interview by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Denitsa Mihaylova, a professional Roma woman, shatters the clichés about the underdogs of Bulgarian society

Denitsa Mihaylova.jpg

"And what's your view on France expelling Bulgarian Gypsies?" Denitsa Mihaylova asked 15 minutes after we had been introduced at a cocktail party. Immediately she added, "You see, I'm asking this because I'm Gypsy myself."

At first, you'd never guess. Denitsa wears business suits, works at the consular department of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry, holds a BA in economics and is writing a master's thesis that deals with the problems of Gypsy integration. She is 25 and has a four-year-old daughter.

If the 2001 census is to be trusted, there are 370,000 Gypsies or, as they are otherwise known, Roma in Bulgaria. Most live in Third World conditions and many are illiterate – 12.7 percent have never attended school, compared to just 3.5 percent of Turks and 0.4 percent of Bulgarians. A mere 7 percent of Gypsies have secondary or higher education, which explains the higher rate of unemployment among them as an ethnic group, which some statistics show to be up to 90 percent in certain locations. The child mortality rate among Gypsies is higher than average, and life expectancy shorter. The crime rate is statistically unproven, but lawbreaking is perceived to be more widespread among them and consists chiefly of pickpocketing and begging in urban areas, and pilfering farm produce and robbing houses in the countryside. Stealing metal wires and cables, and prostitution are widespread.

Gypsies seen to be making a living from work are usually employed by municipal waste disposal companies.

This backdrop makes Denitsa Mihaylova's a curious case. She is the first Gypsy woman to work for the Foreign Ministry. "There are two other people like me at other ministries, but they are older," she says. She won her post after a competition set up by the former deputy foreign minister Radion Popov, who thought that it would be a good thing if there was a young Roma working for the ministry.

Of course, Denitsa is by no means the only young, educated Gypsy. Most of the Gypsies who share her status, however, prefer to hide their origin for fear of discrimination. Denitsa is not only open about her ethnicity but even prefers to be called Gypsy instead of Roma. "Around the world, the traditional designation for our ethnicity is Gypsy, and it is incorrect to perceive the word as discriminatory. After all, will the Gypsy problem get solved if the people are called Roma?" she asks. "We young, educated and integrated Gypsies are the good example that will gradually uproot the prejudice that has for decades been piling up against us."

So far she hasn't fallen victim to discrimination. "Luckily, the environment I grew up in and the upbringing I have received have protected me," Denitsa says.

But while at high school – she attended Sofia's best economics secondary education institution – she chose to keep silent about her origin while her mother didn't even attend parent teacher association meetings. Denitsa's class advisor learnt that the girl was Gypsy shortly before the prom. The reason for this kind of secrecy was that there were "skinheads" among the students. When finally their "leader" learnt about Denitsa's ethnicity, he sort of "took her under his wing" – perhaps because he knew from his best buddy, who happened to be Denitsa's boyfriend.

Denitsa doesn't deny that some Gypsies cause problems and can be dangerous. "I for one would never go to Fakulteto: it's Abyssinia there," she says, referring to Sofia's most notorious Gypsy quarter. The name often appears on the crime news because of brawls or riots which erupt when the electricity supply is cut off as a result of overdue bills, as well as at election times when vote-selling is rampant.

It's several weeks after my first meeting with Denitsa and we are travelling to one of Sofia's Gypsy quarters (not Fakulteto). It's near Sofia Airport, and you may have passed through it when Brussels Blvd, the main thoroughfare in this part of Sofia, was being repaired. Denitsa did not grow up here, but it is where her elder sister lives with her husband and their three children and runs a hairdressing shop.

The quarter is definitely better than Fakulteto, but the abundance of small houses is an indication that the residents are mainly poor people. Most of the dwellings have no connection to the central sewerage system.

Denitsa's sister's house is new, with a lawn where, in the summer, the family set up a small pool. The living room has new furniture and the coffee table is laden with tea, fruit, nuts and juices. Denitsa's mother, Asiba Kemalova, is sitting close by.

The family are Yerlii, one of the three largest Gypsy groups in Bulgaria. They are believed to have been the first Roma to arrive in these lands, between the 13th and the 18th centuries. Unlike the rest, they abandoned the nomadic life generations ago.

Asiba Kemalova and her husband, Ivo Barev, Denitsa's father, were both singers and are now retired. Asiba was 13 years old when she made her first professional radio recording, and she went on to become a performer of Russian romances. Jointly with her husband (the couple are now divorced) she used to work with Ivo "Ibryama" Papazov and made recordings for Radio Sofia, Radio Plovdiv and Radio Stara Zagora. She toured in the former East bloc, but also in America. Eventually problems with her vocal cords put an end to her career.

None of their three children took up music, however: Denitsa's sister is a hair stylist and their brother graduated from a cooking school. Their mother is proud with her children. "All my children work what they studied for," she says. Her hope is that perhaps the next generation might have her talent in them: one of her granddaughters is a rising pop-folk star, and Denitsa's daughter has joined a popular children's singing group.

Denitsa's family has been integrated for generations. Her maternal great-grandfather, Yashar Saliev, used to be court blacksmith to the Bulgarian kings Ferdinand and Boris III. All the children in the family have received a secondary education.

Education is the greatest stumbling block to Gypsies' integration. Most of the Gypsy children attend segregated schools, where the quality of teaching is below the national standard. Gypsies are sometimes discriminated against in mixed-ethnicity schools. An example is the case of two primary school teachers in Pazardzhik who resigned their posts last autumn when they learnt that the classes they were meant to teach included Roma.

On the other hand, many Gypsies opt out of the education system. Parents refuse to send their children to school because they lack the means to buy them textbooks, clothing or food, or because they prefer to send them "to work," which may mean anything from low-skilled work in the construction industry to begging.

"I think no genuine resistance is being put up against integration," Denitsa says. "Rather, some Gypsies are too closely bound to their traditions and are determined to preserve the authenticity of the community, which stipulates stringent rules of conduct."

In the Gypsy neighbourhood near the Sofia Airport

In the Gypsy neighbourhood near the Sofia Airport

In the years of Socialism Gypsies used to receive poor-quality, predominantly vocational education at segregated schools; after graduation their employment was guaranteed but invariably low paid. After 1989 the collapse of the economy left most of them jobless. Some were able to take up their old vocations, while others emigrated. Still others have never held a job since and have been living on social and child benefits.

The political parties that promised to work for the benefit of the Gypsies quickly lost their credibility by becoming organisations dedicated exclusively to personal enrichment of their leaders. In 2000 Tsvetelin Kanchev, the leader of the Evroroma political party, was given a prison sentence for battery and abduction. He was later paroled and took up the leadership of the party again. "I don't want to cite the names of either parties or people, but since 1989 Gypsies have been persistently oppressed by these self-styled leaders, who use the misery of the rank-and-file to serve their own interests," Denitsa says.

The nongovernmental sector also shares in this notoriety. There is an unspecified but considerable number of foundations that claim to be promoting the integration of Gypsies but, as Denitsa testifies, most of what they do is a travesty of integration: "In most cases a token amount of the allotted funds is distributed in the Gypsy neighbourhoods, always in the presence of the media, so that greater publicity is ensured. Another way is by arranging fictitious professional training courses that "account" for the money, so that donors can see that some integration work was done. The money is appropriated high up, while the Roma are given the dregs."

Denitsa thinks that part of the problem lies in poor control and in the fact that there are no Gypsy public servants to work for their political and social inclusion. Again, the decisive factor is poor education. "The lack of schooling and the privations they suffer are convenient tools for manipulating the Gypsies," Denitsa says. "Since Bulgarian Liberation in 1878, successive governments have approached the Gypsy problem expediently, with the sole purpose of garnering votes. The absence of an adequate education policy automatically dooms the Gypsies to unemployment, poverty and poor health. Of course there are people among them who break the law. But is there an ethnic group that's immune to that?"

However, no grassroots Gypsy organisation has sprung up so far. Why? "In the 'ghetto,' I know many young and educated Gypsies who, even if they have the desire and the courage to unite, lack the means, the connections and the financial support that such an organisation needs to operate," Denitsa Mihaylova says.

She is not optimistic in the short term. "The problem can be solved, but it is a long process that requires joint efforts. Full integration is possible only when both the government and the EU give Gypsies an opportunity to start solving their problems on their own."


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