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Low income and low status: life’s realities for Roma gypsies

European Voice 3 June 2004
By Simon Coss

KOSICE, Slovakia - Lunik IX is a ghetto. This collection of filthy, crumbling tenement blocks on the wrong side of the ring road around the eastern Slovak city of Kosice is not somewhere anyone would want to live.
Yet Lunik IX, with its overflowing dustbins, broken windows, rubbish- strewn derelict play areas and poorly lit, stinking stairwells is officially home to around 5,000 Roma people.
Local community leaders say the real figure is probably nearer 6,500 and Roma make up well over 90% of the population in Lunik IX.
“This estate was built in 1980 and back then the plan was to have an integrated community where Roma people, policemen and soldiers would live together on the same estate,” explains Anna Mandulovà, the deputy head of Lunik IX’s kindergarten.
“But it didn’t work. The non-Roma families all moved away and by the early 1990s segregation had become a reality.”
A visit to Mandulovà’s kindergarten gives some idea of the scale of the social problems facing Lunik IX’s inhabitants.
High iron railings surround the building and all of the ground floor windows have been covered by metal plates, thoughtfully provided, Mandulovà explains, by US Steel, one of Kosice’s biggest employers.
The playgrounds are off-limits and as filthy as the rest of the open land between Lunik IX’s rows of tenements.
The kindergarten is also overcrowded.
Mandulovà says she and her small team of Roma teaching assistants have to cope with around a third more children than they are equipped to handle.
But despite all of this, the atmosphere inside the kindergarten is not depressing.
The kids play happily together, singing, drawing and dressing up. For a moment it seems like a normal city crèche anywhere in Europe.
But venture outside again and reality quickly reasserts itself.
The most depressing thing about Lunik IX is an almost palpable feeling of hopelessness.
According to community leaders such as Mandulovà, most of the people here will never leave. “Only about a third of the children who go into primary education here will finish high school,” explains the kindergarten director.
“And even for those that do, finding a job afterwards is incredibly difficult,” she adds.
The kindergarten deputy head explains that unemployment in Lunik IX runs at a horrifying 99.8%.
The estate’s residents tell the same sad story.
Eva Zigová is one of the lucky minority who does have a job, she is Roma and works at the kindergarten with Mandulovà.
But she is worried that her young son will not be able to escape from Lunik IX.
Sitting in her spotless apartment inside one of the estate’s dilapidated buildings she explains her fears.
“My son will start elementary school next year and I want to send him somewhere else than here,” she says.
“The school here is not so good but the problem is there is no school bus to take children to other schools. You have to use city buses and they are expensive,” she adds.
Zigová says she would dearly like to leave Lunik IX.
“I don’t really feel safe here,” she says.
“In the evening and at night I don’t leave my flat. There is a lot of fighting linked to alcohol, especially at the end of the month when people get their welfare money.
“This place has a very bad reputation. For example, the buses don’t open their rear doors when they drive through here. The drivers think the Roma will not pay, so they only open the door at the front,” she adds.
The teaching assistant adds that people from the estate face discrimination from Kosice’s other inhabitants.
“For example, when I go to my doctor there is a sign that says people from Lunik IX will only be seen after midday,” she explains.
Mária Horváthová is another Lunik IX resident who wants to get out.
The 33-year old lives in a windowless one-room apartment on the ground floor with her husband and six children – the oldest is ten and the youngest just one month old. Horváthová’s apartment opens onto the room where the building’s communal dustbins are stored.
“I have been trying to move away for years,” she says. “I don’t feel safe here. It’s noisy and there are rats.”
Meanwhile, Halmaj is some 60 kilometres from Kosice, over the border in neighbouring Hungary. It is a small village with a large Roma community.
But the difference between Halmaj and the despair and desolation of Lunik IX could not be more striking.
Life is certainly not easy for the people of Halmaj and unemployment is still very high. Among the non-Roma population it runs at around 40% and it is double for the Roma community.
But there is nevertheless a feeling in Halmaj that efforts to integrate the two communities have, to a large extent, been successful.
The village has a Roma quarter, but it is not noticeably more down-at-heel than the rest of Halmaj.
“There are two or three streets where there are mainly Roma people but there is no real segregation. People choose to live like this, they are not forced to,” explains Elemèr Horvàth, a local Roma community leader.
“Halmaj is the only village in this region where cooperation is so good,” Horvàth continues. “There is no segregation in school, for example, and the municipality has also put in place education for adults.”
One of the reasons why integration seems to have succeeded in Halmaj where it has failed so dismally in Lunik IX is perhaps the fact that the Hungarian village is a much smaller community.
Halmaj has a total population of 1,800 with around 360 Roma.
Also, most of the Roma in the Hungarian village own small houses and have lived in Halmaj for many years. This seems to have helped build ties between the Roma and non-Roma communities.
Dezsà Bito and his wife Maria are a perfect example of this integration. The Bitos are a ‘mixed’ couple. Dezsà is Roma, Maria is not.
“There were a few problems with our families at the beginning but everything is fine now,” Dezsà explains.
The couple have three children and have just finished building a new house in the village.
Dezsà agrees with Horvàth that Roma in Halmaj face relatively little discrimination. “There was one pub near here where the owner would sometimes tell Roma to leave, but it was an isolated case. Anyway, we complained to the municipality and he was punished,” he says.
But not all of Halmaj’s Roma inhabitants are as content with their lot as Dezsà.
Gulyas Sàndor, who lives in the same street, agrees that discrimination is not a major problem. But he complains that life in Hungary has become harder for Roma people since the end of communist rule in 1989.
“Then almost everyone had jobs and things were not so expensive. Now everyone would like to work but there are no jobs. We are not lazy. There just aren’t any chances,” he says.
“No, for me the old times were better and I never felt oppressed,” he adds.
Lunik IX and Halmaj are just two examples of Roma communities in central and eastern Europe. Between seven and nine million Roma live in the new member states, plus Romania and Bulgaria – which are hoping to join the EU in 2007 – and it would be possible to tell a thousand other different stories.
What is abundantly clear though, is that the Roma face huge problems compared with the Union’s non-Roma community. Trying to solve them is arguably the single biggest social challenge the new EU has to face up to.

Simon Coss is a freelance journalist based in France.

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