Anton Karagozov, Foundation for Regional Roma Development, Bulgaria
On the work of his organization
I come from Plovdiv. It has the biggest, compact quarter of Roma population. There are 40,000 Roma who live in this quarter. I was a leader of one of the Roma NGOs for more than 10 years. We worked mostly on social programs: labor employment, a second chance program for adults, some projects related to legal defense. And now we’re working on the desegregation of Roma children. Our school integration involves 10 cities, and is based on the American model.
On government policy toward Roma
Before 1989, the government carried out a policy of enclosure. Others made decisions on how Roma should live. These were decisions that Roma themselves should have been making. Over these many years, the government of Bulgaria pursued a policy of pushing Roma into towns without any infrastructure, without plumbing or sanitation. Now this problem is exploding.
The democracy period after 1989, there was an opportunity for Roma to wake up from a very deep sleep. We created the first organizations with Roma leaders. Between 1992 and 1994, Roma in the countryside began to wake up. This was a period of self-organization. We established parties. We made contacts with the executive branches of the country. We created the first Roma organization in 1992. In 15 years, we have taken several steps forward. The Soros Foundation really did a lot for Roma. Before 1989, it was not possible to speak of a Roma intelligentsia. The American University was a school where it was possible to develop the Roma intelligentsia. Over 500 Roma students with high education have since graduated: lawyers, teachers, journalists, politicians.
This is a new time for us to participate in society. There have been many European programs for the development of Roma civil society. They have financed individual projects related to Roma issues. We created a national council for the integration of ethnic issues. On the basis of this council, over 30 Roma NGOs developed a national program for the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society. Part of this program involved providing land to those Roma who had previously been without property. Before 1989, Roma mostly worked for collective farms as hired hands. So, based on the decision of the national assembly, any person without land could apply for such land.
Another step was the experience of Roma organizations in the process of integration into education. In the past seven or eight years, Roma children who had previously gone to schools on the outskirts have begun attend schools in the central district. Young Roma parents want their children to study in those schools. They want their children to have better education, and the opportunity to go on to higher education. This is a radical change from the situation before 1989. So, in the last 15 years, Roma organizations in particular demonstrated to the Bulgarian government how Roma issues can be resolved.
On the Ataka party
To me, the appearance of the Ataka party is not so much a reaction to Roma but a reaction to the Turkish party. The phenomenon of a very nationalistic party leads to the creation of dangerous tensions. Roma parents are afraid to allow their grandchildren to go to school downtown. Over the last several months there have been skinhead assaults. Although Ataka is provoked more by the Turkish party, it has led to the overall aggravation of ethnic tensions.
It is true that our fellow citizens with a lower sense of culture and in a difficult economic situation commit criminal acts. This happens with other communities, too. Yet somehow, what happens with our community attracts more publicity. This negative publicity feeds hatred of the Roma. Over the last several years, though, Roma have been mostly accepted as equals.
Also, for the past several years, political parties have been in the habit of abusing the Roma. In one example, Roma were not paying for their electricity, and some political parties took to saying, “Vote for us and you don’t have to pay for electricity.” This created resentment in Bulgarian society that in turn has emboldened parties like Ataka. Because we didn’t have the legal infrastructure, because our houses are not legitimate, nobody was checking how much electricity was consumed. This was a huge problem. Thank God that in the last couple months, a company has taken charge of electricity distribution. It is changing the electricity lines and the electricity meters, so now people know how to keep track of the service and pay for it. It’s not true that we didn’t want to pay for electricity. It was simply that we were being used in some kind of political game.
We feel that Bulgaria is our motherland. We want to develop here, and contribute to Bulgaria to the best that we can. Yet as Ataka becomes a nationwide phenomenon, Roma must think twice before going out in public and doing normal things. Ataka simply slows down the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society.
In Plovdiv, at the beginning of the year, there was an outbreak of Hepatitis A. Parents of Bulgarian students in some of the schools protested. They wanted to remove Roma students from the schools. Ataka also incited the parents and created serious tensions. Fortunately, due to our experience in our local municipality and with the health authorities, we managed to overcome this problem, and children were not prevented from attending school.
As Bulgarian citizens, we already feel like European citizens. Since 1989, we have tried to become more educated, more European. Little by little we sometimes forget typical Roma things. This is a fact. For instance, I have six grandchildren. After they are two-and-a-half, they attend kindergarten. They practically don’t speak Roma any more. But there are things that we cannot forget, such as our customs. We closely follow our Roma holidays, such as the New Year. There is also an important holiday for Roma in April. Then there is the Roma family culture, the respect of the children. There is the traditional dress, the traditional music. We don’t live in huts any more. We live in separate rooms. Forty years ago when I was growing up, there were only two taps in our whole neighborhood. We slept on carpets made of cane and small twigs. Many things like that are now history. But now we have other possibilities.
At the beginning of school integration program we encountered many difficulties. We are in our third year now in Stara Zagora. We are in our sixth year in Plovdiv. We are now starting in Sliven and Padzernik. At this moment, the discrimination that exists is more racial than economic. Bulgarians cannot easily accept that Roma are equal. Here’s an example. When my children began to go to school, they were the only Roma. I had to go to the public secretary to get permission. Over time, more and more Roma children enrolled in this school. If you go there today, there is not one Bulgarian kid there. When they saw too many Roma kids, the Bulgarians transferred their kids to another school. Now with our desegregation program, there are one or two Roma in the classes. In 20 years, we will see the fruits.