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Roma in Serbia by Claudia Leisinger

“Roma in Serbia” is my ongoing audiovisual documentation of a few Roma families in Serbia.

Roma are the third-largest minority group in Serbia and their existence and way of life within the Balkans is longstanding, complex and challenging. They often live on the margins of society, subject to widespread poverty and discrimination, to the extent that the UN released a statement of concern about their exclusion and inequitable access to education, housing, employment and legal protection.

Serbia, currently in accession talks with the EU, now has an obligation to address integration of their minorities as part of its entry requirements. They are building social housing in a collaborative project with the EU & UN.

One project, the Dweller Driven Upgrading of Roma Settlements, run by the charity HEKS and their Serbian partners EHO, shows a more holistic approach. It helps Roma families upgrade their existing, substandard domiciles, step by step, by themselves.

Balkaza, Daliborka & Gilbana are three women married to three brothers. Together they have 12 children and grandchildren. Nineteen people in all live on this small patch of land with no access to the water mains or the sewage system.

Longstanding poverty in a monetary based society is so much more eroding then I have ever understood. Like water on earth it slowly seeps into every aspect of life, chipping away one option for improvement after the other, until the person is rendered truly powerless.

A very typical interior wall decoration of a Roma family home, memories of the ancestors hang on the wall, however there is not enough money to buy a frame. Roma settlement, Novi Sad, Serbia, 2018.

From initial application to actual construction, the families are in an active position. Once the application is approved, the municipality must supply deeds to the land and provide access to water, electricity and sanitation.

The project’s innovative and intricate structure has a strong emphasis on individual responsibility. The exchange of help, potentially creating dependency and expectation, is carefully considered and provides real incentive for the different stakeholders – Roma families, the surrounding communities and the municipality – to work together.

A woman from the village came to have Balkaza read her fortune from her Turkish coffee cup. Her son Gabriel observes the situation, while his eldest cousin waits for a cigarette. Balajnac, Merošina, near Nîs, Southern Serbia, 2018.

This story opens up many important questions around modern migration and integration. Will such a collaboration help create new perspectives on “the other”. How much of that barrier, shaped and maintained over generations, can it break down? How can we better distribute our shared but finite resources and services? How much must minorities conform to established social norms for integration to be successful?

In Western Europe we have successfully controlled our environment to make it as non- invasive and non-aggressive as possible. Now we contemplate its beauty and maybe even mourn the loss of the wild, but it is kept at a manageable distance and we engage with it on our terms.

Kristina's life hangs in the balance, having just finished her mandatory schooling, which she excelled at, she has realised that her family hasn't enough money for her to attend secondary school. They can't afford the bus fare, lunch or book money that a school further away entails. Without that Kristina is destined to become a labourer like her mother, who works sometimes for as little as 5 € day.
Daliborka's daughter sweeps the floor amid all the building elements they will later use to build their first toilet. Daliborka never went to school and subsequently can't write or read. Either do any of her two daughters who were both born with yet to be diagnosed disabilities.

In Serbia that process of controlled environment v. wild environment is at a different stage, at least definitely for people with no means. The environment is still wild, abundant and invasive. Its beauty and power are obvious and with this uncontrollable force comes also a tangible cruelty, a struggle for survival of the weakest creatures. This cruelty is mirrored in the lives of the people I have met.

Gilbana, mother of five, is the furnace of this “tribe”. She works tirelessly from dawn to dusk. At times she leaves the family for months for better-paid season work. Here she chops down an old wooden window frame to start a fire in their stove.
Music is one way in which Roma people traditionally have been able to forge a better living. Martin's trumpet is his livelihood and his passion, as it was his father's. He is very eager to hand this tradition down to his three-year-old son Damian.
Daliborka often sits in her doorframe and observes life in her little square. She dreams of people visiting her home and hopes that the soon-to-be built toilet in her house will make this happen.
Two-year-old Claudia shyly plays with me while her mother prepares red peppers. The family have successfully built their first ever bathroom by themselves. Claudia won’t have to bathe in a bucket outside anymore.
Sunday morning and Balkaza cradles her grandson Nebojśa. His parents, Balkaza's son and daughter-in-law went to work early in the morning to pick plums.
Dino & Marija listen to a mutual friend talk about employment and his life abroad in Germany. Finding employment is one of the biggest problems for Roma and Serbian people alike.
Gilbana & Balkaza collect tomatoes from a Serbian farmer just down the road.
Kristina pours water from the well onto her father’s legs, so he can wash himself. All nineteen wash themselves outside with water from the well. Sometimes they heat it up on the stove and wash themselves in a tub. None of the houses have indoor toilets yet. They use two makeshift toilets in the nearby woods instead.
Daliborka recounts her life's story while her daughter keeps a close eye on me.
In the evening Slavisa Daliborka's husband chats to Alexandra while waiting for a cigarette.

I will create a multimedia piece consisting of photos, video & audio recorded in 2018 while following these few families during their construction phase.

Please get in touch!

photo@claudialeisinger.com

Tel: +447768547700

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