Andrij Gorvat: The Future of our Society belongs to the Young and Active Roma

Andrij Gorvat

Mukachevo activist, human rights advocate Andrij Gorvat is a prominent representative of the active part of the Roma community. He deals with all painful questions of Roma minorities, not limited to a single group of troubles. Thanks to the work of activists and human rights defenders, as Andrij Gorvat, Roma integration into society become reality.

We met up with Andrij to talk about the most urgent problems of the Roma community, the possible ways of their solution and prospects.

– In Transcarpathian region there are more than 70 national minorities. That’s a lot, especially since the region is small and here live a little more than 1.2 million people. Despite this, do the local authorities often remember about Roma and ways for solve their pressing problems?

– Unfortunately, except for April 8, when we celebrate the International Roma Day, they do not often remember us. On this day, a lot of official meetings are arranged, celebrations and something like this. Reporters shoot subjects. However, it is only one day. In such a short period of time it is impossible to solve all the problems. Another time interval, when we became “important”, is the pre-election race. Then they also promise a lot. This year they even “honored us” by setting the controversial monument to our national minority.

We had high hopes for the President’s strategy for the integration of Roma people into society, which was adopted two years ago. But we have to state, that it was pure declarations. And now the question is on the same stage as it was two years ago, and in some respects has even become worse. City program “Roma people” acted in the 2012-2015 year. It was formed without the participation of the Roma population. But worse is that it did not work. Anything from this program has not been done, and we have evidences for it in the official letters-responses. Roma program for 2015-2018 year is blocked in the city council.

It is clear that now, when in the country there is a serious economic crisis and military conflict, it’s uncomfortable to remind about our problems. However, I must note: anything special for the integration of the Roma population has not been done, during the time, when in the state it was more or less stable. For almost two years in our settlement there has been no water. Previous Ukrainian government, according to EU requirements, adopted a Strategy, but it was difficult to put it in practical sphere, first of all, due to lack of finances. We hope, sooner or later, this process will be launched by the authorities.

– What are the challenges on the way to a better life of Transcarpathian Roma and integration into society, you consider as the most serious?

– They are old, famous and do not change over the years. This is a low level of education among Roma, poverty, lack of identification documents, unemployment, lack of rights before the law enforcement agencies and authorities, anti-Roma attitude and etc.

All these problems are complex and complicated. To overcome them, we need to cooperate with the authorities, law enforcement agencies, educators, doctors, social workers and even the whole society. Of course, much depends on the Roma themselves. In Transcarpathian region registered several dozen of Roma NGOs. Unfortunately, not all are active. The real work demonstrate about 10-15 companies.

That is why we, Romani activists are trying to seek common ground with the authorities to work together to solve problems. But, unfortunately, the current experience with the city council is the negative. We hadn’t solved the problem of water supply in Romani settlement, so we decided to help us by ourselves. But, of course, in the legal field. We have applied to local authority for the creation of the first self-governing body of the Roma community in Ukraine, which the authorities have successfully blocked.

– Many of the Roma problems, are probably due to the fact that it is difficult to determine the exact number of Roma …

– The last census took place in 2001 and since then the picture has changed dramatically. The official number, for example, of Mukachevo Roma – 7000 – is unlikely to correspond to reality. It is also the fact, that many Roma are simply afraid to be called Roma because of the negative attitude towards us. Therefore, they call themselves Ukrainians, Hungarians or Romanians. At that time … they officially counted about 14,000 Roma in Transcarpathian region. Although in reality, according to non-governmental organizations, in Transcarpathian region lived more than 100,000 representatives of the Roma national minority.

The problem lies in the fact that there are still a thousand adults of Transcarpathian Roma, who do not have passports and other identification documents, which means that for the state they do not actually exist. The reasons for this can be more like one: this passivity of the Roma and their characteristic way of life; indifference and hostility from the local authorities, which often simply do not wish to deal with the documents for the Roma. Certification of Roma is considered as the main task for today.

Therefore the active Roma and non-governmental organizations, including the Mukachevo Human Rights Centre Mukachevo, help people to obtain official documents. Through the help of lawyers of the Center more than 150 Roma have received identification documents. Sometimes we had to deal with very complex cases. After all, the local registry offices are unwilling to implement the decisions of the courts to issue documents.

– If there is no birth certificate and passport, you probably do not have to speak about the documents for the construction or real estate?

– Unfortunately, in the Roma environment are very often recorded cases of unauthorized construction. But it happens because people cannot get in the City Council permission for housing. This primarily concerns the Roma living in Mukachevo encampment on the street Franco, Presov Street, in Uzhgorod, on the street Pirogov, Telman, in Radvanka and Shahta. Over the past ten years, areas for individual construction Roma have almost never been issued, or issued in secret and it is unclear to whom. Meanwhile, the city as a whole and the Romani camps grow constantly, because people have to live somewhere. In these circumstances, the Roma have to build housing haphazardly, without regard to the availability of infrastructure. As a result, in areas densely populated by Roma there is NO water and wastewater systems, no roads and a lot of other problems. City officials are not concerned about the issue of improvement of Roma settlements.

For example, two years ago in Uzhgorod was a conflict between the Roma community and the city government through the unauthorized construction. Then people were threatened by depreciation of property due to numerous violations. In particular, in the street Telmann unauthorized construction “climbed” on the roadway. Then, at the request of the authorities, Roma liberated roadway, but by the city authorities, in addition to pressure and intimidation, there was no attempt to somehow resolve the issue.

Roma families are large. The house becomes crowded, and the youth needs to build. But where? Authorities say they do not have enough land in the cities. No problem – let’s work together to find areas in the neighboring villages. Experience of living in multistory houses of Roma showed that they cannot live in the apartments like that, so it is necessary to solve the problem in some other way.

– Low level of education among the Roma of Transcarpathian region is considered to be one of the main obstacles to integration in society. How is that problem being solved?

– This is perhaps the most sensitive issue for both public organizations and for Roma parents and children. As is known, pre-school education is compulsory for kids of 6 years. In fact, places in kindergartens are sorely lacking, and all preschoolers simply do not have the opportunity to attend them. If for most parents it may not be a big problem, because without it they can prepare a child for school, for the under-educated Roma parents is an impossible task. And here begin all further educational challenges. Discrimination that occurs in schools does not contribute to obtaining education.

Of course, we pay great attention to the education of Roma. I, myself was able to go further due to the education, so now I want to help Roma in this way. It is worth to say, that despite all the difficulties, the number of Roma children in kindergartens and schools in the region is gradually increasing.

We have high hopes for the implementation of large-scale certified program “Roma studio” in Uzhgorod. It was created thanks to the financial support of the International “Renaissance” Foundation and is designed to support the culture, language and traditions of the Roma.

– The following problem after education is employment. Many Roma live below the poverty line, because they do not have stable earnings. Is there any progress on this issue?

– Of course, it is also very complex issue with many nuances. In the Soviet era, for example, Transcarpathian Roma mainly worked in factories. And, by the way, they had a reputation of hard-working employees. Therefore, modern statement about them as chronically lazy people – is unfounded.

Roma are often blamed for the fact that they just do not look for a job, but it is not true. According to the situation in Ukraine: it’s hard to find a job for everyone! In addition, we have repeatedly encountered cases of discrimination when Roma come to get a job, and get rejected just because of their ethnicity.

From pleasant, it can be noted, that there are already a lot of Roma involved in own business. Work, as a rule, in the traditional areas for themselves – trade, construction, and there are those who went abroad. Many Roma are engaged in traditional crafts: made spoons, gutters for houses, baskets and brooms. The most popular among the Roma population is the profession of a builder, painter, plasterer, welder, auto mechanic, driver, and, of course, the janitor.

Unfortunately, these positive cases are significantly less than we would like. Therefore, many Roma live below the poverty line. Although, poverty is not inherent in the Roma culture. This is a social factor. Is not a tradition, when Roma dig at dumps in search of something edible. Problems in the state drove many to dump. And not only the Roma.

– And what about the health care in the Roma community in Transcarpathian region?

– Yes, I see progress in the health sector. The situation with tuberculosis among Roma people is declining. With this enormously helped the Fund “Chiricli”, which launched the project in which the Roma were tested for TB. Accordingly, children are born healthier. Romani children are treated in urban health facilities.
But we have an urgent problem that cannot be solved. This is what I mentioned above – the lack of water. That causes many diseases. Therefore, the city authorities have to understand that in the largest Romani settlement in Ukraine, where there is no quality water, the possibility of outbreaks of infectious diseases, will have dire consequences not only for the city.

– I cannot avoid the issue of crime among the Roma. What is the situation in this area?

– According to statistics, the number of crimes, committed by Roma, is small against the overall figures. In my opinion, analyzing certain offenses should be focused the social, rather than national, component.

Recently I myself faced with an unpleasant event. In summer our Mukachevo Roma went to Kharkov to replace his grandfather on the job. But instead he “found” himself in prison. He was charged with assault and robbery. Boy was framed, and there is no one who can help him. It’s Roma; and if you are Roma – you are the offender – as most people think, unfortunately. This prevents an objective assessment and that the most offensive, impartial justice, to which anyone in Ukraine is entitled to.

– Andrij, you have repeatedly stressed that the integration of Roma into society must restore the core of Roma activists, including youth. Where is that core now? Where are the Romani barons that could affect the society?

– Previously, the role of barons in Roma life was really significant. Barons defended people and had responsibility for them. Now, even in the regional center, it is hard to find the person like that. There baron elections are not conducted for over 20 years. In general, this model is already obsolete. Now it is necessary to protect the rights of Roma in government, in the City Council, to keep lawmakers from districts where the Roma constitute a majority, to self-organize.

As I said earlier, we have applied to the Mukachevo City Council with package of documents (application, protocol, lists of streets inhabitants) to create a body of self-organization of the Roma, that will help to solve their problems by themselves. However, it, so to speak, was just “cut down.” Obviously, it is not beneficial for the government to have active Roma, who are able to defend their interests. However, we will not stop and will continue to demand that deputies voted for the creation of a body of self-organization of Roma in Mukachevo.

Believe it or not, but now there are many young Roma with an active position, interested in politics, social processes and who want to work in order to improve the lives of the Roma community.
Transcarpathian Roma participated in Uzhgorod Euromaidan, went to the Maidan in Kiev and helped volunteers.

Currently, about a dozen of Roma are in the East of Ukraine to protect the state integrity of Ukraine, our homeland. There is a progress. But, such positive cases are rare. The important thing is that these people exist. I am convinced that with time they will be able to lead others by them.

Interview recorded by Iryna Myroniuk for Charitable fund “Progress”

PS: The centers of legal information and advice that provide free legal aid to Roma people working with the support of the “Roma of Ukraine“, International “Renaissance” Foundation. To learn more about the activities of a network of centers, foundations and principles of work visit the website under “Legal Empowerment of Roma communities.” The views in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the International “Renaissance” Foundation and other civil, religious and political organizations and individuals.