Exchange visit to Bulgaria

Empowering communities: ERGO Network exchange visit to Bulgaria

From May 14 to 17 2024, representatives from ERGO Network Secretariat and several members gathered in Bulgaria for an enriching exchange visit to Integro Association. The visit aimed to foster understanding, share best practices, and strengthen ties among organizations dedicated to Roma empowerment and anti-racism efforts.

Learning more about Integro Association

The Integro Association emerged organically in 1997 during a period of hyperinflation, when Roma communities were facing starvation. Desperate for help, they turned to Lili, a local doctor, to assist them in accessing social support and advocating for land to practice agriculture. From its inception, Integro identified antigypsyism as the root cause of the dire living conditions faced by Roma communities.

Since then Integro has become a key player in shaping public discourse on Roma issues in Bulgaria. The association is a coalition of various small organisations, with 10 NGOs currently represented on its Board. Despite the challenges of limited funding and leadership at the grassroots level, exacerbated by the emigration of many capable Roma, Integro has built a robust network of NGOs and alliances.

The Board is composed entirely of Roma members, reflecting Integro’s commitment to representation. The core team consists of six permanent employees and approximately 15 mentors, community workers, and facilitators. Hiring Roma staff is crucial, as community members are more likely to trust and follow those who share their backgrounds and experiences. Roma involvement in needs assessment is a fundamental aspect of Integro’s approach.

Discussion: the ROMACT program of the CoE and its impact in Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechia.

Integro’s mission centres on empowering Roma communities and fostering community leadership, with a strong emphasis on securing the commitment of local authorities. The association is dedicated to combating antigypsyism, celebrating Roma culture, and eradicating poverty.

Their projects and activities span a wide range of initiatives aimed at community empowerment and youth development. They run awareness campaigns to support Roma empowerment and manage the ROMACT Programme, which enhances financial literacy and involves local budget processes. They advocate for basic income guarantees and strive to improve access to secondary education. School debate clubs and job opportunities for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) are also part of their comprehensive strategy.

Integro actively engages in advocacy with both local and national authorities, leading campaigns to reduce prejudices and diligently monitoring and reporting hate speech. They conduct extensive research, produce case studies, and provide policy analyses and recommendations. Additionally, they offer training and consultation services, all aimed at building a more inclusive and equitable society for Roma communities.

Did you know that Integro also was one of the founding members of ERGO Network?

Isperihovo’s Transformation: A testament to effective local governance

Isperihovo, a municipality with 2,500 residents — half of whom are Roma — has undergone significant transformations under the leadership of its long-serving mayor. Now in his 13th year and third term, the mayor has spearheaded a series of initiatives aimed at improving infrastructure and services critical to the community’s well-being.

Under his mandate, families now have access to water and water meters, facilitated by an innovative payment plan with the water company to prevent outstanding balances. This development was paired with the introduction of a sewage system, ensuring that homes now have internal plumbing.

Roads throughout the village have been significantly upgraded, with almost all of them asphalted or concreted, including reinforced concrete for durability. Public lighting for streets has also been installed, funded by the ROMACT Programme, enhancing safety and visibility at night. Gas, however, remains unaffordable for many households.

Monthly visits from publicly funded social workers help residents access social protection services without the need to travel. There are 140 recipients of social protection in the village, illustrating the critical support system in place.

Educational support is robust, with mediators available for both kindergarten and primary school. The primary school serves 140 children (mostly Roma), as the Bulgarian residents in the village are primarily seniors without school-aged children.

Healthcare access has also been a priority. Every resident has a medical practitioner and a dentist, supplemented by regular visits from specialists including cardiologists, internists, and physiotherapists. However, many Roma remain uncovered by health insurance, particularly those working in the informal economy. This gap is not only financial but also reflects a broader issue of trust.

In a bid to support self-sufficiency, Roma families have been allocated land to farm and produce vegetables. The mayor has emphasised a pragmatic approach to problem-solving, finding alternative solutions where standard ones were unattainable. This includes using concrete instead of asphalt, extending water pipes to illegally built houses, and ensuring regular visits from social workers.

The community has now requested the installation of public surveillance to reduce crime, including drug abuse, reflecting a proactive stance towards maintaining and enhancing the safety and security of Isperihovo’s residents. This comprehensive approach highlights the village as a model of community-led improvement and resilience.

Empowering Peshtera: A Model of Roma Community Leadership

In Peshtera, a town of 20,000 residents with a substantial Roma population of 8,000, the Integro Association has made significant strides by investing in local community leaders through empowerment seminars and other initiatives. A pivotal figure in this effort is Mr Yuksel, a highly effective community organiser whose mobilisation efforts began in 2007 in response to discrimination. At that time, Roma were barred from entering restaurants and bars in Peshtera and the nearby town of Orešak, prompting a wave of self-organisation that led to the formation of Community Councils.

The momentum gained from these efforts culminated in a historic achievement: the election of the first Roma representatives to the city council, with three Roma councillors among the 21-member council. This breakthrough facilitated several key advancements:

  • A new city ordinance was enacted, prohibiting all forms of discrimination in public spaces and penalizing violations.
    The municipality established three new positions for Roma specialists, who act as mediators and facilitators between the Roma community and local authorities.
  • A landmark case was taken to the International Human Rights Court in Strasbourg regarding the demolition of illegally built Roma houses, resulting in municipal investment in infrastructure for Roma-inhabited areas.

Since then, the regional administration has organised biannual roundtables involving stakeholders and Roma community members to discuss local budgeting processes and other issues. These efforts have attracted substantial investment, and the Fund Peshtera was established with 2.5 mln euros from the Trust for Social Achievements to address the housing needs of Roma. The presence of three Roma councillors and regular engagement with the mayor at the community centre highlights the ongoing commitment to inclusive governance.

Incorporating Roma into the Local Development Strategy was a challenging endeavor, but ultimately successful. Local Roma received training on how to participate in budget processes and monitor the strategy’s implementation. The community council plays a crucial role in deciding land allocations, prioritizing individuals with stable incomes—either from abroad or within Bulgaria—and those from overcrowded households. This approach not only addresses immediate housing needs but also generates income that can be reinvested into further infrastructure improvements.

Supporting Early Childhood Education: The Mothers’ Centres in Litakovo

During our visit to Litakovo and Skravena, the mayor of Litakovo warmly welcomed us in the village home to 1,850 residents. The village boasts a kindergarten for children aged four to seven, and the recently established mothers’ centre plays a crucial role in preparing Roma children for this educational milestone.

Many Roma in the area live in challenging conditions, often relying on seasonal work such as mushroom or blueberry picking. Educational attainment is low, and basic amenities like showers and washing machines are often absent. Recognizing these hardships, Integro has supported Julian, a local Roma community facilitator, in developing his leadership skills. Julian now coordinates the Mothers’ Centre project, funded by EEA and Norway grants, which facilitated the construction and initial operations of these essential facilities across three villages.

The mothers’ centres offer a safe haven and early education for children under four and their parents. Parents can participate in activities with their children or leave them at the centre while attending to other responsibilities. These centres provide comprehensive services, including:

  • Kindergarten preparation
  • Educational mediators
  • Nurses
  • Teachers and pedagogical experts
  • Psychologists
  • Access to washing machines and showers
  • Sleeping rooms to acclimate children to kindergarten routines

The positive impact of these centres is evident, with local kindergartens reporting that children from the mothers’ centres are better prepared for school. As the initial grant funding concludes in April 2024, the municipality has committed to financing the centres from the communal budget, though securing funds to maintain all three centres by 2025 remains a significant challenge.

The majority of the centre staff are Roma from the local communities, many of whom have been inspired to further their qualifications in child education. This initiative not only supports early childhood education but also empowers Roma community members, fostering a cycle of growth and development.

A Commitment to Future Collaboration

The exchange visit to Bulgaria allowed us not only to get to know our member Integro Association better but also reinforced the commitment of all participating organisations to collaborate and support each other in our shared mission. The experiences and insights gained during this visit might inform future strategies and actions aimed at fostering inclusive and empowered Roma communities across Europe.

Exchange visit to Bulgaria – ERGO Network

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