It’s like an invisible evil force that takes away people’s jobs, forbids children to go to school, and gives the elderly that menacing cough. Plastic bottles, rotting clothes and rusty cans point the way up the hill towards Fakulteta, the largest Roma neighbourhood in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. At times, the wind blows gauzy, colourful plastic bags into the air. “There’s no coronavirus here”, says Kevin M., a 22-year-old ex-footballer with a faint moustache on his upper-lip, as he leads the way through the unpaved streets with deep puddles between squat little houses.
Fakulteta is home to about 20,000 Roma. When the pandemic began more than a year ago, the media said the Roma would not stick to the rules and spread the virus around the city. Roadblocks were set up at the foot of the hill which leads to the neighbourhood. This cordon was to “protect” the Bulgarians from the virus spreading in the city. The Roma could not go downtown for days – except to the pharmacy. “It was all a lie”, Kevin says. “Fakulteta was never a centre of the pandemic.” Checkpoints were also set up around Roma neighbourhoods in other towns, such as Nova Zagora, Kazanlak, Sliven and Yambol.
Fear of stigma
The fairy tale that the dangerous lung disease was coming from Fakulteta made people in the neighbourhood even more suspicious and fearful. “Shhh”, Kevin M. says when asked who was sick here. “Shhh, it’s a secret. People here worry that if they admit to having the virus, their neighbours will shun them.”
The fear of double stigma and of being scapegoated is great. Silwana M., 38, already lost her job as a cleaner at H&M months ago. She used to earn 300 leva, the equivalent of 150 euros, a month. “The government has not given us a single leva so far”, says the woman with the blond hair, standing in front of her house in the spring sun.
No government aid
Her two adult children, Kirčo and Sevda, have returned because they lost their jobs in Cyprus. Many Roma families have grown again due to the pandemic, because relatives had to return home, but at the same time they lost their income. That’s why many are now getting into debt. Radoslaw Stoyanov of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Sofia says that only those workers who were officially dismissed because of the pandemic can receive state aid or a loan. Many employers, however, are looking for unofficial ways, because otherwise, they will pay for it themselves.
This is because state compensation is only 60 percent. “Many Roma also work in the shadow economy, such as the catering industry, they get no support anyway”, said Stoyanov to Der Standard. In Fakulteta, therefore, often only the family network remains.
20-year-old Petar L., who is sitting on a concrete wall with his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Stefanie, has lost his job in construction. His mother now helps him. He is the only one who wears a mask and warns that the virus is “very dangerous”. Because his grandmother suddenly couldn’t breathe one day. “But when we call the emergency services here, it often takes a long time”, the pale man tells of his experience. “Only the police, they always come immediately to Fakulteta.”
According to the Helsinki Committee, communication between health workers and some Roma communities is very poor. “Ambulances are often late, people don’t get decent treatment, and most Roma women who go to the hospital to give birth are put in separate rooms. They don’t lie next to the Bulgarian women”, the Committee says.
The Roma in Bulgaria were already discriminated against before, but the social impact of the pandemic, especially on education and health, hits them with a new harshness. Thirteen-year-old Sliven, for example, hasn’t been to school at all for a year up on the hill. “I miss everything: the friends, the teachers, the classes”, he says. He does homeschool and has a smartphone, but he finds it hard to concentrate when he’s staring at the small screen from 8am to 2pm. “Apart from that, the internet line keeps breaking down here in Fakulteta”, says the boy, who would like to be a policeman when he grows up. Computers are few and far between in the neighbourhood.
No room to study
The children also have little space to study in peace. Bulgarians have an average of 23 square metres of living space per person, while the Roma have 11. Furthermore, 50 percent of the students in special schools belong to the minority.
60 percent of Roma children are taught in so-called “Roma schools”, according to a survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. If Roma are admitted to another school, Bulgarian parents often remove their children from the educational institution. The phenomenon is called “white flight” in Bulgaria. But in eastern Europe there is no “Roma Lives Matter” movement against discrimination.
Lack of education about the virus
In Fakulteta, poor internet connections in online classes and the lack of computers are currently leaving children even more disconnected than they already were. Almost half of the houses inhabited by Roma in the Balkan state are not even hooked up to a sewage system. The percentage of police violence against Roma is higher than average, and Roma huts are repeatedly demolished. Even during the pandemic, this happens, people end up on the streets.
Many Roma have retreated even more into a parallel world because of the pandemic. Nobody in Fakulteta wants to be vaccinated. Most people are afraid of the vaccines. There is both a lack of trust in the health system and education about the virus. Meanwhile, the evangelical free churches are booming. Kevin posted a photo on Facebook showing Christ surrounded by children of various skin colours. “We don’t believe in the coronavirus here”, he says. “We believe in Jesus.”