Last week I walked through Makis, a district in Belgrade, Serbia that is now home to approximately 60 Roma families who were resettled from Belvil a month ago (See: Respecting rights and dignity in Belgrade), and 37 other families who were resettled from beneath the nearby Gazella Bridge more than two years ago.
These two cohorts of families were resettled from equally deplorable circumstances, but now live in adjacent neighborhoods that are visibly different.
The differences in living circumstance between the two settlements struck me, and begged the question:
What can we do to bring the quality of life of Belvil-Makis families up to that of the earlier arrivals?
To find the answer, my friend Dragan Ristic and I visited the two neighborhoods and spoke with a handful of families in each. Dragan is a community leader who recently established the European Roma Cultural Center (ERCC) in the Belgrade district known as Cukarica – not far from Makis.
Supported by Belgrade municipality, the ERCC engages Roma kids in arts, culture and education. This is one of several excellent education-focused initiatives that Belgrade Mayor Dragan Đilas has supported with partners like the ERCC, and Civic Initiatives.
Civic Initiatives deploys university students to vulnerable communities in Belgrade where they teach adult literacy and numeracy, and inspire them to support children’s education. The university students get college scholarships in return, thus contributing to an upward spiral of knowledge, awareness and understanding.
Everyone that Dragan and I met in Belvil was poor and struggling.
Small and cramped, many of the trailers leaked, and water dripped in through open front doors that didn’t have canopies. It was raining quite hard when we were there, and many reported a bizarre electrical problem – short circuits caused mild electric shocks when residents touched metal in the trailers. City electricians have been called and plan to fix the problem.
The Belvil families complained that their new homes were isolated from city transport, so many can no longer work in traditional waste collection and recycling. Some of the families rely on soup kitchens for food, but they are far away, and often go hungry.
We saw lots of little kids – some probably old enough to go to school – dirty faced and without shoes. Older kids, we learned, were bussed back to their old schools in New Belgrade, where they are taunted and harassed. I find it hard to believe that the harassment has anything to do with the resettlement – and suspect that this is simply the discrimination that these families endure on a daily basis.
We left the Belvil families downtrodden.
What had happened? Evidence of the encouraging work relocating the families a month ago was dissipating.
Before returning to the office, we visited the Gazella-Makis neighborhood, literally 10 metres away on the other side of a hedge. There, the conditions were strikingly better.
Of course, the families in Gazella are still poor, but they are settled and have hope – at least this is what they told us. Many have built small fences, planted small gardens and flowers in window boxes. A lot of trailers have antennas, and one even had an air conditioning unit on top. This neighborhood has playgrounds on either end, with swings and seesaws.
There weren’t too many kids or adults around: They were evidently in school or at work.
I asked two women about the canopies over their doors – did they always have these? No, they replied. It took the city about four months to install the canopies on their trailers, it happened about the same time the concrete steps were built.
“Was this expensive?” I asked.
“About 70 euros,” said a young man who had finished his shift as a street sweeper – a city job provided after he had moved from beneath the Gazella bridge.
“It wasn’t always this way,” he said. “When we first arrived we had lots of problems, some have been addressed, some haven’t.”
“Which ones haven’t,” I asked?
“We’re still poor,” he responded. “But, we’re better off here in Makis than we were before.”
The women told us that they look forward to moving into permanent housing, the way about 20 of the original Gazella families already had. But the women were not unhappy or unsatisfied.
What will it take to improve the quality of life for the families in these two neighborhoods?
Efforts to secure temporary housing for Belvil residents, and respect the rights and dignity of the families should be acknowledged, but it’s just the beginning of the story.
The municipality, NGOs and the international community must maintain focus and sustain the momentum of the resettlement.
Canopies, concrete steps, electrical insulation and other essentials have to be provided as soon as possible.
But we must move rapidly towards long-term solutions that include employment, and access to health, education, legal and social services.