Being Different Means Being Rich

By Violeta Naydenova

I was nine when I came to understand that I am different. It happened in a not-so-nice way: my classmates pointed out the difference. Those supposed to be my friends called me “tziganka” in Bulgarian, which means “ gypsy” in English. I was also called “mango” which means someone black, someone dirty. I was booed, placed in the corner, treated as an outcast by almost everyone in the class at my primary school in Montana, the town in northwestern Bulgaria where I grew up. Some of the teachers did not spare me, either, and showed me that I only knew enough to get a grade of C. This treatment continued almost every day for four years until I finished 8th grade and left the school. I never told anybody about this back then because I was ashamed of the way those kids treated me and I did not know the reason for it. I grew up with a feeling of shame, knowing that I am different and that there is something wrong.

Pre-school years – Violeta (front centre, smallest of the children) with her family

Looking back now, 21 years later, I ask myself why I did not react, why I did not tell anybody. And the answer comes to me: it was because of my role in in my own community. I had many friends—the majority of them were boys—and I was  their leader, deciding what games we should play, where we should go, what we should do and how we could have fun. I also formed a hip hop dance group and regularly organized basketball games. How could I tell anyone that the kids at school treated me badly?

You might say that I should have at least shared it with my dad or my mom, but I could not. I had my pride and I did not want to show weakness in front of anybody. I suffered for years from the experience of being different, of being treated as inferior to non-Roma, as somebody who is unclean, as somebody who is a criminal by default. All because I was different.

And let me tell you what my “guilt” was so that you can understand. I was called names that did not responded to reality, names that were ludicrous then and now. Actually, my family’s house shines: many ethnic Bulgarians would be ashamed to enter because it is so clean. My mom wakes up at 6:00 a.m. to clean, to water the plants, to cook and to work in our small community cafe. She does not sleep until after we finish dinner, until after she cleans the table, washes the dishes and sweeps the floor, no matter what time it is. We do not enter the house with shoes on. I do not want to go into more detail, but it is just crazy when somebody calls you “dirty” and  ” lazy” when you are not, when somebody pushes you down just because you are a bit different.

Violeta (front row, second from left) celebrating Ederlezi with her family.

How do I feel now? I feel rich. This is how I feel after understanding how rich our Roma culture is, how truthful we are, and how great our history and language are.  I am rich, even richer than someone who speaks one language, who has one type of tradition and who does not understand what it means to know another culture. I am Bulgarian by citizenship and I am Roma by ethnicity. It is a beautiful combination to be who am I, and I feel blessed. My Roma culture is full of life, joy, happiness and love. The way we Roma can have fun is extraordinary. How we cook, celebrate and provide hospitality to guests is wondrous, and this is highly valued by many. If you do not believe me, come to one of our weddings or to one of our traditional celebrations—Hederlezi or Vasilitza. When a non-Roma experiences Roma life, he wants to return to it. He wants to stay there and be part of it. Every time we invited ethnic Bulgarians home as guests they ate eagerly from a table full of delicious dishes such as tender lamb or goat. When the next celebration came, these guests expected to be invited again, to be welcomed into this great joy for life. And the cool part is that we are not financially rich: we are wealthy from inside. We treat guests as kings and queens, and we are honored to be the hosts of celebrations.

My Roma life is rich and full of beautiful moments that others often do not understand. It took me years to realize this because of the everyday rejection and offensive words. When one does not understand something that is different, he often responds by rejecting it or condemning it. This is how Roma are treated in Bulgaria and many other European countries. My classmates back then did not understand this. Perhaps they only “knew” what their parents had told them. I wonder what sort of people they are today and how they think. I wish I could meet them and ask them if they still think the same way or if they have become wiser and see beyond stereotypes and prejudices.

I wish to also ask the many non-Roma from Bulgaria and other European countries how come on one hand they enjoy being our guests and dancing to performances by Roma musicians and on the other they still hate and have prejudices against us? Perhaps there might be something that these people see in our Roma life and culture but they do not spell it out for some reason.

Speaking about her life at a Christian Camp circa 1999

Nevertheless all my experience mentioned above I am a positive thinker and optimist for our future. We the Roma should not look as victims but rather as winners. We are a nation which even after oppressions and killings has survived. We are people to be admired because although we are were and continue to be a target of assimilation and attacks we are a group of people who succeeded to keeps its rich culture, language, history and achievements.

Stereotypes against us should not stop us and I believe that there is a way to live together in a world without discrimination, without condemning the differences of others. I believe that my children will enjoy life free of harassment at school. I will make sure to pass on to them the richness of our history and I will tell them never to be ashamed of who they are. On the contrary, they should be proud and dignified because they have more than many others have: a culture dating from before the 12th century, a living language that is one of the most ancient Indo-Aryan languages, and membership in one of the most peaceful nations.

You Roma women, who are reading this article, remember that our differences make us wealthy, beautiful and full. The world wouldn’t be what it is without us. We have contributed and we continue to contribute. I am proud to be a Roma woman. We owe it to our children to pass on our knowledge and our Roma values. Opre Romnjalen!

Violeta graduating with her diploma, a joyous day for her and her family

Miss Violeta Naydenova graduated in 2004 Audiovisual Journalism at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, Bulgaria with excellent defending her diploma thesis “Roma image in the Bulgarian Press”. During her study Violeta worked as a reporter for the Romani newspaper “Drom Dromendar” and volunteered in Bulgarian TVs “Nova” and “Evropa”.

In 2005 Miss Naydenova graduated a postgraduate course, focusing on English language, academic writing and International Relations at the Central European University inBudapest. In 2006 she completed the Global Student Leadership Programme at the Manhattanville College, in NY and the European Commission Internship in Brussels, Belgium. 

In the beginning of 2007 Violeta joined as an assistant the Roma Initiatives, Open Society in Budapest. Currently, Miss Naydenova is the manager of programs, targeting young Roma through investment and empowerment, enhancing theirs knowledge about the Roma struggle, so they can bring a change in their communities.