…St. George appeared to a poor Roma carpenter. The carpenter was nearly overwhelmed by the sight of the saint, riding a tall white horse outfitted in a golden saddle.
St. George told the carpenter that God had decided to reward his people by dividing the richest land in the world and giving it to them. He gave some of the land to the Macedonians, some to the Greeks, some to the Albanians, and so on. But St. George never mentioned the Roma.
The carpenter asked St. George why his people, the Roma, had not been given any land. “I don’t know,” St. George said, “I’ll go and ask God.”
“But what if you forget to ask Him?” said the carpenter. “I have an idea—lend me your saddle, so that as you ride you’ll be reminded to ask God, and then you will come back with the answer.”
St. George agreed and left his beautifully ornamented saddle with the carpenter. The carpenter promised to keep it safe until St. George returned.
The next day St. George appeared again. The carpenter demanded to know why God had forgotten his people. “God told me that He didn’t have enough good land, and there was none left for the Roma. That is why they have to wander without land of their own.
“However,” St. George continued, “God has also said that because the Roma have not been given good land, they may lie and steal to earn a living. It is only to be expected.”
Then, having given his answer, St. George asked the carpenter for his saddle. “What are you talking about?” the carpenter said. “You never gave me your saddle – I haven’t seen it.” And he ran off to enjoy his prize.
This is a paraphrase of a story that appeared not long ago in a magazine distributed to elementary school children as part of the official curriculum. It plays on the pervasive stereotype in Macedonia (and across Europe) that the Roma people are thieves and vagrants. Given the historical discrimination against and frequent persecution of the Roma in Europe, it’s scary that this story could appear in an official publication for kids. And it’s hard to think about how the three or four Roma children sitting in class that day must have felt as their classmates laughed at the story.
The Roma originally migrated out of India about 1000 years ago, moving across Central and Eastern Europe—the “gypsies” of European history. They have been in Macedonia for centuries; the settlement of Suto Orizari, about 10 miles outside of Skopje, is the largest Roma community in Europe. Roma are easily identified by their darker skin and are rarely able to integrate into the societies in which they live.
Thanks to economic and social discrimination, from the Balkans to Britain the Roma are generally the poorest members of society. In Skopje, every evening half-naked Roma children wander the main square while their mothers dig in garbage dumpsters for food. Sometimes it’s the children digging in the garbage. Some of the older kids, probably nine or ten but looking much younger due to malnourishment, beg or try to sell cigarettes and gum for a few cents.
The Roma frequently face police abuse, and discrimination is endemic. Given Macedonia’s high unemployment rate—around 30 percent—no one outside their own communities will hire Roma. The problem is compounded by the fact that in some Roma areas, including Suto Orizari, there are no high schools, and most can’t afford the time or money to go all the way to Skopje every day for school.
In Macedonia (as elsewhere) there is virtually no intermarriage between Roma and other ethnic groups. A colleague at ESE who is currently working on a Roma rights project, who has a great appreciation for Roma culture and clearly has a lot of sympathy for the obstacles they face, admitted that he would never marry a Roma woman. He said if he did, he would have to leave Macedonia because his family and friends would never accept the marriage.
But it’s not all bad news. I heard the above story at a conference in which more than a dozen Macedonian NGOs took part. It was inspiring to hear about the work they’re doing, often in the face of significant obstacles. Several Roma organizations were present, including Mesechina and KHAM. One staff member was explaining that after this story appeared in the magazine, his group lodged official complaints and forced the government to issue a formal apology in a major newspaper.
It’s a small but significant success that couldn’t have happened just a few years ago. Starting from scratch as the communist system crumbled and Macedonia underwent a wrenching political and economic transformation, today many Macedonian civil society groups—including several which promote Roma rights—have developed into effective advocacy organizations.
In addition to working with Roma youth to raise awareness of the problems of gender discrimination and domestic violence, ESE is currently working on a three-year project to improve and increase access to health care in the Roma community. One year will be spent gathering data about the quality, access and availability of health services and insurance for Roma, and particularly Roma women. ESE is also researching attitudes within the health care profession toward the Roma population. The results will be published and used to develop policy recommendations, in collaboration with representatives from several government ministries as well as partner NGOs and health care professionals.
So it’s inspiring to see this work happening, even if the pace can seem painfully slow. At the conference I met dozens of people who are working to effect change, and to hear about the challenges they face working in a sector which isn’t well understood by most people in Macedonia. (A common perception here is that NGOs are fronts for money laundering.) Many of these people have turned down better-paying jobs to work on issues they care about, and I’m sure the trade-offs can seem dubious at times.
On a lighter note, after the conference a few of us drove up to the beautiful mountain village of Galicnica. Only one person lives there year-round, but people from around the country have weekend houses; it’s a great skiing area in the winter. Wild horses roam the foothills and kids scramble along impossibly steep paths through the woods – I was reassured that “not many” fall off the side of the mountain. Relaxing in a café far from the 40+ -degree heat of Skopje made it a great end to the week.
Posted By Stephanie Gilbert
Posted Jul 4th, 2007