Chipping Away at Roma Discrimination

In a forest near the village of Svinia in eastern Slovakia, 35-year-old Miro is clearing storm-felled timber from the forest undergrowth.

At the peak of his life, Miro, a Roma or ‘gypsy’, has already experienced a lifetime’s worth of burdens and worries. From the age of 20 he has cared for his four siblings. Now he also has a wife and four children of his own to support.

Properly feeding, clothing, housing, schooling a family of 10 is tough for anyone these days. But for a Roma family in Central Europe, it’s a virtually impossible task. Many Roma, the continent’s largest transnational ethnic minority, are today in the 21st century, living in the kind of poverty easily seen across the third world.

Daily life for Miro and fellow Roma in Svinia is particularly hard as so few of them have paid jobs. Access to good housing and opportunities that would help to lift the Roma out of poverty and which many Europeans take for granted, is but a distant dream. The story is the same for other Roma elsewhere in Slovakia and in the region, many of whom who also don’t have access to basic education - the one right that could empower them to help themselves.

IOM estimates there are 6.2 million Roma in Europe, nearly 75 per cent in Central and Eastern Europe. As well as being the largest ethnic minority on the continent, the Roma are also the oldest minority group and for several centuries, the most discriminated.

No longer nomadic as their ancestors were, many Roma now live in squalid ‘tabors’, remote often, illegal settlements not often found on any map. Their isolation further entrenched by poverty and racism.

Miro may not live in a tabor, but life has been no less difficult for him in Svinia. Unable to find work to feed his family, he was first arrested at the age of 15 for stealing potatoes. Since then, he’s spent eight years of his life in jail - almost always, he says, because he needed to provide food for his family.

Although it has been many years now that Miro has stopped breaking the law - a conscious decision to set a good example to his children - putting bread and potatoes on the table has not been any easier. Nor has it been easy to keep his family warm during the bitter cold winters in the European heartland in a home without heating and no legal means to collect wood from either private or municipal forests.

This winter has been particularly difficult for Roma everywhere. The sub-zero temperatures and heavy snows have already taken a heavy toll on the elderly, with some Roma in communities known to IOM having literally frozen to death.

For Miro, however, the task of providing for his family has now been made a bit easier. As part of a Belgian government funded IOM programme to stabilize Roma communities suffering badly from socio-economic exclusion, Miro and 11 other Roma men have been given jobs that open up new horizons for them and a brighter future for their families.

Several towns in Slovakia have given IOM and its local partner, a non-governmental organization (NGO) the ETP Centre for Sustainable Development, access to municipal forests to collect storm-felled timber that would have otherwise rotted away. Miro and his colleagues either chip the timber on the spot or haul the logs away for splitting and bundling.

These wood chips or split logs are then ‘sold’ to another IOM Roma programme which provides humanitarian assistance to Roma Holocaust victims. Through the programme, funded in Slovakia by the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, IOM provides essential items such as fuel, food and medicines to poor Roma who are now old and frail.

The wood processed by Miro and his colleagues and given to one elderly Roma can often heat a home where 10 other family members also live. Families are large because many younger Roma depend on the elderly to look after their children as they migrate to other parts of Europe in desperate search of work. Grandparents are left to care for entire households on monthly state pensions incapable of sustaining one person.

Sixty-two-year-old Mikulas who lives in the Roma settlement of Rozkovce in the Spis region of Slovakia, is one of the people who benefits directly from the work of Miro and his colleagues.

Increasingly deaf, Mikulas lives in a small one-room house on the boundaries of the settlement with his wife and son. There is no running water or toilet here nor anywhere else in Rozkovce. And of course, without money to pay for fuel, there is no heating. To stay warm and to play, children in the settlement burn what they can - including an abandoned Skoda car and its rubber tyres.

Wood supplied to Mikulas by IOM in December 2005 lasted his family more than a month - a period when temperatures were relatively mild.

“This allowed us to buy more wood to help us get through the worst of the winter,” says Mikulas.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Marian Vlasaty, IOM’s humanitarian and social programmes coordinator in Slovakia. “Both for the elderly Roma who could not survive without this assistance and for the younger Roma who have been given a chance in life.”

Miro couldn’t agree more. Despite many attempts to change the economic situation in his community, nothing has worked before.

“I used to say ‘please give me work or I will not be able to bear it any longer’” he says. But now, with this IOM programme, Miro feels more upbeat about life. “A day I go to work feels really different to a day when I sit at home doing nothing. It’s a day when you know you are useful for yourself and others,” he explains.

The extra motivation and sense of satisfaction for Miro and his colleagues come from knowing the product of their work is helping elderly Roma and the value they could now attach to the things they could buy from their own wages.

And for Miro, that purchasing power now includes being able to afford a mortgage to buy a house for his family. It’s an act that not only gives him hope for the future, but a belief in it too. Inclusion into society cannot happen without it and that inclusion is what IOM is trying to achieve for Roma through income generating activities, employment and counselling.

But while Miro’s future is more stable and hence brighter, that of the elderly Roma is much more bleak. In March 2006, funding for IOM programmes that assist Roma Holocaust survivors such as Mikulas, runs out. Nearly 70,000 elderly Roma in Central and Eastern Europe have been able to make it through four winters with the assistance IOM has been able to provide. Next winter, Miro’s wood will not be helping to keep Mikulas and his family warm and alive. It’s a grim realization for Mikulas’ generation that some of them will end a lifetime of struggle, hungry and cold.