Walls built together can only be taken down together
How can an NGO work independently when it receives government funding? How can we activate and make responsible the members of a Roma settlement, if local helpers provide them with aid and donations on a regular basis? How can an educational initiative that holds afternoon workshops for children living in a Roma settlement be sustainable if all the teachers are paid employees? According to Bagázs, there is no way. The organisation that for the past five years has been working at the Bag Roma settlement located 39 kilometres from Budapest does not accept government funding, intends to initiate changes by activating the locals instead of being an intermediary for donations, and manages its development workshops for students with the help of volunteer secondary school and university students instead of paid educators. This way, instead of conserving vulnerability and a state of being under-privileged, they are working on bringing the people living in the Roma settlement and the members of wider society truly closer to each other. However, both parties need to take important steps in order to achieve this. Because if we want to live in an inclusive society, we all – Romas and non-Romas, citizens and decision-makers – must take responsibility.
Participants could get a first-hand experience of the activities of Bagázs at the birthday event of the organisation. We could learn interesting information about the football team while playing button football, and related to the adult education programmes we could see if we could solve the upper elementary exercises that adults preparing for the completion of the elementary eight years of education need to solve during the development workshops. We could watch videos and try to match fairy tale titles with drawings made by the youngest. Speeches were made after the interactive introduction. Thankfully and unusually, not only leaders and expert workers had the chance to speak and share their favourite stories, but those affected as well. We learnt how BAGÁZS FC, a football club bringing together talented footballplayers started. As there was no professional coach available, the development initiative started with enthusiastic volunteers, and as a result the official football team of the town now has several Roma players, while previously it never had members from the Roma settlement. Of course, talented young people joining in the mainstream sports activities of a town is only a small step towards integration. There are also afternoon workshops for the educational development of elementary school students, held not by qualified teachers or paid employees, as would be the extracurricular tuition trend, but by volunteering secondary school and university students who, beside helping local youth, also learn a lot from them, and about the situation of the Roma. Bagázs believe that you don’t necessarily need a degree or a job to be able to contribute to the development of a community. What’s more, they have once accepted an eighth-grader into their community service programme to work with secondary school students. Because if someone is enthusiastic and believes in the other and in that they have something to offer, the work done together can indeed be fruitful.
Similarly to many other NGO’s that work with people living in Roma settlements, at the beginning, Bagázs were also faced with a lack of trust from the locals. But gradually they started to believe that these „gádzsós” (Roma expression for non-Roma people) don’t just visit them on a daily or weekly basis in order to get rich. Gaining the trust of some of the key personalities of the settlement was key in this process, and the others could be drawn into their work through these people. Of course it’s not an easy task to let people living in poverty who are often criminalised see that they have other options, and that if they take responsibility, their lives can change. A mother whose children were taken away years before because she had been a regular drug user for nine years at the time also told her story in front of the guests. Such stories rarely have a happy ending. But she managed to get back to her feet after the rehabilitation programme, found a job and got her children back. And an elderly participant of the debt management programme told us that after not having electricity for 5 years – only if she stole it – she finally mamaged to get the provider to install a card-based electric meter at her home. This way she can use the electricity only according to the money she has on the card, and as a consumer she is not faced with the difficulty of having to pay a bill she hasn’t got the money for. The elderly woman expressed her joy that at last she can live in peace, without a sense of guilt.
They have managed to bring the people living in the Roma settlement and wider society a little closer to each other – but there is still a long way to go. But communities alienated from each other can only be made each other’s partners if we start taking down the walls on both sides of it – because these walls, built in the past years, decades, or centuries, in one way or the other, were also built together.