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FEATURE STORY April 8, 2021

Ame Sam Roma: We Are Roma

Elena Radu is a teacher of the Roma and Romanian languages, culture, and history in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. She is also a proud member of the Roma community.

“I chose to become a Romanian language teacher because I was a victim of all forms of discrimination, segregation, xenophobia – both in school and society,” says Radu. “Nothing stopped me, nothing stood in my way as an obstacle to achieving my goal, which started as a small child – I wanted to become a teacher.”

Iasmina Cretoi found similar determination when choosing to become an actress.

“It’s a very sad thing to be constrained by society and not be able to recognize what you are, just because you are different,” says Cretoi.

“But I had parents and friends and very nice people around me who helped me get over these things and realize that the problem is not with me, but with the person who is looking at me from that perspective.”

Iasmina and Elena’s stories of resiliency, perseverance, and success are inspiring - but far from unique. Although estimates of the exact size of the Roma population in Romania vary, this group represents the second largest minority ground in the country and counts innumerable doctors, teachers, lawyers, nurses, artists, and other proud professionals among its ranks. Yet many Roma find themselves wholly defined by the negative stereotypes that persist in virtually every facet of their lives.

According to recent data, 51 percent of Romanians believe that discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity is widespread in Romania. This perception often translates into negative outcomes for many Roma, who face much higher school dropout rates, much lower employment rates, and much worse outcomes in health outcomes – only 22% of Romanian Roma between 15-18 years old attend school, just 64% of Romanian Roma men and only 27% of Romanian Roma women are formally employed, and a mere 46% of the Roma population in the country has basic health insurance.  

Further complicating this situation is the fact that the COVID pandemic has hit Roma communities particularly hard. Existing disadvantages translated into new challenges during the pandemic. 68 percent of Roma households live in overcrowded conditions and lack access to running water, which makes it hard to comply with hygienic and social distancing measures. World Bank data show that food security remains a concern for the poorest households in Romania since the outbreak of the pandemic.

To assist in overcoming the ingrained, negative perceptions of Roma in Romania and the many socio-economic barriers they translate into, the World Bank is continuing to support projects and initiatives that can boost inclusion around the country. Ensuring equal and fair access to health, education, employment and other crucial services not only increases inclusion, boosts livelihoods and improves health and education outcomes for Roma and other vulnerable communities, this agenda also brings enormous annual economic benefits to the country as a whole – equal to nearly €3 billion annually, according to some sources.

Critical to this engagement has been the Roma Sounding Board (RSB), a network of competitively selected Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) with expertise in Roma inclusion. Through the RSB, the World Bank provides Roma organizations a platform through which the needs and concerns of the communities are voiced – allowing them to be reflected into the strategic engagement by the World Bank on the social inclusion agenda in Romania. Roma Sounding Board members consult with World Bank project teams to identify Roma-specific needs and challenges that new and ongoing projects could tackle, connect them to communities for in-depth consultations and needs assessments, and guide them in developing relevant actions to advance the Roma agenda. 

“The collaboration with the World Bank through the RSB is very important for the future of the Roma community in Romania. We appreciate that the World Bank chose to consult with Roma and pro-Roma organizations on ways to improve projects targeting the Roma community,” says Daniel Caraivan, from the DANROM Association in Făurei. “For the NGO that I represent, this was a great opportunity to participate in workshops with the most important government actors and representatives of the economic sector in Romania.”

These efforts to improve the outcomes of Romania’s inclusion agenda by integrating the views and perceptions of exactly those who are being excluded are critical to overcoming social and economic barriers and informing Romania’s inclusive recovery from the COVID pandemic. So, too, are the efforts of Iasmina Cretoi, Elena Radu, and countless others like them who have overcome discrimination by facing it head-on and refusing to let it define them or block the road to success they continue to travel.

“When you are told: ‘You are Roma,’ don’t lower your head,” says Radu, “raise your head and say loudly and proudly: Ame Sam Roma [We are Roma]!”