A long way to equality

To understand the Roma, it is best to start with the basics. Long ago, Europeans saw the Roma’s dark skin and assumed they had come from Egypt – hence the term “gypsy” (Egyptian). In reality, the word is a misnomer. The Roma actually come from the Indian subcontinent, and they slowly migrated towards Europe early in the second millennium AD. Today, pockets of Roma are scattered all over the world. Not only do they constitute the largest ethnic minority in Europe, they also rank as the fastest-growing ethnic group in many countries across the globe. Today, Bulgaria has one of the highest concentrations of Roma in the world. Official government tallies place the national Romani population at approximately 370,000, although other researchers say that figure is closer to 750,000. Whatever the exact number, there is a very defined – and very unpleasant – cultural, social, and economic divide between the Roma and the rest of Bulgarian society. As in most of Eastern Europe, the Roma in Bulgaria tend to live in ghettos and rundown squatter communities, well separated from the majority population. With estimates of unemployment within the Roma community as high as 80 percent, the Roma are blamed for one out of every four crimes. Inequality in the Bulgarian school system goes back to the fall of Communism in 1989, when Roma children were given two options – attend a ‘gypsy school’, populated exclusively by Roma, or attend a school for children with mental handicaps. Both were problematic as the first served to segregate the Roma from other Bulgarians, while the second herded smart, healthy Romani kids into special-needs facilities. The schools were eventually desagregated in 2003, but that has not completely remedied the problem. There are still 15-year-old Roma kids attending the first grade, and many who cannot speak or read anything that is not in Romani. On January 1, 2007, Bulgaria became the 26th. Member of the European Union. And in its brief time of influence, the EU seems to have advanced the cause of Roma equality. It has encouraged Roma representation at all levels of government, and has shown approval for the formation of more than 350 Roma associations (both governmental and non-governmental). The hope is that, eventually, all this effort will lead to more jobs and economic opportunities for Bulgaria’s most impoverished ethnic community. Any way you look at it, it is a long road ahead. But the good news for all Roma is that the path is being paved.