Roma Leaders, The End of Roma People

Blaming Roma or pretending to understand the issues surrounding this subject, only based on the “five o’clock news” is not only outrages, but takes attention away from those truly culpable for the current situation. As long as the future of the Roma people depends primarily on informal leaders and political organisations or NGO’s “managed” by Roma people, the future of the Roma is darker than their own skin.

In my three years of social activism on behalf of the Roma people I have encountered many stories supporting the above affirmation. Today I will share with you just one.

In 2012, for the first time since I started documenting the plight of the Roma people in Romania, one of the major Roma NGOs in Romania asked me if I could make a video documentary about discrimination against Roma in access to healthcare.

I was already contemplating the idea of working on a photographic documentary so this project resonated with me immediately. Unlike 99.9% of the Romanians, Roma ethnics included, instead of accepting to do something that is nor normally my specialty (I am a photographer first and foremost, not a videographer), I declined the offer and I recommended instead Kolectiv, the best professionals I knew, who are more than capable of delivering such a material. But I decided to accompany Kolectiv, doing my own photo project as they were working on their video documentary.

From the moment I introduced Kolectiv to the NGO until the two actually started working together, the NGO acted in such unprofessional way we all wondered if it wouldn’t be better to just abandon the idea of doing this documentary altogether. But this is not about lack of communication skills or missed deadlines. I am here to talk to you about something worse: the lack of involvement in communities.

NGOs have long lost contact with the people they are supposed to represent. And saying that assumes they ever had it, which I strongly doubt.

I first realised that when I was in Baia Mare working on behalf of the Roma there, standing against a racist mayor all by myself, with no help from Roma NGOs. For those that don’t know who I am talking about: The Baia Mare mayor is infamous for turning a social housing complex into a ghetto by building a wall around it and forcibly evicting informal Roma settlements to a toxic site during elections season. An official representing the governmental National Agency for Roma praised these actions as “help” for the Roma people, and suggested that similar mayors should be installed in all major Romanian cities.

The Roma NGOs were no better than the government. Despite the notoriety of the case in the press, I had to call Roma NGO leaders myself to ask them to send someone to Baia Mare to provide legal assistance to those in need. They eventually sent two people who stayed in Baia Mare for less than 24 hours. I personally took the NGO representatives to everyone affected by the toxic chemicals. They took statements and promised litigation support. But because the NGOs made no further contacts with the local Roma, the victims, caught between the loan sharks and the mayor, decided to withdraw their complaints.

Later, when things calmed down, other corrupt Roma leaders and Roma government advisers visited Baia Mare and stated that there was no case of discrimination in Baia Mare.

It was a bitter experience but I thought, I wished it was an isolated incident.

Back to the health care documentary: For the first leg of the project we were supposed to Targu Jiu, Marza and Vartop. The only thing the NGO had to do in preparing this journey was to identify cases of Roma people that where discriminated and denied access to healthcare based on their ethnicity. Not only could we not find anyone who was even slightly dissatisfied with their doctor, but also, in most cases we encountered in these communities, people loved their doctors. Aside from not having a clinic in their own village, they couldn’t give real examples of discrimination.

Just to be clear: I am not saying such cases don’t exist. I have often encountered stories of discrimination in access to healthcare in the course of my own work. I am just saying that the NGO who sent us had no idea about what was going on in the communities they themselves sent us to. And it was not possible to do a documentary about discrimination for a client, an NGO allegedly fighting against discrimination, who is incapable of providing concrete examples.

We went home extremely disappointed. We wasted our time. The NGO wasted their money. They didn’t seem to care. I care, because I wasted my own money.

For the second leg we were supposed to visit several communities in Moldavia. To avoid another embarrassing situation, we asked the NGO to properly prepare for this visit, to identify and confirm real cases of discrimination.

The first community we visited was in Buhusi, near Bacau. Not only were there no complains against the doctor, but the doctor in Buhusi already implemented the electronic prescriptions system, benefiting the whole community, including the Roma. The only dubious thing I could find was a public bath for the Roma “colony” meant to “introduce” the community to water and rationalized soap. While I didn’t fancy the idea, the Roma people working for the NGO and other local Roma officials were very happy with the concept.

Poiana Negustorului was the last community I visited. Same story again. Not even the slightest trace of discrimination. The village was accessible only by means of an unpaved 6km road. On our way out, one of the NGO representatives tried to say that this is a case suitable for our story, because of the issue of the physical access to the village. In my opinion, knowing for a fact that there are many Roma and non-Roma communities in Romania with a far worst access than that, I doubt that an argument specific to Roma can be made in such cases. There are many Romanian citizens, both Roma and non-Roma, who find themselves in this situation.

After this last experience I decided to part with the team so I didn’t visit the last location. Ironically, according to my friends, in this last location they found a racist doctor and they interviewed people that confirmed that they were discriminated.

Like I said, I know for a fact that such cases exist. But this is not my point. My point is that an NGO send us halfway around the country to look for cases in communities they knew nothing about. The case the finally found was found by sheer luck. Knowledge or understanding of the situation on the ground has nothing to do with it.

Too busy to spend EU funds, Roma NGOs have long lost contact with local communities. This is why the moment of redemption for the poor Roma people and for us all is not even in sight.

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