Grassroots Strategy – Rights Advocates Engage Their Local Community in Bulgaria

Ivan Siderov, founder of NGO Roma-Together, is visiting a Roma family near his village in Bulgaria. By Angel GetsovDespite their age difference, a shared ideal has brought Angel (25) and Ivan (60) together. They believe in a better and more just world for Roma, and that to this end, Roma must work together.

Angel Getsov and Ivan Siderov have worked closely towards this common goal. Lately, their efforts are bearing fruit: Their town in northern Bulgaria has decided to create the municipality's first statutory body for minorities in order to increase their participation in making policy decisions that affect their daily lives.

Angel and Ivan are both Roma, one of the self appellations of a traditionally nomadic people who originated probably in northern India and now live worldwide, and whose members also identify themselves as Gypsies, Sinti or Travellers. They have historically suffered from negative stereotypes and discrimination.

The Roma are not a homogeneous group. In Polski Trambesh , the rural area in northern Bulgaria Angel and Ivan come from, there are three main groups of Roma. Each of them speaks Romani mixed with different languages: Turkish, Bulgarian, and Romanian. And they follow different faiths including Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

Both Angel and Ivan have had their share of poverty and discrimination simply for being Roma. Angel had to stop his law studies in order to make enough money as a carpenter to be able to return to school.

Ivan is no stranger to such ordeals. As a teenager, Ivan had to drop out of school and work to help put food on the table. Only much later could he manage to attend evening school, which helped him secure a better position in a local construction company.

It saddens Ivan to see that almost two generations have gone by, and yet young Angel and many Roma from his marginalized community are still facing the same kind of struggle.

'I was very upset to see fellow Roma struggling for their daily needs and trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and dependency,' says Ivan.

He was determined to do something about the situation. With the help of Angel, who by then was close to finishing law school, Ivan founded a local non-governmental organization, "Roma - Together", in his town.

"Local Roma leaders are best-placed to help their neighbours because they too have experienced the same kind of daily struggles. To break the vicious cycle we Roma must work together,' Ivan says.

"Roma - Together" soon started a government-funded project to train members of the local Roma community, who then help illiterate Roma families cope with administrative necessities, such as filling out forms for social welfare entitlements. They became known as "Roma Mediators", as they also raise discrimination and other issues affecting Roma with the authorities.

The project has gone well; Ivan and Angel want to go further. They believe that this grassroots participatory approach can empower the local Roma community, and make a difference in the long run.

Angel, meanwhile, completed a three-month fellowship with the Minorities Fellowship Programme of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva . From this experience, Angel was inspired to engage OHCHR at the local level.

Angel successfully applied for funding and support from OHCHR, which enabled "Roma Together" to organize a training workshop last December for local Roma representatives.

The workshop aimed to engage and equip the local Roma community in order to translate from rhetoric to reality the 2005-2015 "Decade of Roma Inclusion", as designated by nine countries in Central and Southeastern Europe .

"We can't feel any real changes in our daily lives. Why don't all these elaborated strategies for Roma integration have an impact on our everyday situation?" Such was the kind of frustration repeatedly voiced by local Roma participants during the five-day workshop.

"Reaching out to minority representatives at the grassroots level is very important. It is at this level that real everyday problems are more likely to be solved in a sustainable manner"- explained one of the resource persons at the training, Fiona Blyth-Kubota - Secretary of the Working Group on Minorities, Human Rights Officer of OHCHR.

The idea of establishing a council for minorities was born as a result.

Participants devised a strategy to enhance Roma participation into the official decision-making process, especially in areas where their rights and daily lives are most affected. They all agreed that the Municipal Council should set up a standing body, consisting of local minority representatives, for policy input concerning minority issues.

Ivan is pragmatic. He understands that political support is crucial in order to translate their strategy into reality. Local Roma leaders worked hard on this, and they got it. Both the Mayor and the Head of the Municipal Council of Polski Trambesh supported the creation of this first-ever council, officially called the " Municipality Council on Ethnic and Demographic issues."

Angel is excited to see knowledge and skills he acquired as an OHCHR minority fellow making a difference at .

"International human rights standards are not meant to stay on paper. Local enforcement is the real test to these standards. Being Roma myself, I know grassroots participation is specially needed for the implementation of minorities' rights," Angel says.