I don’t know how I feel about articles like these. They certainly paint a picture of life for Roma in many European countries. It’s a reality, however, that is also becoming a stereotype. Everyday I feel incredibly grateful for the things that I have. Some things didn’t come easily, other things had to be sacrificed so that I could get to where I am. But, right now I have heat and food and a roof over my head (even if it’s not ‘my’ roof)…. I also have a job and an education and access to healthcare (albeit limited). I am blessed and I know it. Some people say that because I am privileged in these ways I can no longer help my brothers and sisters; as though being poor and uneducated would give me the ability to do so.
Are such reports necessary? Probably
But, when does poverty porn journalism become pragmatic application?
A three-year-old girl is playing with a hammer outdoors, barely holding it in her little hand. It is mid-November, but she is wearing a light summer dress – here, at the Gypsy camp in a Kyiv dormitory suburb, children have neither toys nor clothes. The younger kids play with all kinds of household things, while the older ones collect scrap metal together with their parents.
The camp we are looking for is in Berezniaky, a concrete jungle of sorts. We first walk past a row of same-looking highrises, then turn a corner, and find ourselves in a totally different reality. One-storey houses with small adjacent vegetable gardens, no traffic noise… A village in a city… There are a lot of trees here. You can rake in the fallen leaves with your feet, as you did in childhood. The only thing that mars a beautiful rural landscape is heaps of garbage. Garbage is all over the place here.
This is not the first time we are in this place – we were here one and a half years ago, immediately after some unknown people had burned down the Roma camp. We were invited to come again, which we eventually did. In June, after the arson, the Gypsies left the place for Transcarpathia. They have come back now, for it is even more difficult to earn a living in the homeland than in Kyiv.
We notice two children from afar. A girl of nine or so is carrying two five-liter bottles of water.
Running after her is a very small boy who wears a T-shirt of the size he will reach in ten years’ time. They accompany us to the camp.
The camp is located in a waste ground. There is a fast highway on the one side and industrial structures on the other. The closer we approach, the more people come to meet us – men, women, and children. Very many children…
Yosyf is 21. He says in Russian that he “is even ashamed to say what he used to do before,” but then he decided to change everything.
“How are you going to winter here?” we ask, looking at rickety makeshift wooden structures that serve as homes.
“There is a potbelly stove in each of our houses. But it would be better if we had more blankets. Please come in and see,” they invite us.
Yosyf made his house of old wood boards covered with cellophane. The structure is not more than two and a half meters wide. In the middle stands a “bed,” – also made of boards and covered with blankets. It occupies almost the whole space. In the corner next to the entrance, there is a potbelly stove which makes the room stuffy and hard to breathe in. Families with 5 to 6 children live in “houses” like this. It is neat, clean, and even cozy here. The camp’s men earn a living by collecting scrap metal.
“There is one more camp here – a little farther on. If you like, I’ll take you there.”
It is not a long way to go – about 30 or 50 meters. We are followed by a covey of kids, and children from the other camp come running towards us. A girl of about seven is carrying a small boy on her arms. “What’s his name,” we ask. “I don’t know,” she answers and runs on after the other children. This camp is a little larger than the first one. We are approached by an imposing man aged about 50. He introduces himself as local baron, i.e., the boss. His name is Vitalii.
“How many people are there in your camp?” we ask. “Men only or all together?” Vitalii asks in turn and says, after a second’s pause: “Lots of, about 40 or 50.”
“Why do you live in two camps?” “They are Hungarian,” he points his hand to where we came from, “and we are Ukrainian. We are different, but we live in peace.” Vitalii says there used to be a third camp here. But the Gypsies who lived there were heavy drinkers, so the other joined forces and drove them away.
Some women come up to us. Long skirts, tired faces…
“My name is Zulfia. And this is my daughter Jasmine.” They all want to meet and tell us about themselves.
“And where is your husband?” we ask. “There’s no husband, he is dead. I have three children, but my husband has died, and I don’t want another one.” “Do your children go to school?” “What school? When we lived at home [in Transcarpathia. – Ed.], they did, but here they don’t.”
Some children do not understand Russian, let alone Ukrainian. “We speak Hungarian here, for we are Hungarians. But it is easy to learn our language. There was a Ukrainian who lived with us – he knew and understood everything in a year’s time,” Yosyf explains.
“The police are still visiting us. They demand that every house pay 50 hryvnias, and if we don’t give, they take us away and beat up until our women bring the money,” Kolia says. He is seeing us off the camp, asks us to photograph him and his children, and shows scars on his belly. “Please try to persuade them not to bother us so much,” he requests as we leave.
Zola KONDUR, Vice-President, Chiricli Foundation; Adviser, European Roma Rights Centre:
“There are no other camps in Kyiv, which resemble the one in Berezniaky. There are some elsewhere in the region. It is wrong to claim, as some TV programs did, including TSN on November 12, that ‘Roma have seized Kyiv.’ A small number of Roma, 200-300, has now come to Kyiv. In reality, there are Roma in Kyiv, who have lived here in apartments and houses for a long time. They do not live densely and, therefore, are not conspicuous.
“Today, the Roma organizations are making a joint effort to help the Berezniaky camp. We help draw up documents and study the needs of the people who live in the camp. We are worried very much that these people turned out to be socially unprotected – on the eve of the winter to boot. The Roma still remain outside all governmental programs. Nobody cares about their socioeconomic problems. But there is also good news: the Cabinet of Ministers is discussing and I hope will approve the National Roma Strategy.”