It Takes a Village A Roma Community Fights Against the Odds

The village of Alsószentmárton is at the very margins of Europe, one of the last places in Hungary before the Croation border. And all its people are Roma, among the most marginalized in the EU. But a church-run project there aims to break the cycle of social exclusion and educational disadvantage.

By Siobhán Dowling in Alsószentmárton, Hungary 

Siobhán Dowling

There are no shops, cafes or other small businesses in Alsószentmárton. One of the few things that stands out from the rows of one-story, shabby houses, is the imposing white church at the entrance to the village. Children play and cycle their bikes on the streets and young women, not much older, push strollers and call out greetings to one another.

Alsószentmárton is a small village in southwestern Hungary and all of its residents are Roma, Europe's most marginalized people. Living here on the very edge of the European Union, right up against the border with Croatia, the villagers are fighting the affects of decades of social exclusion and disadvantage. A project run by the local Catholic priest is attempting to tackle that poverty and to address one of the Roma population's biggest handicaps: the lack of access to a decent education.

Father József Lánko, a huge burly man with a white beard, wears a brown woolly jumper. The 55-year-old has been in the village for 30 years and has seen firsthand the ravages caused by the economic turmoil that followed the end of communism. "Earlier everyone had a job, the people in this village were in construction or road building," he explains. "They had a minimum salary, but it was certain that every month they would have money, so they lived in security." With the fall of the Iron Curtain, from one day to the next, they lost everything.

"The people live like beggars now," Lánko says. "It is against human dignity, it would be much better if they could take care of their own families by working."

Lánko says the unemployment here fluctuates. It is 90 percent most of the year, but drops to 60 percent during the wine harvest season -- the village is located near Hungary's famous Wine Road -- when the people are employed in the local vineyards. "There is little here in winter, the families have nothing to eat, then we help for a few days, give them something so they don't have to starve," he says.

Difficult Relations with Neighbors

With financial backing from Renovabis, a German charity which funds projects in Eastern Europe, the church now provides the village's poorest people with donated clothes and daily hot meals. The village's 1,200 residents are Boyash, a distinct group of Roma, whose language is an archaic form of Romanian. For most, Hungarian isn't their mother tongue. Lánko and other church workers also help bridge the language barrier by assisting when it comes to filling out forms or dealing with banks and state organizations.

As Roma they are members of Europe's largest minority group, thought to number between 10 and 12 million. Most Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe, and many of them live in extreme poverty. Hungary, home to some 700,000 Roma, says it wants to tackle the Roma issue during its six-month EU presidency. But Budapest, never mind Brussels, couldn't seem any farther away in this isolated place.

Alsószentmárton is surrounded by flat fields as far as the eye can see, but the villagers don't own the land. It used to be a mixed village, but then the non-Roma population began to abandon farming in the 1960s and 1970s and moved away to work in factories and industry. Although the Roma managed to buy homes cheaply, they couldn't afford the surrounding land. Now, even if they wanted to move away they couldn't sell their houses.

Lánko says relations with the wider non-Roma community can be fraught with problems. "When they need unskilled laborers, then the relationship is very good, they are cheap labor," he says. "But in winter when the gypsies are freezing, and they go out and get some wood, they don't ask who owns it. And then there is trouble."

He says that Alsószentmárton is plagued by the usual social problems that accompany poverty, including alchoholism. And the people here also suffer from a terrible kind of exploitation in which other Roma charge them huge interest payments on loans in a predatory manner.

"We cannot really protect the people. No one can protect me from myself," the priest argues. He does, though, try to help people apply for normal bank loans so they can escape the punitive payments to loan sharks.

The people here may live in relative isolation, some 230 kilometers (142 miles) away from Budapest, but they are still aware of the increase in violence against the Roma there, including a series of murders in 2008 and 2009 and the marches by the now-banned Hungarian Guard. Nor can they miss the prevalance of hate-filled anti-Roma rhetoric in Hungary, particularly from the far-right Jobbik party. Lánko is scathing about the claims by members of Jobbik, now the third biggest party in parliament, that the Roma are work-shy, and have many children simply to get access to generous welfare support payments.

"That is rubbish," he fumes. "They would like to work here, if there was work. And it is also rubbish that a family can live on child allowance. Please try -- those people from Jobbik should try living on child allowance, or on the small amount of social welfare. It's impossible."

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