Each April 8, we mark the International Romani Day, a day to celebrate the history and culture of Roma people but also reflect upon the many challenges ahead for the equality, inclusion, and participation of the largest ethnic minority in Europe.
We interviewed Mihail Mishev, a first-year Roma student at AUBG, and an activist for Roma rights in Bulgaria. A recipient of the Chandra Scholarship at the university, Mihail says education is among the most important factors that can aid the true integration of the Roma community into society. Despite growing up in the highly segregated Roma neighborhood in Sliven, he graduated from the most prestigious high school in the city and has been a vocal supporter of Roma rights for almost seven years now.
We spoke to Mihail to learn more about the significance of the International Romani Day, his work as part of the Roma Standing Conference movement and the Bulgarian Community for Liberal Democracy (BOLD), and his first impressions of AUBG.
What does the International Romani Day mean to you? What should we as a society reflect upon on this day?
The International Romani Day was a political act for creating a new vision of what the Roma community should be. It is about political emancipation and its role for both national states and a more united Europe. The first Roma Congress was held in 1971 and it set the stage for an International Roma Movement. Its priorities are to unite Roma communities from all sides into one structure and into one movement.
Our focus as a society must be to actively involve the Roma community in political life on a local, national and international level. It is a must to invest in the Roma community in Bulgaria because the Roma are the youngest population in the country and around 30% of the working population in Bulgaria.
The Roma community in Bulgaria has shown its desire for emancipation in 1901. Back then, people in Bulgaria were protesting and asking for their voting rights following an amendment that deprived Muslim and nomadic Gypsies of their voting rights. It was half a century before the Civil Rights Movement in the States. You can imagine what desire people had for their voting rights. And eventually, they got them.
Despite all these acts, the Roma community remains — I think — forcibly isolated from the places where politics are being made and decisions are being taken.
What steps can we take to change that?
The more active involvement of the Roma community in political life, not only in Bulgaria but in Europe as well is important. The Roma community needs to take control of their lives. There is no other way to solve the Roma community’s problems but with the active role and the active involvement of the people from the community. No one knows the problems and the eventual solutions better than those people.
I can give an example, actually. Almost two years ago, we had local elections in Bulgaria and I was working on the campaign in my hometown of Sliven. There was an accident in my neighborhood “Nadezhda” in Sliven, which is one of the biggest Roma neighborhoods in Europe. There is an illegal dumpster there where local companies from around town throw their trash from trucks. One day a woman was coming home from work and one such truck rolled over and killed her, it was a horrible accident. It happened in the middle of the election campaign and what we did was – instead of blaming the municipality or the current mayor — we gathered all the candidates for mayor who had real chances to win and we created a memorandum. One of the points was that the future mayor would have regular meetings with people from the community, one time per month.
When this accident happened, we had a meeting with the current mayor and all of his experts were thinking and discussing ways to solve this problem with the trash. One of our activists, who is the brother of the woman who died, stood up and said “Guys, you cannot solve this problem without us.” He proposed a very simple but very effective solution: “Instead of using trucks, why don’t you just pay people from the neighborhood to take the trash with carts to a place where a truck can take it from there.” This was the first step to resolving the problem with the trash, more needs to be done but we are working on it. This is just one example of how experts cannot come up with the simple but effective solutions that the people who know the neighborhood can.
People from the community need to take a role in the process of making decisions, it is vital.
Tell us a bit more about your work as an activist. What are your goals and priorities as part of the Roma Standing Conference, BOLD, and the other organizations with which you have been involved?
I am an activist for almost seven years now, it has been a long journey. The first couple of years I had this energy and mindset that I could do everything to help the people in my community. But this enthusiastic point of view was crashed not because of the people in the neighborhood but because of the many NGOs which are working on projects that are not sustainable. What I mean is that they win a project, they complete it and they just leave after that, which is not what we need.
After that, I came across my current movement, the Roma Standing Conference. What I found very interesting is that the working model is very different. With NGOs, on top of the pyramid, you have the donors, after that there are the directors and the employees at the NGO, and after that, you have the activists and the volunteers. And at the bottom is the community, which in my opinion is not the right way to do it. What we have with the movement is an upside-down pyramid. On top, you have the community, then the activists, then the people in the core team, and at the bottom are the donors, which means that the people are more involved and engaged in what we are doing.
What many NGOs would do is they would go to the mayor and talk about the problem and different solutions but not to the people from the community. What we do is we talk to the people from the community, we get information, we get different ideas, and then we talk with the mayor together with the people.
You empower people from the community in this way, you give them experience in communicating with the administration. One of our priorities is to create a new type of activists who are involved with politics but are also really close to the people. So in time, they will not need our help in solving the problems.
One of the main ideas of our movement is to unite the Roma community on a national level. After that, we have the priority to create, propose and work on different policies which would help the community. For example, we got over 30,000 signatures in favor of the manifesto against the forcible demolishing of Roma houses.
Now we had a campaign for the parliamentary elections and for two weeks, we got the support of almost 50,000 people. We have five priorities as part of this campaign. One is the economic recovery plan and the green deal because Roma people are not mentioned in the plan. Another two are education and healthcare. And housing, I would say, is the top priority, because the housing problems affect everything else. More than 100,000 people don’t have documents and IDs and so they cannot work or own houses. And the fifth priority is the problem with hate speech. In two weeks, we got almost 50,000 signatures and we managed to talk to 25 different politicians from five different political parties. The five of them are in the parliament now.
Our goal for the next 100 days for the next parliament – if there is such a parliament soon — is to stick to those priorities and try to solve the problems.
Growing up in a segregated neighborhood, you must have faced difficulties along the way. What kept you going?
The neighborhood I grew up in is indeed segregated and surrounded by three-meter-high concrete walls. What kept me going is the support from my family, actually. My dad has a high school diploma and my mom only studied until the eighth grade. And they found that education is what would help my development. They were very strict with my grades despite the fact that I was not paying too much attention in school. But I was really interested in people’s psychology and I was fascinated to study it in school and implement it in my early activism.
My main motive was actually activism. School was boring for me but what I was paying attention to was history and psychology because with these subjects I could make parallels to my ideas and my work. At that time, I was just a small guy and not yet involved with NGOs, but I still had the mindset that I want to do something for my people.
Speaking of education, what do you study at AUBG? How have your studies expanded your knowledge and views?
I am considering for my majors to be Political Science and Journalism and Mass Communication, but I am still a first-year student and have time to decide. I have experience in making policies and in politics in general but what I am learning here is how to explain what I’m doing and talk about the theories behind it. I still like the practical aspect of it, though. The course with professor Levine, for example, International Relations, was great, because we had those practical simulations at the end of the course.
Beyond academics, what has been your experience at the university? With such diversity on campus, would you say the community here is inclusive?
The short answer is yes. But when I first came here with my dad, I noticed something that I was expecting but it just stuck in my mind. We were talking in Bulgarian and I guess people knew we were Roma and I saw it in the looks in their eyes that they were surprised and wondering what am I doing here in this university.
After that I was talking more with the people, I found that international students are very accepting and supportive. They don’t know much about Roma people, they only know the stereotypes. For example, Ethan Perelstein, who is also a freshman and he is from the States. He is awesome. I was filming a short video for BBC in my neighborhood and he was so stunned from what he saw that he was like “Hey, let’s go there and see how it is.” People here were so interested in the problems of the community and I found it really supportive and motivating.