Fulbright Bulgaria alum Chris Curran and Susanne Hamscha, EUR Regional Diversity Coordinator, talk about the discrimination of Roma communities in Europe and in Bulgaria, in particular. Chris shares about his work with the Trust for Social Achievement, which seeks to improve access to housing and education for Roma people in Bulgaria. Chris also talks about how his job as an immigrants rights lawyer has helped him contextualize his experiences in Bulgaria, and he explains why he decided to leave his job and apply for a Fulbright grant. Chris was a Fulbright Research Fellow in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2018-19. He serves as the Queer History and Education Coordinator for Fulbright Prism.
For more information about the Council of Europe's stategy for Roma inclusion, visit https://www.coe.int/en/web/roma-and-travellers/home
To learn more about "Gelem, Gelem," the "Roma anthem" Chris references in this episode, read Petra Gelbart's piece "The Romani Anthem as a Microcosm of Diversity."
Susanne Hamscha (00:05):
With roughly 10 - 12 million people, the Roma community is the largest ethnic minority in Europe. And it’s a minority that faces intolerable discrimination and unequal access to vital services. Some 80% of Roma live below their countries’ at-risk-of-poverty threshold. Every third Roma lives in housing without tap water. Every third Roma child lives in a household where someone went to bed hungry at least once in the previous month. And 50% of Roma between the ages of 6 and 24 do not attend school.
In order to change the situation, it seems key to ensure Roma's equal access to four main areas - employment, education, health, and housing - to improve their socioeconomic conditions.
Welcome to another episode of Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast. I am Susanne Hamscha, the Diversity Coordinator for Fulbright in Europe and Eurasia.
In Europe, Roma are overrepresented among those affected by poverty and social exclusion. A recent survey shows that at least 80% were at risk of poverty and on average, fewer than 1 out of 3 reported to be in paid work while almost have lived in housing that can basic amenities such as an indoor kitchen, indoor toilet, indoor shower, or bath and electricity.
Today, I want to talk about the discrimination of Roma people, poverty and housing with Chris Curran, a former immigrants rights lawyer who held a Fulbright grant to Bulgaria in 2018-19. Bulgaria has a fairly large Roma community, and Chris worked on a housing rights project with Roma communities while on his grant.
Hi, Chris, it's good to have you here. I always ask my guests to introduce themselves in their own words. So what is it that you would like to share about yourself with our listeners?
Chris Curran (01:46):
Well, thank you Susanne, for having me at this podcast and inviting me. My name is Chris Curran. I use he/him pronouns and I'm originally from Iowa. My Fulbright research grant was in Bulgaria, but I'm now living in Mexico and I'm working as a translator as well as serving as the history and education coordinator for Fulbright Prism, which is a nonprofit for LGBTQ Fulbrighters. So in that area of my current life, I'm gathering teaching resources for Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, and I'm working on a podcast of my own that's on queer oral history. So it's good for me to be talking with you and being on this end of being interviewed for your podcast.
I would say as far as giving you some background and about my own life that I grew up in a place in Iowa, that's not known for being particularly diverse. Over the course of my life, I feel like I was opened to larger and larger circles of understanding what it means to be part of diverse communities. And it was kind of a gradual process that for me started with…in high school, we had English as a second language programs at my high school - it was the magnet school that drew in all of the immigrant students who needed support with learning English in the area. And so that was very…had a big impact on me because I was able to get to know a lot of these students on a personal level and get an understanding of what drove their families to have to leave the places where they grew up. In a lot of cases, it was very adverse circumstances and sometimes really scary situations that they had to flee from as refugees. And some of them have been granted refugee status and had been placed in Iowa.
And a lot of others, particularly from central America had not been able to access the type of international structures and resources to be able to apply for refugee status. And so they had come undocumented and crossed into the United States and were there with very little support, trying to make a life for themselves. And a lot of these classmates were working in restaurants and a lot of their parents had come to work in meat-packing factories, and other type of labor that was pretty intense manual labor in order to survive and create a life for their families.
Susanne Hamscha (04:05):
You eventually moved to San Francisco where you worked as a lawyer. Can you tell us more about that period of your life and what inspired you to apply for a Fulbright grant?
Chris Curran (04:15):
I moved to San Francisco and became a legal assistant at a law office that took on asylum cases based on persecution due to sexual orientation, gender identity, and domestic violence. And after a couple of years as a legal assistant, I went to law school and became an attorney in the same field of immigrants rights and went back to that law office to represent clients as a lawyer. And it was very moving, and for me very gratifying, to build trust with a client and to advocate for that person. And then over…some of these cases took years to go through the system from the time that you began with a client and filed their application to receiving a decision. And it was such a transformative thing to see the weight lifted off people's shoulders when they won legal status in the US and they're no longer having to fear deportation, those experiences were very powerful in my life, but I needed a change, personally, after 12 years being in the legal field. I felt that the adversarial system put me into battle mode all the time and it ended up being not so sustainable for me.
So I was interested in looking for productive ways of contributing to efforts that were visionary in terms of how do we take the world that we live in and move it toward a world based on recognition of human rights and societies where the things that separate us from each other in terms of culture don't have to be an obstacle for living together and finding ways to work. I would say that that's why I decided to apply for a Fulbright grant, because I wanted to understand how people, especially in the nonprofit and non-governmental organization field, are able to address very deep -seated challenges and problems and come up with creative solutions that can be implemented on a policy level and on the ground in terms of programs that work in communities and with individual people.
Susanne Hamscha (06:22):
We'll talk about your research project in more detail in a minute, but, you know, I think some of our listeners may not be familiar with Roma history and culture, and may not know why they continue to face discrimination and unequal access to services and education. Could you provide some contextualization for our listeners?
Chris Curran (06:43):
I can give you a little bit of geographical context too, that Bulgaria is on the Balkan peninsula at the Eastern edge of Europe. So there's Greece to the South, Romania to the North, and Serbia and the countries of the former Yugoslavia are just to the West, and then to the East of Bulgaria is the Black Sea and Turkey. So it's this small area of land that throughout history has functioned as a throughway for people that are coming from Asia and the Middle East into Europe and vice versa. And that's turned Bulgaria and the Balkans into a real melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. And so Bulgaria has had the different waves of migration and the political and power struggles that go along with that. It's been controlled by the Thracians, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans to name some of the different civilizations and empires, and that have come and that have arisen and have, have fallen as well.
I think that partly because there was this very old push to consolidate a national identity out of a multi-ethnic society with a lot of different people, from a lot of different groups and linguistic roots defining themselves as part of this nation, state of Bulgaria. And then it was a few hundred years after that in around 1200 of the common era that Roma people began to arrive in the Balkan peninsula from India. And because they had a darker skin tone, a lot of people in the area mistakenly assumed that Roma people were from Egypt. Egypt is just South of Bulgaria across the Mediterranean Sea. And that's where the term “Gypsy” comes from that is still used today. But a lot of Roma people consider “Gypsy” to be a derogatory term. It doesn't come from their own language or identity. So although some Roma people may use the term “Gypsy” referring to themselves, generally it's not something that's considered to be respectful when non-Roma people use it.
So it's been more than 800 years that Roma people have been in Bulgaria. And most of, for most of that history based on their being a people that had been nomadic for centuries after leaving India, they supported themselves traditionally through itinerary trades. And that was the way that they fit into society, by preserving their own distinct culture and language, and as a nomadic group, but being engaged with a more settled villages in, in Bulgaria. But then when the national governments became more powerful and decided that it was in their interest for people to be settled and to be able to control the population to a greater degree, along with industrialization there were a lot of efforts to forcibly settle the Roma. And in most cases in Bulgaria, they were successful at forcing people to stay in one place. And then during the transition, when Bulgaria adopted a democracy in 1989, there was a land restitution process whereby people, generally throughout the country, people were given title to the apartments that they were living in.
But the status of the families living in these informal Roma neighborhoods and communities remained unclear and they were zoned. Most of these areas were not zoned to be residential. So the challenge became really acute for the families that now have been in these neighborhoods that have, that have existed for many generations on land that is zoned to be either industrial or agricultural in most cases. And what happened with the administrative efforts to go from a communist to a capitalist society, the Roma settlements were largely ignored and just treated as non-existent, left off the maps that were being created. And so when infrastructure was, was developed in order to put in water services, electricity and sewage, these neighborhoods were left out and that's part of a long history of exclusion and marginalization.
Susanne Hamscha (10:40):
Thank you so much. And now let's talk about your research. I'm interested in how you came to work on housing rights and the Roma communities in Bulgaria, specifically. The Roma communities in Bulgaria are quite large, but there is also a considerable population in North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, other Balkan countries, but also in central and southern European countries, such as Germany, France, Austria, and Italy. So why did you choose to work on a project on Roma communities in Bulgaria and why was your focus on housing and housing rights?
Chris Curran (11:17):
I first visited Bulgaria after I had left my job as a lawyer in California. I was visiting friends in Bulgaria and stayed for several weeks and I was really struck by…because this was a completely new culture for me, and I really enjoyed getting to a sense of how connected people are to very deep roots and traditions that are nourishing to them in terms of folk music and dancing practices that are really alive in Bulgaria. On the other hand, I had a deep sense of discomfort, as I was getting to know Bulgaria, with the fact that over and over there would be situations where people would just casually disparage Roma people. And there was this sense that a lot of people in Bulgaria wanted to instill in me, as a foreigner, a sense that Roma people were not really Bulgarians, even though they had been in Bulgaria for more than 800 years.
So I was interested in what do you do in terms of policy to look at how to face such a deep divide and a deep level of segregation where people feel very justified in enforcing the separation in casual conversations all the time, and how do you heal the sense of mistrust and the sense of othering where there's this sense by a lot of people who view Roma as being separate and other than being Bulgarian. So I learned about this organization, the Trust for Social Achievement, and that they are tackling these issues of discrimination in innovative ways and creative ways of social interventions that are designed to gauge effect and to create replicable models that can be used at wider and wider spheres within Bulgaria and then abroad too.
So they have several different issue areas that they work on at the Trust for Social Achievement, they work with education, employment, health, and housing. They've lobbied the government to extend free pre-kindergarten programs so that no kid that is excluded from the early learning opportunities that are so foundational for their future success. And they did a study that showed that that financial reasons were the primary factor in why Roma children were not getting to kindergarten. And then they've also worked with teachers in 200 schools around the country to work to try to set a tone that's inclusive and work on what does it mean to be inclusive in education to challenge limiting beliefs. This was based partly on surveys that were undertaken that showed that a quarter of all teachers responded to a survey and stated that they believed Roma children should study in segregated schools. One fifth of the respondents said that children from different ethnic backgrounds have different abilities.
As part of my work with the Trust for Social Achievement I was part of the English language program for Roma high school students. And I taught classes for nonprofit professionals to help both students and career professionals plug into international networks and resources from across Europe and the world, and be part of broader social movements. And then the Trust for Social Achievement has a health program that involves the nurse family partnership, where nurses can get financing to make home visits both during pregnancy and during the first two years of a baby's life, so that first-time parents will get the training and support they need about nutrition and about creating an environment for a child to thrive. That's the third program. And then the one that I was also involved in was the zoning program that relates to land tenure and housing rights, particularly with the focus on Roman neighborhoods.
Susanne Hamscha (15:03):
So what’s being done to protect the housing rights of Roma communities?
Chris Curran (15:06):
The Trust for Social Achievement has a very innovative solution that they've been putting into place relating to changing the zoning rules. They work with urban planning experts and with elected officials and local communities to create zoning amendments that allow for a shift in the zoning characterization of significant areas of land, where Roma communities are already in existence. But the law only allows them to go as far as issuing forbearance certificates, which protects homes from demolition and allow you to buy and sell and rent a home or a lot of land, but they don't allow for actual legalization of homes so that people can have full and normal ownership rights over their land. But the model - so the model is basically a way to protect communities from demolition and give people a sense of some security, so that kids in particular don't have to grow up with this fear that they're going to be uprooted from their homes and have their families be put out on the street. And the system has been successful in multiple communities in Bulgaria, and they're expanding it. They've received some funding now from the European Union to expand the program further in Bulgaria and offer what they've learned for other countries throughout Europe, in order to provide support for local communities that want to find a solution to the problem with segregation in a way that will foster greater integration and greater opportunities for people to have a sense of solidity and security with respect to their homes.
Susanne Hamscha (17:01):
Can you talk about what you've learned about the intersection of poverty and ethnic minorities during your time in Bulgaria? You know, there is this vicious cycle, obviously, that, you know, if you lose your job, you're more likely to also lose your home. And if you don't have the home, it's more difficult to find a new job, and so on and so forth. So there is this vicious cycle that is so difficult to break out of, and I was hoping that you could talk about this in the context of Roma communities in Bulgaria.
Chris Curran (17:32):
Yeah. I think that it's, it is a vicious cycle where people are discriminated against in terms of being excluded from stable employment, as well as housing. So that means that people are pushed to the margins of really having to hustle and work very hard to scramble together jobs in a sort of gig economy way. Because stable jobs are generally out of reach for a lot of people who are part of the Roma community - that means that they're already living, they're living in poverty due to not having stable income. And then people on the side of the authorities or the state, a lot of people are coming down with the authority of law to punish people for what is inevitable when people are living in large number, in conditions of poverty. That's the same kind of situation that we saw in the US in terms of broken windows, policing in the 1980s, where the police would go into communities and focus their resources on very minor offenses that tend to come up when people are living in poverty, instead of creating… trying to look for ways to provide resources for people in communities to lift themselves out of poverty.
So these are…this is kind of the trap that's created when the government takes away a community’s traditional way of life, in terms of the trades that were essential for Roma people as a nomadic culture to support themselves. Once that's taken away and they're forced into settlements, but without access to stable employment, then they're pushed further and further to the margins of society. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where people punish them for being on the margins of society.
Susanne Hamscha (19:23):
And do you see any parallels there between the US and Bulgaria? Or, to rephrase my question, do you think that your work as an immigrants rights lawyer has helped you contextualize your experiences in Bulgaria? Because you represented asylum seekers and you, you fought deportation proceedings as a lawyer, so was there anything you could draw from these experiences while you were on your grant?
Chris Curran (19:52):
Yes. I really saw a lot of parallels between my experiences in the US and in Bulgaria, in terms of how in the US there's been this…there was a real push to foment anti-immigrant sentiment in a way that scapegoats people and scapegoats big communities for problems that really don't have to do with them. The sense of rising inequality, income inequality in the US, where people have a real sense, that's a valid and accurate that their level of opportunity and earning potential is less than what their parents had been able to earn. And so, rather than looking at the structure that the US has in place in terms of a tax system, that doesn't prioritize social welfare, and doesn't prioritize having healthcare for the majority of the population, to distract people from looking at that I think some people in positions of political leadership find it in their interest to scapegoat, scapegoat groups of people, including immigrants, including other ethnic minorities.
In terms of, you know, psychology what Carl Jung talked about, the shadow - an individual person's shadow is what they don't want to address or want to recognize. And collectively, I think that both in the US the powers that be project that collective shadow onto immigrants, onto other minorities, and in Bulgaria it happens with the Roma. And so my desire in applying for the Fulbright grant was to learn, to gain a wider perspective about how civil society can take organized action to resist those destructive social currents, and to try to rebuild the fabric of a society when there's been a fracture based on ethnic separatism, the way that that has happened with the exclusion of Roma people in Bulgaria, with the history of slavery and Jim Crow, and anti-immigrant legislation - that part of the history in the US that we have to have a reckoning with - in order to see these nationalist political forces for what they are in exploiting people's sense of fear, or sense of feeling threatened by change, or by people who they view as being different from them.
Susanne Hamscha (22:20):
I understand that this may be difficult to answer, because even though there is guidance from the European Union on how to improve the socioeconomic situation of Roma in Europe, evidently putting this guidance into practice does not work as well as one might hope. But what would you say could be some very practical steps to improve the situation of Roma in Bulgaria, and what role does education play in improving their situation?
Chris Curran (22:44):
I think education is extremely key in the sense that it needs to encourage critical thinking and not just be a type of education that limits students’ thinking into fitting into the structures of the status quo of the world that we live in now, but helping students to develop tools, to envision the kind of world that they want to live in, since the world is going to continue to changing at a fast pace and students need to be able to adapt their thinking to that kind of change. So, for me, I've found a lot of inspiration and tools that are available with regard to social movements and social change in terms of reframing and rethinking the divisions that have, that have separated groups of people. If you look at critical race theory and teaching resources like simulations and games that teach empathy. At Fulbright Prism, where I'm the queer history and education coordinator, we're developing a bank, an online bank of resources for English teaching assistants who are Fulbrighters and go around the world. And so we have some class plans available there. Fulbridge is another organization that has teaching resources online.
And then also, I think it's meaningful for all of us to take our lead from the people who have established themselves at the forefront of social movements that are pushing for change. The people who've been most affected by the destructive currents and structures in society, and who have found and who are pointing the way forward. For example, there's a website for blacklivesmatteratschool.com and they have a lot of resources there for talking about race and ethnicity and culture in a meaningful way that is productive. And that also, I think, translates to…sometimes it's, it's easier for people outside of a culture or a situation to see with more clarity and more empathy. So for people in Europe to look at what's happening with the Black Lives Matter movement might be easier than to…it might take more of an effort to look at each person's own internal structures of racism that have developed in Europe around anti-Roma sentiment. And then for us in the US it's, it can be easier to look at what's happening with the Roma and empathize. So I think that those educational resources have a strong role to play. And I'm encouraged by the sense that we're at a historical moment when that type of consciousness is growing and is being made more available through online connections and through solidarity networks that go across borders.
Susanne Hamscha (25:22):
Chris, thank you so much for this rich conversation. I really appreciate your sharing your insights with us. As a final question can I ask you what you're taking away from your time in Bulgaria? Is there a particular moment that stood out that you would like to share with our listeners before I let you go?
Chris Curran (25:39):
I was able to help with some of the logistical organizing for the visits of an American guy named Charles Slender-White, who is a dance choreographer who has a dance troop in the Bay Area in California, and his family has Roma heritage. So he just, you know, was part of going on a journey of discovering this aspect of his own identity and composing an artistic performance, that would reflect his understanding of what it means to identify as a Roma person. And he brought this performance to Bulgaria and had…he organized, you know, performance events, but also really intimate workshops with a lot of the Roma youth that we were working with at the Trust for Social Achievement in English classes. So they came and participated in these movement and dance workshops. And at one moment kind of spontaneously, they were sitting in a circle and Charles had been learning the what's considered by a lot of people to be the Roma national anthem - if you can consider the Roma people as being a nation, then this song “Gelem, Gelem” has a lot of resonance and deep sense of connection to the shared roots for Roma people across the Roma diaspora.
So he sang it with the kids who were there to participate in the workshop. And I think it was very moving for him to feel the connection with them. And for them also having grown up feeling that this aspect of themselves, their Roma identity, is so denigrated in a lot of situations in the media in Bulgaria, in casual conversations at school - for them to see somebody who is a preeminent figure in the dance world, who has had a lot of success and who values that aspect of his identity so much that he wants to cross the ocean and come and share what he has learned about how it contributes to making him who he is - that I think helped foster their sense of pride and in their identity. And I felt really privileged to just be holding space there. I wasn't part of that circle, but I was there on the periphery as one of the people who was organizing the logistics of the space. And I was really honored to be able to support what they were doing there.
Susanne Hamscha (28:03):
On March 12th the European Council adopted a recommendation on Roma equality, inclusion, and participation, stepping up the member states' commitment to effectively fight discrimination against Roma people and to promote their inclusion in the key areas of education, employment, health and housing. The recommendation also reflects the needs of specific groups and the diversity of the Roma population.
It highlights the importance of the equal participation of Roma in society and of their role in policy-making. It outlines a comprehensive list of suggested measures in key areas ranging from access to education, the labor market and health to promoting active participation in civil society and partnerships. This is an important step in combating structural discrimination against Roma in Bulgaria and across Europe.
This was another episode of Fulbright Forward, A Diversity Podcast. Please join us again next time.