Gypsies in Bulgaria - Past and Present
Many people searching for property in Bulgaria are advised often by Bulgarian real estate agents to avoid villages with a high population of gypsies in. However many people who find themselves living in areas with many Roma residents have found that crime and social problems are low and no different to any other rural area in Bulgaria. In fact, many people have become firm friends with their gypsy neighbours and whilst it would be unwise if not impossible to move into a true gypsy ghetto, living in an area with a high ethnic population is not as detrimental as Bulgarians make out.
The Roma, the correct name for not only gypsies of Bulgaria, but that of the entire population of gypsies in the EU have a long and interesting history. In the Middle Ages, migrants from India emigrated to Bulgaria and the rest of Eastern Europe. They are believed to have been descended from a low -caste Indian tribe. During the 16th century many of them adopted Turkish as their mother tongue and some converted to Islam. Gypsies practiced nomadic lifestyles based around selling their wares and skills, however this travelling way of life was forbidden during the Communist era. During this period, most gypsies became part of the industrial workforce or were employed as labourers in the agricultural sector. The fall of Communism brought extreme economic hardship to this ethnic minority. The property boom invigorated this community providing extremely cheap labour to the construction industry.
The Different Tribes
The Roma is the EU's largest ethnic minority; the gypsies in Bulgaria make up the second largest minority after Bulgarian Turks and comprise 4.7% of the population. Unofficially, this number is considered to be far lower than the truth and the Roma population is estimated to be around 7%. The reason for the discrepancy is the fact that many Roma declare themselves as Bulgarians or Turks on census and official documents to avoid racial discrimination.
The Roma is made up of many different tribes, each of which is usually named after the trade associated with that group. As a major ethnic group, they are a divided community in terms of political power, culture and lifestyle; even inter-marriage between groups is uncommon. The biggest and most prevalent Bulgarian Roma group are the Yerlii, a group made up of Bulgarian Gypsies or daskane roma, who are usually Bulgarian Orthodox in their religious beliefs and Turkish Gypsies or horahane roma, who usually espouse the Muslim religion. Other Roma tribes include the Kardarashi, who long ago were renowned coppersmiths, but today are often dubbed the Serbian Gypsies, the Rudari known as Romanian or Vlach Gypsies because their native language is a dialect of Romanian, the Ursari or Mechkari, who trained bears to dance in towns and villages to earn money from onlookers, the Lingurari or Kupanari, who were and often still are carpenters and the Lautari who were accomplished musicians.
Bulgarians are openly racist in their dislike of the gypsies in their population and it is rare to hear them called Roma; most often they are called Tsigeni meaning gypsy or Mangali an insulting label similar to Nigger. In truth, there are many words and phrases used by Bulgarians to label this ethnic group or to insult their fellow men, such phrases include "as black as a gypsy" to denote skin colour, "gypsy work" to indicate shoddy workmanship, "you lie like an old gypsy" imply that someone is a compulsive liar and "you snore like a gypsy's horse." The derogatory names go as far as calling the burnt or brown corn kernels "gypsies".
Racism against the Roma population has existed for centuries and was fuelled during Ottoman rule when many, probably due to ill treatment from the native Bulgarians sided with the Turks adopting their language and religion. Racial prejudice continues today with gypsies in the media and politically; the extremist party Ataka, who are committed to strong nationalist policies won 21 parliamentary seats out of 240 and 9% of the vote in the 2005 elections.
Whilst many mock Roma skin colour and customs racism usually arises because the Roma are the poorest members of society and are therefore associated with theft, begging and a lack of education. Their problem is not dissimilar to that of the unemployed in the UK, who attend low achieving schools, have a high rate of non-attendance and academic failure, have higher rates of association with crime and often live on council run housing estates, where the average Brit would never set foot. British buyers in Bulgaria are also renowned for wanting to know about the number of gypsies in the village before they buy a property and many are guilty of the same prejudice as some of the local population. Many expats also choose to send their children to private Bulgarian schools for fear that their children's education will be disadvantaged by the inclusion of the children of gypsies in the Bulgarian education system.
Sofia, Sliven and Lom have the highest number of gypsies in Bulgaria. Each Roma group across the country usually lives in its own distinct area, often in a ghetto on the outskirts of a town or village. These ghettos known as Quartal in Bulgarian contain poor accommodation and are often strewn with rubbish, but abundant in satellite dishes and roaming horses, donkeys and dogs. Children hang out, unsupervised all day and in this community teen pregnancies are rife.
Roma groups have their own language; for many this is a dialect or either Romanian or Turkish. Within the school system children are discouraged from speaking their native tongue. Their skin is darker than the local population and this makes them stand out and often makes them targets for racism.
The "Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union" emphasises that discrimination based on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic or social origin, language, religion or belief is illegal. Bulgaria was admitted into the European Union with a number of clauses attached to their membership; one such agreement was that the country would work towards the integration of the Roma population. One initiative adopted by Bulgaria is its participation in the "Decade of Roma Inclusion," a project dedicated to the improvement of the Roma population's socio-economic status and its integration into local society. Along with eight other nations, Bulgaria is now committed to "work toward eliminating discrimination and closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society". Another positive sign in the fight to abolish racism is the fact that more and more groups representing the rights of this group are coming to the fore in particular, the civil union "Roma" and the pressure group "Sega." Realistically it will take several generations to stamp out the inbred racism, which is fed through Bulgarian families down to their children at a very early age, however as the Roma community becomes wealthier through increased works and government benefits some of the old stigmas should disappear and the gypsies in Bulgaria will be more accepted.