Serving the Gypsy (Roma) Community

We have intentionally obscured the faces of the folk we served to protect them, their story and their identity from further exploitation, but please don’t let the sombrero detract from the daily struggles.

This past month I was blessed with the opportunity and privilege of assisting a young Bulgarian woman arrange and distribute wood to a few families in Sliven (a city in central Bulgaria).

As we have mentioned previously, over the course of the past 2.5 years, we have had the opportunity to work within the Roma community.  According to statistics there are more Roma in Bulgaria than any other EU nation. Some 10 percent of the population belong to this minority group, and despite receiving millions for their integration into Bulgaria, the Roma community remain marginalized.

With more than 40 percent of the Roma in Bulgaria living below the poverty line, Roma are often pushed to the edges of society.  Bleak accurately describes the Махала (neighborhoods) around Bulgaria, where Gypsy communities are isolated on the outskirts of the cities. Calling the district a residential area really is an exaggeration as many of the buildings are in need of repairs and are not connected to a sewage system. There is barely any warm water or electricity, a third of the structures have been illegally built and do not have electricity. The entire neighborhood does not have a garbage can and trash piles up becoming the playground for many of the youngsters.

Coming from Africa we are not shocked or rendered helpless in the face of abject poverty, but driving around Bulgaria and assisting this young woman and then returning to serve a few other families, I confess I was in shock.  This is Europe after all … Eastern Europe I know, but this isn’t Africa!!!

The Sliven area is without doubt poor.  Many families poverty stricken and with winter fast approaching are literally taking up residence in rooms of abandoned houses, many of which are riddled with black mold, have floor to ceiling structural cracks that your hand can fit in and are honestly best described as ‘condemned buildings’.   Looking around it’s no wonder that 83 percent of Bulgarian Roma said they would like to move abroad in a bid to improve their lives.

We are learning that Human Trafficking has so many, many faces and Economic trafficking plays a huge role her in Bulgaria.  The Poor in Bulgaria, especially Roma, have become “social nomads,” working outside of Bulgaria whenever possible and returning to see family and friends.   From a really limited anthropological understanding of how this life style must impact this community, we can only surmise that this breakdown of family within the confines of this close knit community, must play a significant and negative role in the lives of the Roma people.  However, more specifically this ‘social nomadic’ existence exposes the vulnerable within communities to predators and leaves them open and easy pickings for exploitation both here in Bulgaria its self as well as throughout the rest of Europe.

When it comes to societal stereotypes of the gypsy people somehow ‘we’ forget what it is must feel like to be treated in such a derogatory manner on a continuous basis. It is easy for us to simplify our thoughts about a certain group of people when we read only bad news about them. But in truth, many of these beliefs are not fair – for many gypsy folk, their sole aim is to survive and desperate people invariably end up doing desperate things to survive.

On the face of it and having met the gypsy folk I have, the label that is very firmly stamped on them is not just,  in fact its not even 100% correct (there are many, many incredible gypsy family’s we have met who do not deserve the bad rap they receive just because they are gypsy) and more to the point the label is simply not right.  The only way to truly tackle economic trafficking is for governments, municipalities, big business and communities to come together and to strategies and identify ways to combat existing poverty and together to truly become like the church described in the book of Acts.