Mennonite Central Committee
First person: Eleonora
Originally published at: https://mcc.org/stories/first-person-eleonora
I am a Roma woman, and I am the director of Blaho Charitable Fund. We provide educational support for Roma children, and since the war started last year, we have run a shelter for Roma families who have been displaced.
Roma people face a lot of discrimination. I completed my education at what at the time was a Russian school. I was the only Roma girl in the class. All the rest were Ukrainian. I received a full secondary education and I graduated from a vocational technical college, and I could not find any work. I was even looking for work as a cleaner.
There was an advertisement in the paper for a cleaner in a hotel. I rang the landline and asked about it. They said, “Yes, we do need a cleaner, please come by.” But when I got there the director looks me up and down from head to toe, and then very politely asks, “Excuse me, are you a gypsy?” (Roma people also are referred to as gypsies, a term many people see as derogatory.) I said, “Yes, I am a gypsy.”
And she said, “Oh, you know, we’re looking for someone with a higher education. You know, you have to behave in a diplomatic way here.”
And I looked at her and said, “Excuse me, but do I really need a college degree to mop and sweep floors?” She spoke to me very politely, so at least she was not rude, but this moment is forever imprinted in my head, and it hurt me a great deal.
I have come across this discrimination again and again. I understand that my people are simply a pariah, they are humiliated, they are not accepted at all. I just try to forget about all these burdens and stresses and look to God, who loves and accepts us.
When the invasion started, we noticed that the latent discrimination against Roma became very much open. Nobody wanted to offer the Roma any shelter, and so they simply slept on the bare concrete outside railway stations with little children.
It was a complete nightmare. I came to the station and saw that nobody was taking them in. Some people tried to help, tried to send them somewhere else. But in general, people simply ignored the Roma, which was a terrible shock for me.
We closed the school immediately on the 24th of February (when the Russian military invasion began) because we did not know if bombs were going to be falling in this region.
We created a small shelter at the school. There is no running water here, or heating. The living conditions were hard on both little children and adults, but they were grateful to have a roof over their heads. We bought mattresses and an electric stove to make tea, but we could not fit many people here.
After some negotiation with the owner of a restaurant and hotel that had been closed for nine years, I was able to rent that space to open a bigger shelter. Since then, we have taken in many refugees. We provide hygiene, three meals a day that are supported by MCC, and we have a school program three times per week. We have art therapy for children and adults, a psychologist and a lawyer. Doctors Without Borders comes once a week or every two weeks, whenever they are available. We are constantly looking for help so we are very grateful for the support and assistance we get from MCC.
As told to Emily Loewen
Eleonora (full name not used for security reasons) is director of Blaho Charitable Fund in Ukraine.