"Christians & muslims keep us in distance"
Interview with Sabiha Suleyman, Roma Activist in Greece & President of NGO "Hope" In Thrace
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Sabiha Suleyman is a passionate activist for the rights of Roma in Thrace, Greece, and President of the Women's NGO "Hope". Far from being involved in mainstream politics, she was nominated candidate with the front opposition party SYRIZA for the elections of the European Parliament on May 2014. But just a couple of days later, the party decided to drop endorsement. From this point onward, someone could literally find a strong correlation between the forced stepping down from politics and what this interview finally unveils: a constant struggle for commonsense, that is the equal access to education, health, and human living conditions.
In the framework of our Rethink Education Project, Sabiha Suleyman discussed with Dimitris Rapidis, Director @Bridging Europe, over a string of issues pertaining the daily life of Roma in Drosero, Xanthi, the public and local policy, the involvement of the European Union, the relation with the Greek Muslim minority, and the deep-rooted stereotypes.
The interview is also available in Greek.
What are the living standards of Roma in Greece?
There are many and striking differences between the living standards of Roma and those of the rest of the population in Greece. A big part of the Roma population -counting for 200,000- is living in Third World conditions, facing major problems such as access to health, work, and shelter. In addition to that, the penalization of activities such as selling balloons and flowers or collecting recycling garbage, create a constant sense of fugitive. I invite you to just try to follow the process for a Roma to acquire a license for selling goods in public markets - you will not believe it...
This hardship and struggle has a direct impact to the younger generation, but also to the children that grow up in fear and, many times, with no access to education. The current financial crisis in Greece has additionally aggravated the conditions.
Which are the biggest problems that your community is faced with?
We are living in Thrace since 1922, when our ancestors fled from Minor Asia. We also have relatives in other parts of Greece, second and third generation refugees, that are Christians.
Nonetheless, our village and settlements are considered illegal. Our houses are considered illegal, as well as the premises of our NGO "Hope". This perception of illegality sweeps our identity altogether, with the local authorities trying to get rid of us with any possible manner. Since the last couple of years, hatred has been transformed into ignorance. The most appalling observation that I can make is that despite all these decades living side by side with the rest of the Greeks, there still exist counselors in our municipality in Xanthi that still believe that the only solution to the problems of our settlements is their total destruction.
We have repeatedly propose to the local authorities that our settlements need to enter into the city plan and improve our sanitary conditions. We have as much students as the entire municipality of Xanthi, but instead we have a tiny school, with classes being built the one over the other in a frivolous patchwork. More than that many children do not go to school while the performance of the students attending school is extremely disappointing. The parents are illiterate and cannot help them. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation had funded a learning program as well as a kindergarten, that our NGO had prepared, but suddenly funding stopped. Since then education fell into arrears, and thousands of children still remain uneducated. In addition to that, our life expectancy is shrinking, being lowered down to 55 years old in average.
What is your relation with Greek Muslim in Thrace?
Christians and Muslims keep us in distance. Even if linguistically we are closer to the Muslims, their representatives approach us only for propaganda. Citizens of Drosero in Xanthi want to be first of all Greek citizens, with equal access in education and fair social inclusion. Our religious customs and traditions lead their own, unique way. Our language is unique. Greek Muslims in Thrace have their own, organized and representative institutions, with which we have no relation. They also speak a different language.
Are there any relevant statistics regarding the access of Roma in education and the job market?
Unfortunately I have no statistics at my disposal. But the general image is that the conditions of other Roma in Greece is not that far away from ours..
Which are the activities and goals of your NGO "Hope" in Drosero?
During the last years we have made everything possible to support our community. We have achieved, with the strong support of non-Roma individuals from the local society to enhance and broaden our school premises, increase the number of students and educators, create supportive lessons and a kindergarten and press the Mayor to build the first public square in our "illegal" settlements. We have also motivated NGOs and doctors that wanted to help us improve our sanitary conditions. We have achieved after all to make our citizens feel a bit like human beings - at least for a while...
We are also trying to support our people when they face problems with the state, especially on health issues. The support we had received from Stavros Niarchos Foundation had an impact in all aspects of life and of our activities. You see, at the end of the day everything starts from education and a good meal...
In addition, we want to improve our living conditions and bring back hundreds of children at school, increase their performance in classes, and help them graduate. We try to enter our settlements into the city and urban plan and stop feeling guilty every minute of our lives. We fight for becoming equal citizens of this country.
In what degree the Greek state has contributed to the improvement of your living conditions, integration and development?
The Greek state merely sticks to automation, which is that as long as we have school the state pay incomes and reparation costs without counting and caring about real education, learning difficulties or the fact that the majority of children do not attend school or do not even know to speak Greek.
In this respect, and as long as we enjoy water supply and electricity, the state does not care about our people. From there on, we have arrests and fines. Have you ever wondered how many Roma are in prison, especially in comparison with the overall population? To be honest, and above all, what strikes me the most is that despite the fact that our settlements have many times gathered the attention of the media, the Greek state, the government, the opposition have done nothing to improve our living conditions.
What is the involvement of the European Union and with which programs?
This is a true quagmire... Yes, we do support the different cultural frameworks and their maintenance, as stated in all EU programs, but for us the most important thing is to be considered as equal citizens. With equal rights and obligations. We do want to preserve our culture and language, our special features, but above all we need health and education.
Do you believe that the Greek society is aware of the Roma? Their culture, civilization, as well as the problems they face?
I do believe that the Greek society, as well as the European one, have certain stereotypes over Roma. A bit of demonization, fear, and margin. It is not easy to get rid of that, except for the magnificent Roma musicians that have conquered the entire world with their music and talent. Besides that, there is a kind of romantism over the tales of Roma and so the problems we face are kept under the carpet.
According to your opinion, why the region of Thrace is one of the poorest in the European Union?
Really? I did not know that... But if we think of the structural funds that have been spent all these decades for "industry growth" and "manufacturing units", leaving nothing behind, it is normal. We never saw these funds nor the ones destined to the education of Muslim and Roma children. In addition to that, another issue we face is that a big part of the local income flees to Turkey.
From a wider perspective and since the 1950s we have also experienced a strong incline towards urbanization. The same applies to Thrace, but conditions were even worse here. All things considered, the problem in Thrace is not the composition of the population but the lack of interest from all relevant factors.