The cold war era high rises cast a long shadow behind us as we trudge along the muddy lane to the settlement. It’s been an unseasonably warm winter, so the ground is still wet from the floods from several months ago. It’s passable–if you dodge the puddles. Both sides of the lane are covered with so much trash. Plastic recyclable bottles, computer parts, plumbing pieces. The dogs lead us around the bend in the lane, where the houses are.
We are in one of many informal settlements of Roma in Serbia. This particular settlement sits on a swath of public land in New Belgrade, and the houses are ramshackle shacks made of wood, plastic, metal and other materials, gathered from God-knows-where and assembled God-knows-how. It’s not unlike other informal settlements I’ve visited–Somali migrant workers in Soweto, South Africa, Kibera in Nairobi, earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, casteless families in alleys in Kolkata, India or farmworkers in Central America. The smell of burnt wood and garbage–a migrant’s central heat– is the same.
We are invited into one of the houses. The dogs, excited by the company, jump at us, the three-legged one cautiously.
The inside of the shack was immaculate, held together by a mix and match collection of floor rugs, some furniture and a spiderweb of extension cords that kept the TV and other devices plugged in.
The mother speaks to us in Serbian. Her daughter, a teenager who switches off between texting (of course!) and writing in a little note pad, smiles radiantly from the couch. Her son, who has a heart condition, lays on a little mattress, playing with a long rod, or stick, or something, running it against the thrown-together wall of the house. The mother speaks more frantically now, and Jovana Savic, CWS Communication and Program Manager, tells me their story.
Unlike many of the families who live in this community, this family had a house, somewhere outside of Belgrade. They moved to Belgrade to be closer to quality medical care, and having no connections or family in the city proper, found room and some semblance of a network in the informal settlement. When the floods hit the Balkans in late 2014, not only were they impacted in this new community, but their home was lost as well. They’ve received some help, and there may be more on the way, but the weight of devastation is heavy in this little house.
The Roma are, arguably, the most marginalized group of people across Europe. Low literacy rates, low skills, vast prejudice and generations of social ostracism and outright persecution have led to limited economic opportunity. Much of this community sustains itself through collection of recyclable goods from trash containers, as well as more creative scavenging.
It’s a hard life, often complicated–many of the families from the settlement are in other parts of Europe, eking out a living until their documentation requires them to return. Even more than complicated, it’s dangerous. I’m reminded of that as we walk over the charred remains of what was once a house.
“Two babies died in this fire,” a colleague tells me. “Happens all the time.”
The broad goal of the CWS Roma program is to promote Roma social and economic empowerment through education and livelihood opportunities. By supporting preparatory pre-school and inclusive education programs, small grants and adult education initiatives, vulnerable groups of children and adults have access to education, with special emphasis on women and girls to address their needs and improve work opportunities for them.
Which is why, not even a mile from the entrance to the settlement, set on the far edge of cluster of high-rises, CWS has partnered with a local NGO, ALFA, to support an effort to make life a lot less dangerous, and a little less complicated. In a nearby apartment building, we make our way to first floor classrooms, one of which is abuzz with children coloring. Another is packed with adult learners, many of whom are learning to read for the first time. When I ask the class about their favorite subject, a woman in her fifties begins to talk about volcanos. She had no idea–until today!–that there was lava beneath our feet. She is so glad to have the opportunity to learn.
The apartment building, made up of “social flats,” is funded by the Serbian government and charges its tenants no rent. Residents are responsible for their utilities and other expenses, which can be a challenge. The classes not only cater to the residents of the flats, but also to those in the informal settlement. In fact, during our visit to the informal settlement, a parent tells one of my colleagues that he has a couple of children he would like to enroll.
We spend a little bit of time in the apartment of Ljubinka, the woman who was so excited to learn about lava. She tells us about the transition from informal settlement to social flat. What it was like to have no protection from the wind or flooding. What it was like to be cold.
Now, she tells us, she has this paradise. A compact, one bedroom paradise. Her husband sits and watches television while we talk.
On our way out, we discuss the difficult logistical issues involved in getting folks from informal settlements into the social flats. One must have proof of residency in Belgrade to qualify for the subsidized flats, and like so many migrants worldwide, the informal settlements are made up of people who come to the city from smaller towns and rural areas, looking for work or even, as we saw, closer proximity to health care. The men, women, and children are, thanks to the outreach being done, taking advantage of the classes offered in the social flats’ classrooms, but the path from shack to apartment is even longer than the trash strewn mud road suggests.
There are other things, too. Residents of other high-rises aren’t so happy with their Roma neighbors. Borislav Djurkovic, a member of the ALFA team who previously worked in the neighborhood as part of the Serbian government’s outreach to the Roma community, explained:
“They resent the social flats. They say that the people are dirty, that they leave trash around. And they certainly don’t like this.”
He gestured toward a mongrel of a vehicle coming across the parking lot. A pull cart with added front wheels, powered by what looked like a lawnmower or rota-tiller engine and a steering wheel. It looked like something out of Mad Max, and it both sputtered and thundered its way across the parking lot to a set of garbage cans.
Three young men hopped out and started digging for something they could sell, redeem, trade.
Time to go to work.
Brandon Gilvin is currently serving as a Program Development Consultant with Church World Service. An Ordained Minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he previously served as Associate Director of Week of Compassion, as a local church pastor, and in ecumenical ministries in Africa and North America. A version of this originally appeared on his blog,everydayheresy.wordpress.com, where he writes in a number of genres.