* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.One woman's mission to help the Roma, particularly women and children, successfully integrate into Bulgarian society.
Denitsa Mihaylova is the first and, so far, the only woman of Roma origin who works at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She speaks to her 5-year-old daughter Madona like an adult, demanding that she take decisions on her own, including what to order from a menu full of tempting dishes.
Born into a family of Roma musicians, Mihaylova herself was brought up in a family that has always been “both apart from and a part of traditional Roma communities.”
Together with her parents, noted Roma musicians in Bulgaria, Mihaylova travelled the world as a child. In the countries she visited, including Spain and Finland, Roma people are a respected community with its own place in society.
“I call myself a Gypsy despite the connotations this word has in Bulgaria,” Mihaylova explained during lunch in a Sofia restaurant, while her little girl carefully listened to the conversation. None of the people around us would have ever guessed Mihaylova is of Roma origin, unless they know her, but she would always be eager to tell them.
According to a census in 2011, there are 325,343 Gypsies in Bulgaria,or 4.4% of the population. However, according to the United Nations Development Programme in the beginning of the 21st century there are between 700,000 and 800,000 Roma people. Many of them live below the poverty line.
“The integration depends on us as well and we have to have an active role for it to happen. Аs a whole, the community should escape a vicious circle. This holds true for women, children and men. The vicious circle lies in the fact that most families do not let their children go to school because they have no income. Their children wear shabby clothes, many of them drop out or go to school until the second or third grade and then give up because they have to start helping their parents,” she said.
Many people know Mihaylova from her role in the Bulgarian drama series Glass Home, where she played the role of Maya, a Roma girl. The director Dimitar Gochev introduced, for the first time into a Bulgarian drama series, a plotline based on the Roma and the social challenges they face.
As she began her career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, friends advised Mihaylova not to reveal her origins so that “it would be easier for her to advance in her career.” But she made her identity known.
“Somehow I feel the obligation to work more than anyone else; I have this burden on my shoulders – to try to change the stereotypes about us,” she said.
Mihaylova’s family belongs to the Yerli clan – an open-minded Roma community. Other clans, such as the Kalderash, reject the idea of women being educated or working. Firmly against outside influences, girls from the Kalderash clan get engaged at the average age of 15. Mihaylova’s ex-husband is of Kalderash origin and did not want her to have a career at all.
“Women for them are just goods--maybe you’ve heard that they sell them. They marry their relatives at an early age, so that their money stays in the family. I hadn’t known that until I met my daughter’s father. I had no friends in the community. So, it turned out that at one point I was cut off from everything,” she said.
“ I was pregnant with Madona when he completely changed. He became jealous and tyrannical. I wasn’t allowed to lift my eyes from the ground… He must have been like this from the very beginning, but I just couldn’t see it before. You know, when you are in love... I was studying then and had no other choice, but to endure it all until the moment when the opportunity for my current job opened up. My ex-husband is a man of ample means, but he has never helped me, because I didn’t obey,” she said.
Mihaylova struggled to complete her education. She attended lectures with her baby sleeping in a baby basket at her side, as she was afraid someone could take Madona away from her.
The exam for the post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed her life. There were many candidates, but she was the one chosen. She still smiles when recalling this turning point.
Asked about the worst problem facing her community, however, her smile faded.
“Roma people are kept uneducated and dumb for political reasons, namely in order to be used during elections and to be bribed with money. I fully stand behind my words! Roma people are kept uneducated on purpose!,” Mihaylova stressed.
Her words resonated with facts regarding education of the Roma community. It was only in 2009 that the first national program for education of Roma people started.
“However, the aim of the program was too humble,” according to a March 2013 article in Deutsche Welle. “With a budget a little more than 500,000 EUR the program had the goal of reaching hardly 1,200 Roma people,” it said.
Mihaylova has an answer to the question of why such projects, devoted to the Roma integration in Bulgaria, are unsuccessful.
“Unfortunately, the purpose of most Roma parties, or the so called self-proclaimed leaders, is to earn dividends and hold some pro-forma events; to take people’s votes and do nothing,” she said. “They sell Roma people’s votes without having clear demands. Our Roma society needs young people who can change this model of thinking”.
Mihaylova often visits Roma neighborhoods to come into contact with people. What concerns her most is the fate of Roma children.
--Nevena Borisova is a freelance journalist in Bulgaria