Much has changed in Eastern Europe over 22 years. But one group that has seen relatively little improvement in its fortunes over this period has been the Roma. Unemployment levels among Roma remain high. Access to decent education, health care, and other social services is limited. Representation in politics and business is minimal. And discrimination remains pervasive.
In interviews and casual conversations in the four southeastern European countries I visited this fall, I heard the same stereotypes about Roma repeated over and over again. And many of the people who trafficked in these stereotypes were highly educated, the people who are expected "to know better."
Maria Metodieva was, until recently, in charge of Roma issues at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. She confirmed for me this most depressing fact. "We've done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory," she said. "The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you've been studying in a mixed environment, and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism."
But alas, there isn't as much cultural pluralism in Bulgaria as one might hope. The effort to desegregate schools and ensure that Roma and non-Roma mix in the classrooms has encountered push back. Economically, Roma continue to be marginalized, often living in crowded conditions in poor neighborhoods in cities like Plovdiv. Some successful Roma, borrowing a page from African-American history, "pass" as non-Roma if they can get away with it, which does little to upend common stereotypes. And even very successful Roma who openly proclaim their heritage, like TV anchorwoman Violeta Draganova, have experienced the same, maddening discrimination that their less famous brothers and sisters face.
Here's another depressing fact. The OSI program has been quite successful in placing Roma interns in businesses in Bulgaria. But that success has been almost entirely in multinational businesses, Maria Metodieva reports, not with Bulgarian businesses. Roma don't just face a glass ceiling -- they face glass walls.
Europe is currently more than halfway through the Decade of Roma Inclusion. There have been conferences and studies and documentaries and political lobbying. And millions of Euros have been allocated to closing the gap between Roma and the rest of Europe. There have been some notable achievements, particularly in terms of the greater visibility of Roma issues. But it's easy to get discouraged when you come face to face with persistent discrimination. On the other hand, the modern civil rights movement in the United States was at it for more than two decades before achieving the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the election of an African-American president more than four decades later still doesn't mean that racism has been flushed out of the American system.
But many Roma, as they struggle against injustice and attempt to build a truly multiethnic democracy, keep their eyes on the prize. Maria Metodieva talked with me about OSI's programs on Roma and what has worked and hasn't worked in terms of policy approaches. She now works at the Trust for Social Achievement, which focuses on education, jobs, and capacity-building for marginalized communities in Bulgaria.
The EU has put some funds into Roma issues. Have they made a difference?
It's too soon to tell. We became a member of the EU just recently, in 2007. Five years is not sufficient time for achieving any success. In addition to that, there is a lack of capacity and human resources in the government to absorb funds related to Roma. Increasing the capacity of the government to implement this kind of policy would be the best-case scenario.
At the same time, there is a lack of decision about whether the government will implement targeted policies for Roma or whether they will implement mainstream policies funded by the EU. This hesitancy and lack of understanding has led to a total confusion around spending money. They spend without a clear vision about the final product or the beneficiaries.
Are there programs in the region directed at Roma, or with Roma or by Roma, that you can point to and say, this is a great program, this is something that can serve as an important model?
I think that what works best is a mainstream policy that has an impact on socially vulnerable or challenged people. I've seen an example of social housing in Spain that has worked well both for Roma and for socially vulnerable groups. For me, this project would work anywhere because it is a mainstream program and it won't lose support from Roma or mainstream society.
I'll give you another example. We had a Roma-targeted policy funded by EU funds in Burgas here in Bulgaria. The municipality applied for the funds and the project was approved. The main goal of the project was the construction of social housing for Roma. But suddenly, the local community in Burgas opposed this construction and forced the mayor to withdraw from the project. So, basically, Roma-related projects won't work in Bulgaria.
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