A Brighter Future: Helping Macedonia's Roma Secure Their Rights

In a settlement on a hillside in Gostivar, Mace­donia, one-room houses dot the hillside. A few residents carrying buckets step carefully over open sewage ditches on their way to their only source of clean water, two communal faucets provided by the city. As Muhamed Toci walks up, the settlement’s Roma residents crowd around him, greeting him affectionately by his nickname, Muki.

Toci, himself Roma, leads Mesecina, a local nonprofit that helps the Roma community (some­times inaccurately called gypsies) by offering assis­tance with obtaining identification papers, provid­ing free legal council, and advocating on their behalf with local and state agencies. Demand for their services is high: they serve some 100 people a month, and as one Roma man put it, “everyone knows if they need help to come to Mesecina.”

Today, people crowd around Toci to update him on their latest news. One woman carries a new baby. Another tells Toci that although he has arranged for her children to go to school, she is embarrassed to send them without new clothes. A young man thanks Toci for helping him get his identification papers, which have allowed him to leave Gostivar for the first time in 15 years without the police stopping him.

Mesecina was founded in 1993 to deliver much-needed food and clothing to the Roma as the former Yugoslavia dissolved. By 1999, however, Toci and his colleagues wanted to move their focus from humanitarian aid to assistance that would equip the Roma to help themselves and to fight the widespread discrimination that is at the source of many of their problems. The largest ethnic minority in Europe, the official number of Roma in Macedonia is 54,000, but nonprofits estimate that there are more than 100,000. A 2003 United Nations Development Program report stated that most “endure living conditions closer to those of sub-Saharan Africa than to Europe.”

One of Mesecina’s main goals is to help Roma get identification papers, without which Macedonians cannot legally work, attend school, access health insurance or social services, marry, travel freely about the country—or be counted in the nation’s census. With high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, many cannot navigate the system for getting such papers nor afford the fees. Children cannot get birth certificates unless their parents have them, so often the path to obtaining them is long and complicated, particularly if they were born in another part of the former Yugoslavia.

ISC provides intensive trainings and mentoring to Mesecina to help this already exceptional nonprofit become more sustainable over the long term—and lead a network of six civic advisory centers across Macedonia work­ing with the Roma. Toci says ISC’s Advocacy Fel­lowship, for example, showed him that educating civil servants was equally important as educating Roma, and now offers training to both groups.

This work is part of ISC’s nationwide pro­gram to boost the effectiveness of a core group of nonprofits, ensuring that they and their valuable work will thrive well into the future. In partner­ship with the Macedonian Institute for the Media, we are training Roma to be journalists so that they can elevate Roma issues in the media. And we also work with two other Roma-led nonprofits, includ­ing KHAM in eastern Macedonia, and ARKA, based in Skopje, the capital city. “Without identification papers, how can we talk about education, employment, human rights, or integration?” says Rexhep Alicupi, a lawyer for ARKA. “This is the first step if we want to improve the situation of Roma in Macedonia. It all starts here.”

Back in his office in Gostivar, Toci explains how state agencies often take advantage of the Roma’s illiteracy and lack of education to deny them services, harass them, or ar­rest them without cause. He cites an incident from several years ago in which a teenaged Roma boy was killed when a car ran a stoplight. Because the boy had no identifica­tion, the police decided that he didn’t officially exist, and therefore the driver could not be prosecuted.

While this is an extreme case, says Toci, the lack of identification papers continues to be a source of daily problems. While Mesecina has a strong relationship with the local schools and has convinced them to allow Roma children to attend without birth certificates, Roma in other cities are not so lucky. On weekdays, settlements around Macedonia are filled with out-of-school children and unemployed adults.

Still, the mood is bright. “What makes me proud is what we do on a daily basis,” says Shukri Toci (no relation), who works with Toci at Mesecina. “I get my energy from how we help the Roma change their lives—when they share their problems with us and we help them.”