This story was first published in Balkan Insight on June 14, 2017.
By Hoi Mun Yee
Melina Halilovic is the first Roma woman to be elected to the municipal council in the central Bosnian town of Visoko.
Working in a plain white building, her achievements are anything but plain. She broke through social barriers in a country where minorities are not allowed to occupy senior political positions, while also being an orphan with a little sister and living in a patriarchal society.
Halilovic’s story is the exception rather than the norm.
Under the constitution, only the three ‘constituent peoples’ of Bosnia – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – are allowed to run for the presidency and the House of Peoples, leaving minorities including Roma underrepresented in high-level government.
The largest minority in Bosnia, the Roma population is estimated to be between 60,000 to 100,000 out of a total population of 3.81 million, although there are no official records on this.
According to UNICEF, almost 80 per cent of Roma children in Bosnia live below the poverty line “on the basis of income, education, amenities and health deprivations”.
“When you are Roma, you have to face a lot of things,” said Halilovic.
“People live in poverty, they are hungry, they are unemployed because they didn’t go to school,” she explained.
Many Roma lack basic documentation like birth certificates and identification because they were displaced during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Citizens who fled to other areas within the country usually have to register in their new municipalities to receive basic services. Re-registration processes are usually time-consuming and unaffordable for Roma people.
New laws implemented two years ago required Bosnian citizens to register a permanent address to receive identification. This caused more problems for Roma people, who usually live in informal settlements said Lejla Slak, who represents Vasa Prava, a legal aid non-governmental organisation in Sarajevo.
Residence registration is necessary to obtain identification for health insurance, making Roma home-births a common occurrence.
“Many Roma families can’t prove mother and son relationships because their children were born at home,” said Slak.
“They [home-births] are not registered, after that other procedures are more complicated because they don’t have proof of birth,” she added.
UNICEF also reported that Roma have a one-third lower primary school attendance rate than the national average. Many children drop out of primary school because they fail to fit in.
Discrimination against Roma does not end in primary school. Various stereotypes revolve around Roma people, mostly surrounding begging, being unhygienic and petty crime.
“Other children are sometimes very mean and I think this is the main reason they [Roma children] drop out,” said Halilovic.
“People think you will steal something, and they will be rude to you,” she added.
Halilovic got involved with NGOs to receive an informal education. Being an orphan, she received financial aid from the state and worked in her teenage years to pay for school and her sister’s education.
Sanela Besic was the first Roma student in her primary school and, like Halilovic, also one of few Roma women who finished college. As a child, she did not know what her ethnicity meant to her.
“I didn’t understand what ‘ciganski’ [gypsy] means, some children didn’t want to play with me or to sit with me,” Besic recalled.
As she grew up, she found out it meant she was not well liked because of her ethnicity.
Both Halilovic and Besic do not fit Roma stereotypes. Halilovic, who often wears a blazer and has dyed blonde hair, and Besic, with fair skin, who speaks fluent English, often have to convince others that they are of Roma origin. They often hear people say “you can’t be Roma” and “you’re not like them”.
Besic serves as executive director for Kali Sara Roma Information Centre in Sarajevo which focuses on improving educational and housing prospects for Roma. She believes her education gives her a responsibility to contribute.
“As an educated person, I should work for Roma issues,” she said.
UNICEF reported that 69 per cent of Roma families earn below 200 Bosnian marks (102 euros) per month with the national average monthly income being 700 Bosnian marks (357 euros).
Sead Hasimovic’s parents could not afford to send him to school with their earnings, like most Roma. The 28-year-old lives in a hilly Roma settlement in Sarajevo. He ocupies a small self-built home from the 1980s along with his mother, wife, two children and two brothers.
His love for cars fuelled a desire to visit Japan – but he has yet to ever leave Sarajevo. Currently unemployed, he searches dumpsters, hoping to find things he can use or sell in the market to sustain his family.
Hasimovic learnt some English watching MTV on his boxy old television in the living room, which also doubles as the kitchen. He hopes to have enough money in a few years to send his two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son to school.
Hasimovic’s daughter, with fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes inherited from her Muslim mother, loves her Hello Kitty toys and his son just had his first birthday celebration.
Luxuries like these, or his old microwave and worn-out rucksack in which he stores his “earnings”, can be afforded through his scavenging work. However, school is a different proposition; it lasts for years, and there needs to be a long-term financial commitment.
Local governments and schools often do not provide textbooks. Parents like Hasimovic would also have to purchase stationery and food for their children, something he is worried about.
“Right now, maybe today I can eat, but tomorrow, nothing,” said Hasimovic, whose upper row of teeth are rotten.
The generally poor economic situation, the lack of jobs in Bosnia and discrimination have also discouraged Hasimovic from looking for better opportunities.
He expressed distrust in local NGOs and Roma activists, claiming some of them promised financial aid to the settlement but never delivered. Hasimovic also bemoaned the amount of bureaucratic work needed to obtain a newer house for his growing family; a house which he did not receive.
Dervo Sejdic was one of the Roma activists about whom Hasimovic expressed scepticism. Sejdic, along with Jacob Finci, a Jew, won a court case against the state of Bosnia over its discriminatory constitution in 2009.
However, Sejdic that said nothing has changed since then, with no local officials dealing with Roma issues. NGOs and international organisations are the only entities advocating for Roma rights
Sejdic also stressed the importance for Roma like Hasimovic to focus on education instead of immediate monetary benefits. He thinks impatience and a bad job climate are the reasons many Roma cannot find work. Hasimovic had previously quit his job as a waiter after being paid one month’s salary for two months of work.
However, Hasimovic said the Roma community is a tight-knit bunch. They try to help each other as much as possible. He cited a friend living outside the settlement who gave him 2,000 Bosnian marks (1020 euros) to build a bathroom and brick walls in his house.
Many Roma say that education is the most important factor for Roma to escape poverty, but not all schools in Bosnia make Roma pupils welcome. Kali Sara has held numerous public discussions about revisions of the education system to combat discrimination and increase financial aid.
“Some school directors don’t want Roma children at their schools. There are parents who have petitioned to have Roma pupils removed from schools,” said Besic.
Dzemaludin Causevic Primary School, located in Svrakino Selo, a place known for its Roma population, is the only school in Sarajevo selected for a Save the Children project that aims to help neglected minority children.
The school also holds workshops for staff and parents to work with Roma pupils. Care packages are prepared through donations from parents for low-income pupils. Once a month, a school bazaar is held, at which pupils and parents can purchase clothes and necessities for one Bosnian mark (51 euro cents).
Pupils of all ethnicities at the school help each other with homework. Teachers are also trained in individualised teaching for pupils who need it.
“The main spirit of this school is everyday living Roma culture,” said Emina Valjevcic, a representative of the school.
Sejdic attributed the social exclusion of Roma to the lack of Roma political power to create change. However, he does believe Roma integration in Bosnia is possible – athough not in the near future.
“It is not possible in a day, we need maybe ten years to increase Roma participation in municipalities,” he said.
Halilovic is hoping to use her role as a municipal councillor in Visoko to improve Roma people’s fortunes in the area. She is already planning to adopt a gender action plan to advocate for women’s rights.
“Many families choose to send boys to school and not girls; they want girls to get married,” said Halilovic.
“I finished school because of me, and now I am involved because I want to help other people in non-formal education,” she added.
“If a child doesn’t finish school, you are nothing.”