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Serbia: Roma struggle

Vita Stankovic lives with his wife Sofija Arbanac and their daughters Rada, 5, and Caka, 3, in a homemade ramshackle dwelling. It’s in the middle of a vacant lot but within sight of the new high-rise buildings that mark the post-war renaissance of Belgrade, Serbia. Stankovic and his family are Roma, also known as Gypsies, and live at the edge of a settlement of other Roma families. He earns his living by recycling, working with a friend who has a bicycle-powered cart. They wander the city collecting cardboard, which they can then sell for three dinars per kilo–about five cents. Serbian Orthodox Christians, they received in February a letter informing them that they are about to be evicted. They know the drill. They moved here after being evicted from another site in 2009. Here’s Stankovic and his family outside their home. He’s holding the eviction letter.

Vita Stankovic and his wife Arbanac Sofija, along with their daughters Rada, 5, and Caka, 3, stand in early 2012 outside their meager home in an illegal Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia. In February 2012, the family received the letter that Stankovic is holding informing them they will be evicted by city officials in March 2012 to make way for new high-rise office buildings.  In April 2012, the Serbian Orthodox family was forcibly evicted from the city center and given a metal shipping container in Makis, at the edge of Belgrade, where they could live. After several weeks, they were evicted from the shipping container because of Stankovic's repeated fights with his neighbors, and at the end of 2012 lived in an informal Roma squatter settlement in nearby Palilula. In 2009, they had been evicted from another settlement in Belgrade.. (Paul Jeffrey)

Stankovic’s experience isn’t unique. The Roma of Belgrade are being systematically pushed off the land where they live in order to make way for shopping malls and high-rise offices. The apartment complex where I stayed in Belgrade was built–just a few years ago–on land where Roma families lived. Amnesty International and other groups have protested to the Serbian government, but the evictions continue. The displaced families go settle on a different vacant lot somewhere, or are pushed into the countryside, while some are provided with shipping containers in which to live. (I went to visit some families living in the containers, and I’ll cover that in articles I’ll write.) The housing crisis is part of a larger context of anti-Roma violence in the Balkans and elsewhere. This is nothing new, and attacks today on Roma by neo-Nazi skinheads are just a reminder of how more than 200,000 European Roma perished in the Holocaust.

I went to Serbia to start researching Roma life in order to write about it next year for response, the magazine of United Methodist Women, whose summer mission schools will have the Roma as a theme in 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately, the timing of my trip was such that I arrived just as a major winter storm came to an end. Unseasonably cold temperatures had lingered for weeks. Arbanac and her daughter Caka were still huddling inside under a blanket provided by Church World Service.

Arbanac Sofija and her 3-year old daughter Caka huddle under a blanket - provided by Church World Service - inside their meager home in an illegal Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, in February 2012. The poor family has been told it will be evicted by city officials in March 2012 to make way for new high-rise office buildings.  In April 2012, the Serbian Orthodox family was forcibly evicted from the city center and given a metal shipping container in Makis, at the edge of Belgrade, where they could live. After several weeks, they were evicted from the shipping container because of her husband's repeated fights with his neighbors, and at the end of 2012 lived in an informal Roma squatter settlement in nearby Palilula. In 2009, they had been evicted from another settlement in Belgrade.. (Paul Jeffrey)

Because the warming weather arrived with me, the snow started to melt, and I spent a lot of time walking in standing water and mud. Each night I would cook my boots on top of the radiator in order to get them dry for the next day. Yet while my timing was unfortunate for my feet, it served well to see the desperate conditions of Roma settlements. Many Roma families live in homemade dwellings that are pretty meager in the best of times, and the onslaught of snow had collapsed roofs and flooded floors.

A boy pushes a wheel barrow full of snow in a Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, as he helps his family clean up after a deadly cold spell in the Balkans.

Skurta Hodici, 17, cleans up around her home in the wake of a severe winter storm in February 2012. She lived in an illegal Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia. The families that lived here, most of whom survive from recycling cardboard and other materials, were forcibly evicted in April 2012. Many including Hodici were moved into metal shipping containers on the edge of Belgrade. (Paul Jeffrey)

In Smederevo, I walked through the Krivac Roma Settlement, one of the largest in the region, where even though some houses were flooded, the mail was still being delivered.

A postal worker makes his way through the Krivac Roma Settlement in Smederevo, Serbia, one of the largest Roma neighborhoods in the Balkans. Many of the residents here arrived as refugees from Kosovo.

Several families from Krivac had taken refuge in a shelter run by the Serbian Red Cross, with assistance from Church World Service. Life wasn’t too tough, as they had a swing set, and a little snow (or a lot of snow) never stopped a kid from swinging.

A Roma family displaced by a severe cold spell eats a meal in their temporary shelter at the Red Cross in Smederevo, Serbia. Church World Service has provided this and other affected families with food and other emergency supplies. In the photo are (left to right) Gabriela Iseni, 4; Juntena Iseni; Dzustin Stoyanovic, 6; Dzulvidana Iseni; Mirsena Iseni; Elvis Ismailov; and Elmedina Ismailov, 10 months.

Roma children, whose families were displaced by a severe cold spell, play on the swings at a temporary shelter established by the Red Cross in Smederevo, Serbia. Church World Service has provided affected families here with food and other emergency supplies.

In order to show ordinary Roma life, I spent one morning with Bajram Kruezi, a 14-year old who goes to the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families in Belgrade which is supported by Church World Service. I captured him eating breakfast, doing homework, then getting ready for school, his mother smoothing his hair and giving him a kiss, then leaving home, riding the bus, his day in class, and so on. Kruezi’s family are refugees from Kosovo, and thus lack full legal status. That keeps them out of regular schools, so CWS and other agencies sponsor special educational programs.

Bajram Kruezi pours himself coffee as he prepares to leave home in the morning in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia, on his way to the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services. Kruezi wants to be a Muslim religious scholar when he grows up.

Bajram Kruezi does his homework while his family watches television in their home in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia. Kruezi attends the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services. Kruezi wants to be a Muslim religious scholar when he grows up.

Bajram Kruezi's mother, Sabahata, kisses him as he prepares to leave home in the morning in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia, on his way to the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services. Kruezi wants to be a Muslim religious scholar when he grows up.

Bajram Kruezi leaves him home in the morning in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia, on his way to the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services. Kruezi wants to be a Muslim religious scholar when he grows up.

Bajram Kruezi walks through the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia, on his way to the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services. Kruezi wants to be a Muslim religious scholar when he grows up.

Bajram Kruezi rides a city bus on his way to the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families in Belgrade, Serbia, which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services. Kruezi wants to be a Muslim religious scholar when he grows up.

Bajram Kruezi (center) walks in the hallway with other students at the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families in Belgrade, Serbia, which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services.

Bajram Kruezi (center) in class at the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families in Belgrade, Serbia, which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services.

Bajram Kruezi (right) plays a drum as other students dance to traditional Roma music in the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families in Belgrade, Serbia, which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services.

According to one study, less than one quarter of Roma children in Serbia finish elementary school, only 10 percent graduate from high school, and many adults are illiterate. That’s why CWS supports educational work not just with children, but also with adults. Here’s Giltena Duda, a Roma woman in the Zemun Polje Roma settlement in Belgrade, studying for her adult literacy class with the Branko Pesic School, then a couple images of the class. Whoever said learning wasn’t fun?

Giltena Duda studies for her basic literacy class in her home in the Zemun Polje Roma neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia. Ms. Duda is pregnant with her seventh child. She and her husband are Roma refugees from Kosovo, and thus legally marginalized in Serbia. They built their home on unregistered land and pirate their electrical hookup. Without legal residency, their children can't attend a regular school, and they have difficulties getting formal employment. Yet both adults participate in a literacy program sponsored by the Branko Pesic School, where their children attend classes. The school is supported by Church World Service.

Teacher Suzana Aleksic uses a globe to teach geography to participants in a basic literacy class for Roma adults in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia. The program is sponsored by the Branko Pesic School, which is supported by Church World Service. Many of the participants are refugees from Kosovo. Many lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services.

Two participants share a laugh during a basic literacy class for Roma adults in the Zemun Polje neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia. The program is sponsored by the Branko Pesic School, which is supported by Church World Service. Many of the participants are refugees from Kosovo. Many lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services.

Despite their long history of discrimination and repression, or perhaps because of it, Roma culture is irrepressible. I saw that in a variety of settings. Here’s an image of Milan Pesic practicing his horn in his small shack in Belgrade, his children wanting to play as well. He plays in a Roma band. Then some kids in a Roma school taking a moment to dance to a traditional Roma song. Then a group of Roma youth whose anti-discrimination message has taken them to perform in North America and other parts of Europe; they’ll appear at the Lincoln Center in NYC this year. And then the band of a Roma United Methodist congregation in Jabuka. What links these is a Roma musical tradition that cuts across arbitrary national boundaries. Daniel Topalski, the superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Bulgaria, called Roma music “the Esperanto of the Balkans.”

Milan Pesic gets help from one of his children as he practices his french horn inside his home in a Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, in February 2012. Pesic plays in a Roma band. The families that live here, many of whom survive from recycling cardboard and other materials, are under constant threat of eviction in order to make way for new high-rise office buildings. Note: Pesic and other residents of this settlement were forcibly evicted in April 2012, two months after this photo. Many, including Pesic and his family, were relocated in metal shipping containers at the edge of the city.. (Paul Jeffrey)

Students dance to traditional Roma music during a class in the Branko Pesic School, an educational center for Roma children and families in Belgrade, Serbia, which is supported by Church World Service. Kruezi's family came to Belgrade as refugees from Kosovo, and like many Roma can't afford regular school fees. Many Roma also lack legal status in Serbia, and thus have difficulty obtaining formal employment and accessing government services.

Members of the music group GRUBB -  Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats - practice in an abandoned industrial building in Belgrade, Serbia. The group puts a contemporary spin on the rich musical heritage of the persecuted Roma by infusing traditional melodies with hip-hop beats. The group, which has performed in other parts of Europe and in North America, presents a message challenging the prejudice and discrimination facing the Roma of the Balkans..

The church band plays a traditional Roma song outside the United Methodist Roma congregation in Jabuka, Serbia..

I worshipped in Jabuka my penultimate day in Serbia, after several days of participating in a conference of United Methodists who work with Roma throughout Europe. Fascinating group, and I came away with lots of ideas and contacts for a trip back to the region later this year. Stay tuned.

Take a look at a gallery of selected images from this trip, including photos of younger Roma children in school and United Methodist worship services.

8 Responses to Serbia: Roma struggle

  1. alice schrade says:

    you sure do get around. thanks for the photos and commentary.heartwrenching , but they seem irrepressable (sp).community of esperanto? hope?

  2. Bill jersey says:

    Paul, Thanks so much for sharing!! The obvious message of need was transcended fo me by the message of transcendence.— clearly –to me–Love of life transforms what we might see as lacking to a world of Grace and Joy. Thank you Romas.
    BJ

  3. Stephen Smith says:

    As a American Romnichel (English/Irish Roma), thank you for these wonderful photographes that so capture the spirit of my people.
    Stephen

  4. barb and kelly says:

    Hey, Paul, keep up the good work. Very informative. What interesting trips!! They are spunky people. – Barbara

  5. Cheryl Farr says:

    Paul,
    I maintain the website for the Mississippi UMW and am trying to get some information together before the mission studies for the year begin. I would like your permission to use this article and photos on the website.
    Thanks in advance for your consideration!
    Cheryl

  6. Judy Klement says:

    Thanks for all your photos. Do you have any information on/photos of the Roma in Romania? My husband and I will be volunteering at an orphanage there and want to learn all we can to understand something of what the Roma face everyday. I will be sharing what we learn with the UMW at our church here.

    • Paul Jeffrey says:

      Judy, Thanks for your note. Although I have been in Romania, I have not reported on any Roma themes there. I’d suggest you consult the EERC website, and use the search function to read the stories from Romania. That will give you a good introduction to some of the important issues that the Roma there are facing today.

      http://www.errc.org

      Paul

  7. Rev. David Morton says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and capturing the Spirit of the people and their issues. Blessings on your ministry and travels.

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