Anastasia Kanareva, Bohdan Kinashchuk
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4 Stories About the Harsh Lives of Roma People in Ukraine
The occupation of Crimea and ongoing conflict in the east of Ukraine has forced thousands of Romani people to flee these regions. Now, they have been forced to become internally displaced persons (IDPs) and move from place to place in search of a corner to call home. Romani people form a particularly vulnerable group among Ukrainian IDPs and in Ukrainian society, disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination, lack of civil documentation and statelessness.

Hromadske went to find out what life is like for a displaced Romani person in Ukraine. Here are four stories recounting the diverse experiences of displaced Romani people, in their own words.

"Son, where are your white socks?" the woman says, in a small room cluttered with Soviet furniture. She takes a boy's three-piece suit from the wardrobe and a white shirt with short sleeves, laying them on the couch. "Where are those socks?"
A disheveled six-year-old boy with freshly washed hair runs out of the bathroom and joins the search. He looks under the wardrobe: "Here they are mom!" "Well how am I supposed to reach them now? I'm not moving it myself," the woman sighs. "Damn them, you'll wear black ones."
Galyna is getting her son Vova ready for kindergarten. It is his last day there, then he will have summer holidays and start first grade. She's dressing him in his best clothes, tying his bowtie and putting on his patent leather shoes.
"Vovka you look like a groom!" his grandmother says.

The little boy smiles constantly and doesn't shy away from the camera.

Vova and his family moved to Podvorky, a village near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, from Stakhanov–a city in the occupied Luhansk region. In Luhansk, this large Romani family lived in their own house. When the war started, Stakhanov came under control of militants from the so-called Luhansk People's Republic. Galyna, her four children and the aunts and uncles they lived with had to flee. The children's father stayed in Stakhanov, where he has another family.

"My husband didn't come with us, it's better for him there. I'm primarily a mother and I care for my children," Galyna says.

Galyna has fair skin and bright green eyes: her appearance is not typical of Romani people. In addition to Vova, she has other three children– two daughters, Regina and Ilona and an older son, Rustam, who has a mild form of developmental delay.

All the children go to school. In Podvorky, the family rents a three bedroom apartment. It is modest and hasn't been renovated, but it's very bright and clean.
Galyna pays for housing herself with the help of resettlement payments. In the summer, she receives around 2500 UAH [96 USD] a month, and in the winter, she receives twice as much. It's expensive but finding affordable housing for a big family there is difficult.

"It's the cheapest apartment there is here. Our neighbours are a little cautious because we are Roma and because I'm alone with the children. They have all kinds of questions...but we're not different from other people!" Galyna says.

At school the children are teased and called gypsies. Other parents are not happy with the fact that there are Romani children in the class. "We IDPs are here as strangers, but we're staying," she states.

However, Galyna is no longer concerned about the prejudice of local residents. Sometimes she has nothing to feed her children. In the winter, when an apartment and heating cost more than 5000 UAH [approximately 192 USD], they survived with the help of humanitarian aid and ate nothing but macaroni. Galyna doesn't talk about this. We found out from her uncle, who is a pensioner – a gray-haired man in a bright Hawaiian shirt, tired but pleasantly ironic.

Podvorky is a small village. The majority of people work in Kharkiv – two bus stops from the village. In the town, there is enough work for everyone, but employers ask for a record of employment. Galyna doesn't have one. "The only work I'm offered is washing dishes, from 7am to 3pm for 70 UAH [less than 3 USD–ed.]," Galyna tells Hromadske. "If I don't find anything else I'll have to take it."

The doorbell rings. Galyna excuses herself and runs to the exit. In a few minutes she returns with 150 UAH [approximately 5.75 USD] in her hands. She borrowed it from the neighbours to pay for the dessert table at the kindergarten. We go out into the street together. The elderly relatives stay home and the other children go for a walk in the courtyard. "You forgot the flowers! The flowers!" Vova's uncle says as he catches up to them.
The little boy returns carrying a big pink flower. He is very proud of it and his suit. He and his mother hurry to the kindergarten.

Zola Kondur
human rights activist
Roma Women's Fund Chiricli
According to Zola Kondur, a human rights activist from the Roma Women's Fund Chiricli, Romani people who moved from the occupied territories to other regions face a high level of discrimination. "It's more difficult for them than other IDPs," she told Hromadske.

"It is more difficult to rent housing, to find jobs. 20 to 30 percent of them don't have documents, and therefore, not all of them can prove to government bodies that they actually lived in the occupied regions. Many humanitarian organizations working with IDPs don't consider Romani people their target group."

"The troops began to enter the village, they brought tanks and armoured cars. The military settled on our streets. We packed our things and left our home."

A tired woman says as she heats baby formula with warm water. A dark-haired three-year-old girl pulls at her skirt, demanding attention. They stand in the middle of a tiny kitchen with a large window that takes up almost the whole wall. The woman's name is Tamara, the little girl is Yana.

"Going to Russia was out of the question. Nobody needs strangers. In Kyiv–that's our country, our motherland. We weren't received happily here. We've been here three years and the neighbours have just started greeting us. My son Samir is dark. In the courtyard he told the boys he's from Dagestan. He asked: Mom, don't say that we're Roma–no one will be friends with me."
Tamara puts the baby formula in a bottle and gives it to her daughter, holding the baby in her arms. She clings to her mother.
Yana was born in a Donetsk hospital. On that day the city was severely shelled. The little girl was born prematurely and breathing through a machine. Her mother couldn't take her to the bomb shelter in the basement of the hospital to hide from the shelling when the other women hid their children. "My mother, she can't walk, she sleeps here with Yana and Alena. The rest sleep on the floor. All together there are eleven of us here–five adults and six children," Tamara says, showing Hromadske's journalists a single room.

On a pullout couch sits an elderly woman in a black polkadot dress and a headscarf. The children somersault around her. By the wall there is a lacquered Soviet sideboard and laundry hangs on the doors. "The children want meat and potatoes and sweets...And we can't always give them that. My oldest son, he's 17, made friends with the boys here. They have everything, phones and laptops. We don't have our own phone!" Tamara laments. "But if we were home and I was working, we would have everything."

Her whole life, Tamara sold bedlinens at the market in Dokuchayevsk, a city in the Donetsk region. She had her own kiosk. When militants from the so-called Donetsk People's Republic came to the city, the market caught fire from shelling and burned to the ground. "People think we've always lived like this, that we travel around everywhere. It's not true, we had a house!" says the elderly woman.
"I want to be a special forces officer. I'm tired of everyone calling me names!"
Ivan, an eight-year-old boy with glasses. He listens closely to what the adults are saying. He says that in the courtyard he only talks with those from Donetsk, who are also IDPs. The other children don't want to be friends with them.

The southern outskirts of Toretsk, a city in the Donetsk region, are practically deserted. It's four in the afternoon. In the middle of a small square is a flowerbed. Behind it a one-story Soviet building made of bricks, one so ridiculous that it seems the one who built it gave up halfway. This is the former "Start" movie theatre. Movies haven't been shown here for a long time, the building is rented to the Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ.

The building is as strange inside as outside. Two huge flags hang from the ceiling in the former theatre–Ukrainian and Israeli. A disco ball spins from the ceiling. The middle of the stage is cluttered with paper flowers and speakers. A man of about fifty sits on a chairs and plays the accordion. "Bless you, our Lord, Lord of the Universe" is written above the stage.
"I play the accordion. In Mariupol I played in restaurants," the man, named Yura, says. "I've been playing since childhood."
Nine years ago, Yura and his family moved to Toretsk from the south. He bought a house here where he lives with his wife, Galya, his youngest son and grandson. Yura has already been playing in an amateur Romani ensemble, organized by a social worker, for a month and a half. Yura plays the accordion and keyboards, his neighbour plays the guitar, his wife dances and sings. Most of the songs are traditional Romani music, but there are also some in other languages.

"We're Ukrainians...we speak in Ukrainian and Russian. There's no difference to us. I was in Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Zaporizhia. In Mariupol I played at weddings all over," the musician recalls, sighing. "And now that's all in the past."

Yura and his newly gathered ensemble have only played in public once. He says he didn't like it because the artists lacked professionalism.

"Me and the guys played and played...and they stood there and clapped. They should have formed a choir, so the public, like they say, won't get bored," he complains. "I would sing myself, like before, but I have no teeth left. I'm not going to lisp into the microphone!"

An eight-year-old boy brings Yura a file with papers and a passport. This is his grandson, David. Along with his grandmother, they received a few boxes of humanitarian aid. It is distributed here, in a room adjacent to the cinema. Yura is proud of his grandson.
He says he raised him to never ask people for anything, as often happens with Romani children.
"I lived in Mariupol. Why did I move here, fool? There people were pleasant, it's a port city, by the sea. And what is here? In Mariupol I worked as a janitor, like my husband. We had a small room. Then there wasn't a war, there weren't such problems," says Yura's wife Galya. "Now we'll fix someone's fence, then we'll do some more work for other people. We need money to send our grandson to school."

David's mother works but his father has died. His grandfather and grandmother take care of him as if he were their own child.

"I have a dream that he'll learn English," his grandmother says.

The war caught Yura and his family at a bad time. He is unemployed and so is his wife. All three, along with their grandson, are going to the bus stop to get home. They're carrying heavy cardboard boxes of humanitarian aid. Two local women pass by.

"Are they giving out humanitarian aid there?"
they ask, seeing the boxes. "They're giving it to Romani people, at the Church," Yura answers. "It's all clear. Those who don't work get to eat," the women say and walk away.

Yura does not pay attention to them. They reach the stop at the intersection of two streets.
An armoured personnel carrier passes by carrying soldiers. They call out to everyone to move and free up their path .

Olga Rudenko
Romani social worker in Toretsk
"A Roma life is very short. I have never seen a Romani person who lived past 70." Olga Rudenko, a Romani social worker in Toretsk, tells Hromadske.

"Romani women are exhausted and thin. They do not eat well because everything is given to the children. It is often said that Roma are nomads. But it's one thing to roam willingly, it's another to be forced to. During the war, our entire country knew the fate of the Roma and felt what it was like to move and try to find one's place among others. Integration is possible when there is acceptance. People need to understand that 'Gypsy' is not an insult. Not all of them steal, not all of them are being lazy. They should not be perceived through the prism of stereotypes that have evolved over the centuries. I know Romani people working in forestry, in mines. They want to change and live normal lives, but also to save their traditions. There aren't always conditions for this."

A man walks among the set pieces on an empty stage. He arranges chairs, takes a candle and places it on the table at the edge of the stage. He place two packs of thin cigarettes nearby. The hall is dimly lit, the floor is carpeted, and the walls are hung with different textured clothes. The man is over forty, his long hair is combed back and marked with gray, his movements are unhurried. The way he carries himself makes it clear he is in charge here.

"The communists didn't come up with the word 'propaganda.' Here we are engaged in cultural propaganda. We want to show different nations our culture, uniqueness, our energy and problems. These aren't purely Roma problems, but universal. The problems we all have are the same, after all."

Ihor Krykunov is a folk artist and the artists director of the Kyiv theatre "Romans." It's a Roma or "Gypsy" theatre, as the actors themselves call it. The troupe has been around for twenty-four years and is based in the former "Bolshevik" House of Culture in Kyiv.

A few minutes later the musicians enter the hall. They set up their instruments–synthesizers and guitars. Ihor also takes up a guitar. In the neighbouring hall women noisily congratulate one of the actresses on her birthday. Soon after they slowly come onto the stage, in bright skirts and flowered shawls. Sneakers peek out from under their skirts.

"You have to understand that you aren't just ordinary people from the market! You have to feel it! If you don't care, me, the audience in the room – we won't care either," says Ihor, lecturing the artists.

The troupe is rehearsing "Gypsy Nights," a performance in verse that will open the new Fall theatre season. The performance is about Roma culture, whose work has inspired famous poets, including Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.

Live music accompanies the women as they dance on stage and actors act out poetic scenes one after another. The director sits in the front row of the audience and lights a cigarette, attentively watching what is happening.

"If society is cultivated, stereotypes will disappear. In every man lives Christ and Judas, in every nation there is one and the other," Ihor tells Hromadske.

"But which of us are horse thieves today? People say that we eat children...We don't eat children! When our civil society rises to another level–culturally and intellectually – stereotypes will disappear."
As women dance to live music on stage, actors play poetic scenes one by one. The Head of the theatre sits in the front raw and lights a cigarette as he watches after the play.
Roma are one of two nationalities that Ukrainians don't want to see
in the country
Ukraine's Romani population was the victim of mass extermination at the hands of Nazi forces and their allies in World War II. Estimates place the number of Romani people killed during the war on what is now Russian and Ukrainian territory at over 300,000. Around 12,000 Roma were killed during the Babyn Yar massacre in Kyiv in 1943 alone.

Today, Ukraine's Roma population includes approximately 50,000 people. As early as 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that 10,000 Romani people had fled from their residences in the east of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine claims that Roma are one of two nationalities that Ukrainians don't want to see in the country (the other is Chechens).

In March 2017, Kyiv authorities evicted almost 300 Romani people, including 200 children, from shanty town, deporting them to the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine where 30 percent of the country's Roma population lives. Before the Romani people were evicted from the camp, unidentified attackers set it on fire.

The arson attack on this settlement in Kyiv and its population's subsequent deportation is just one example of severe discrimination against Romani people in Ukraine. In 2016, ethnic clashes occurred in the southern Odesa region, when local residents attacked and set several Romani houses on fire in the village of Loschynivka after one Romani man was accused of killing a 9-year-old child. The village council subsequently ordered the deportation of the entire Romani community.

In 2013, Ukraine's government adopted "Strategy 2020," an initiative aimed at integrating Romani people into Ukrainian society. Roma rights activists, on the other hand, claim that conditions have not improved for Romani people in Ukraine in recent years. Many still live in segregated areas, below the poverty line and without proper access to education and medical care.
/Reporting by Anastasia Kanareva & Bohdan Kinashchuk

/Translated by Eilish Hart

This project was realized with financial support from the government of Canada.

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