Roma shat­ters glass ceil­ing in Bos­nia but chal­lenges re­main

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Five years ago a bar owner re­fused to serve him but to­day Redzo Se­fer­ovic is the first Roma elected to head a mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil in Bos­nia. The Oc­to­ber vote is an “his­toric event”, said Pre­drag Prastalo, head of the Bos­nian branch of the Euro­pean Move­ment non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion which tries to pro­mote EU val­ues. But the way ahead is long and the first ses­sion that Se­fer­ovic presided over in Zavidovici in cen­tral Bos­nia was proof of that.

Lack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and ig­no­rant of pro­to­col, he had to be guided to open or close de­bates, prompt­ing sar­casm and jibes. “I am ask­ing you to help me. I am do­ing this for the first time, there will be mis­takes,” Se­fer­ovic, who is in his fifties, told the coun­cil. Some deputies posted videos of the ses­sion on­line to ridicule him. “That hurt me,” Se­fer­ovic told AFP. “But I have learned to face such chal­lenges in life.” Hu­man Rights Watch said in its 2016 an­nual re­port that “Roma re­main the most vul­ner­a­ble group in the coun­try, fac­ing wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion in em­ploy­ment, ed­u­ca­tion, and po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

‘No drinks for Roma’

Se­fer­ovic has had his share of in­sults like other Roma through­out the Balkans, in­clud­ing some 50,000 to 75,000 in Bos­nia out of a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 3.5 mil­lion. In 2011 a waiter re­fused to serve him and his three cousins. He “ex­plained me that the owner had said ‘No drinks for Roma’,” Se­fer­ovic re­mem­bered.

Re­jected by two courts, his com­plaint is now be­fore a third, he said. Se­fer­ovic is an atyp­i­cal Roma-he is a pro­fes­sional fire­man while 95 per­cent of his fel­low Roma in Bos­nia are un­em­ployed, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 study of the Sara­jevo-based At­lantic Ini­tia­tive non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion. His three sons are job­less. Se­fer­ovic said he was the only Roma in Zavidovici to have a job.

In 2009, the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights con­demned Bos­nia for its dis­crim­i­na­tory con­sti­tu­tion that re­serves the tri­par­tite pres­i­dency only for Croats, Mus­lims and Serbs and has not yet been mod­i­fied. In Zavidovici the dis­crim­i­na­tion is ob­vi­ous. Poverty is en­demic in this in­dus­trial town of some 36,000 res­i­dents where the un­em­ploy­ment rate has hit 67 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to mayor Hasim Mu­janovic.

The town’s 750 Roma are the poor­est of the poor and live sep­a­rately in three dis­tricts. In the area where Se­fer­ovic lives, chil­dren in rags play in the mid­dle of iron scrap­yard among small di­lap­i­dated houses, some made of wood. “Around 75 per­cent of Roma in Zavidovici have no so­cial se­cu­rity and only 28 chil­dren go to school, com­pared to 127 in 2011,” Se­fer­ovic said, say­ing the plum­met­ing num­bers were be­cause the Roma had got in­creas­ingly poorer and could not af­ford to buy school books and ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial.

The HRW warned that due to lack of a free and univer­sal birth reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem, many Roma do no fig­ure on the na­tional public reg­istry that records births, deaths, and mar­riages. “This im­pedes their ac­cess to public ser­vices, in­clud­ing health­care.”

Ed­u­ca­tion is pri­or­ity

“I al­ways tell my Roma that ed­u­ca­tion should be the foun­da­tion,” Se­fer­ovic said, adding that he has al­ways wanted “to be some­one.” He be­came a fire­fighter af­ter com­plet­ing mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Yu­goslav army in 1988. Dur­ing Bos­nia’s 1990s in­tereth­nic war, Se­fer­ovic fought along­side Mus­lims. Se­fer­ovic said that it was in the Yu­goslav army that he had learned how to tie a tie. “I knew that one day I would need it,” Se­fer­ovic said at his fire sta­tion while chang­ing into civil­ian clothes and tight­en­ing his tie. Se­fer­ovic’s neigh­bor Sa­ban Ba­jric re­cently re­turned to Zavidovici af­ter spend­ing three years in Ger­many with his wife and three chil­dren. He told AFP that his asy­lum re­quest was re­jected “like to the ma­jor­ity of some 30 fam­i­lies from the neigh­bor­hood.” “Redzo is a good man. We gave him a chance by vot­ing for him. We would like that he gives us a job,” said Ba­jric.

An­other neigh­bor, Meho Ju­sic, said the Roma lived on the fringes of so­ci­ety. “But he alone can­not help us. I’m 60 years old, I do not work nor can I can re­tire. I can­not cure my­self as I do not have so­cial se­cu­rity,” Ju­sic said. “My grand-daugh­ter does not have it either. Her par­ents do not work. “How to send her to school with­out rev­enues?” he said. —AFP

ZAVIDOVCI: A pic­ture taken on De­cem­ber 2, 2016, shows Bos­nian Roma, Redzo Se­fer­ovic pos­ing with his fire­fighter uni­form at the fire­fighter sta­tion. — AFP

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