In Belgrade, Serbia there is a community that has been forgotten and left behind by most of society: the Roma community. People living within Belgrade city limits may only know the Roma children who often spend countless hours working on the streets to support their families. Due to a history of discrimination and exclusion, Roma families have been forced to live in a vicious, multi-generational cycle of poverty. With our partner, the Center for Youth Integration, we are working to break this cycle, create new paths and give Roma people the place they deserve in Serbian society.
We recently met Bojana, a Roma woman in Belgrade. With support from CYI, Bojana has tackled many barriers and is actively creating a better future for her six children and grandson. Bojana and her family of 10 live in a small one-bedroom home in an informal Roma settlement where families often don’t have proper access to electricity, heating or running water. Bojana and her husband built the home using abandoned materials they have found throughout the years. We asked Bojana about access to electricity. She told us that the government has been shutting it off more often than usual and she fears that the settlement, along with the home she has built, could be demolished at any moment. She said, “life in the settlement is catastrophic.”
For Bojana, this life of hardship and uncertainty is all she has ever known. Regardless, she is determined to make sure her children’s lives are different than hers. All of Bojana’s children between the ages of 5-15 (the age requirements of the shelter) are daily attendants of CYI’s drop-in shelter. At the shelter, her children can access health and psychosocial resources, free meals and clothing, access to a shower, and a washer and dryer for their clothes. They can also receive help with their homework and additional education support. For Roma children whose daily lives have been disrupted by their living conditions, the shelter gives them the opportunity to have a safe space and supportive community.
Like many other Roma families, Bojana’s family makes a living by collecting and selling trash/recyclables. This type of work, however, would normally only produce around $140/month even if they worked every single day that month. Fortunately, Bojana’s husband has a job as a sanitation worker, and the two have discovered ways to become more financially stable through the support they receive from CYI. Bojana explained, “Before my children were coming here, all the money we were making from collecting recyclables was going towards things like buying food for the children. Now it’s different because the children can get food and other things they need from the shelter. We don’t need to spend the money we earned on these kinds of things.”
When we spoke with Bojana’s 14-year-old daughter, Elena, she told us she has been going to the shelter every day (including weekends!) for the past four or five years. Elena told us that the biggest challenge of living at the settlement for her is not having her own room. At the drop-in shelter, however, Elena is able to enjoy a clean and comfortable space where she can hang out with her friends, take a shower and get help with her schoolwork. Thanks to the support of CYI, Elena has stayed in school and is looking forward to having more opportunities in the future. She told us, “My plan is to enroll in vocational high school and my wish is to become a hair stylist or makeup artist.”
For Bojana, who as a child did not have access to support like the one her children have now, the ability to follow her dreams was not an option. Through her profound love for her family, however, Bojana has given her own children the childhood she never had while also building a path for them to have a better future.
See more photos of Bojana and her family in the gallery below!