.

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