Melina Pirija – Visoko: She wants to change the perception of the Roma and says „Why should we be the topic of discussion without participating in it?“
Melina Pirija likes to describe herself as a human rights activist. She has been working on it for more than 10 years. At present she is a councilwoman in the Visoko Municipal Council. She was active in various associations, but she values most and takes most pride in the Citizens’ Association Roma Youth Initiative „Be My Friend“ from Visoko. In it she has participated since her volunteer days, when she started volunteering at the age of 15 or 16, and it is where her volunteer spirit flourished.
She attracted my attention exactly because, after many years of activism, she decided to enter politics. We discussed the issues of the Roma population, how it is hard to cope with discrimination, and the progress she expects to achieve through her involvement. It was particularly important to hear her thoughts about the changes she would make if she had unlimited power.
Melina’s focus of interest is on improving the conditions for the Roma population, primarily for children, the youth and women. The association works in eduation, both formal and informal, in health care and employment. They also tackle integration of the Roma population, and they strive to achieve assimilation, but without neglect of their culture and traditions.
When I say culture and tradition – the Roma culture and tradition are the Roma language, their folklore, as well as various stories, historical tales of the migration of the Roma from India towards Europe, and all over the world. It is the culture and tradition of the Roma, so the Roma origins and their language are not forgotten. And it is not just the general, stereotypical image of the Roma, when you mention the Roma and their culture and tradition, one thinks of all that is negative – early marriages, all those negative things that are stereotyped as Roma. But that is not the Romani culture and tradition.
I believe that, sadly, there are ever fewer of those who speak the Roma language. Now that is the problem, while, for instance, the older generation – I do not mean my parents, but maybe their parents – they all spoke Romani language.
They all spoke Romani, but they hid it and they did not want to teach their children to speak it, only to protect them from discrimination and from all sorts of problems they faced, and which are still faced even today by Romani-speaking children.
Because discrimination is – it is something you cannot understand unless you felt it in some way yourself. I say, when we include as an objective in a project „raising awareness“ regarding a topic – hey, it takes so much time to achieve that change. But there is progress. When I think of the situation 10, 15 years ago, there has been progress. Change can happen. Let’s take education. Now we have Roma who study at universities, we have Roma who are not ashamed to avow that they are Rome, even though they are doctors or something. But there are also those who are ashamed of who they are. I understand them completely, because it is not easy to bear, that burden is not easy to bear, because their communal environment can be so cruel that people who are not of strong character cannot stand it.
What are the most pressing problems for the Roma population in Visoko?
In general, unemployment is the most pressing issue. That is a problem everywhere, but here it really stands out. Out of some 3,000 Roma, maybe 2-3% have jobs.
Regardless of their educational attainment?
Yes. And they are mainly employed in the waste disposal services, just like anywhere else. But I am pleased to say, children are able to find motivation and, out of, say, a hundred, three enrolled into the general secondary school. I mean, it does not seem to be much of an achievement, but indeed it is. Since those kids really come from families beset by multiple problems – either they suffered some form of violence, or they were forced to go begging, so there is some progress, some things are moving.
In general, in the health care-related programs, we strive to design the programs for people who do not have health care. A year and a half ago, actually on two occasions, we organised the Days of Health Care for the Roma population. We did that with the American Jewish Committee. Together we organized those days, with participation of various general practitioners, pediatricians, gynecologists, and nurses, and where we brought in a portable mammograph. And on those two occasions, two women were found to have cancer. It was sad, but it was better, because we detected them in time and these women are, thank God, alive today and everything is OK, they are undergoing treatments. But that shows how much such checkups matter.
The key reason that the majority of the Roma population do not have health insurance is due to poor dissemination of information.
Information is purely disseminated by the agencies, by centers for social work. This is where I am very mad at the authorities. Everybody talks. Just recently I spoke to some foreigners who read BiH laws. And they said that we were an ideal state. Ideal. We have A-grade laws, strategies, action plans, we have everything. And in practice, we have nothing. Now, that is a general problem.
You became active so you could correct and try to change things. Can you say something from that particular perspective?
I definitely entered politics simply to change the situation, primarily to alter the perception of the Roma and so that the Roma are represented in the Municipal Council. Because if that can be in other municipalities, why not in Visoko? And I joined, by and large, in order to make things move at least a little bit. Now, how much room will I have, during my term, three more years, how much I can do – I don’t know. But I had definitely set down some objectives and I have been moving in that direction. If I achieve even 50%, that would be great.
My primary objective is to develop and adopt the Local Action Plan for Addressing the Problems of Roma Population. We have been working on that and, God willing, I hope it will pass. Through this local action plan, which is now a requirement for all municipalities, effectively they will be able to write projects. These would be project helated to housing issues, to infrastructure, education, employment.
So, we have mechanisms that we can use. Those mechanisms include funds that the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees provides for addressing Roma issues. So why would not we, as a municipality, benefit from that?
It used to be that there had been few initiatives targeting Roma population, perhaps because it had not been catchy, there had been no one to talk it up. But now, here is someone who can talk about the Roma. And, in general, my motto is: „Why talk about us, without us?“
Anywhere, not just in the Council, let us even start from the local communities, or in the Municipal Council, we need to be in all decision-making bodies so that we can become part of an important agenda and that we can address this issue in this country.
Politics is all around us, so, why not be where decisions are made? If they matter, and if they are wise – why not? And not all those in politics are like our top leaders. I joined from the activist circles and I am there to be the voice of those who are not mentioned anywhere. And I am mainly there to achieve this perception change about Roma population.
If you had power, what would you change, if you could do anything in this town?
That is a good question. Generally, if I had power, I would work to bring as many investors as possible, to open some companies, employ people, get jobs for people. Looking at some welfare cases – if they could have permanent jobs, those people, if they only worked, if everyone had a job, then he would not be asking for a one-off assistance of the Center for Social Work. Because, when a man has a job, he can take care of himself.
And I would definitely create some new systems in schools, where I would introduce some new curricula. Perhaps some learning about volunteering, human rights, diversity. So children can learn a little.
I think, if the children really knew, if they wouldn’t keep hearing at home: „a Gypsy woman would come and take you away“, the children would have a different perception and different thoughts in their heads.
Anyway, our people need a lot of education.