Contributed by Basil Seif. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
It has been over a month here in Serbia, so you think I would have gotten used to the ins and outs of this Western Balkan country by now. Nevertheless, Belgrade continues to surprise me. Whether it is the food in the ćevapi stands, the wildly European fashion sense, or the way Serbs view sports as a celebration of culture, the differences between Serbia and America have not ceased to bewilder me.
One of the most powerful, culturally shocking moments I have had here so far happened last week. It was not a huge “aha” moment or a giant cultural ordeal. Instead, it was a very small little incident that occurred in passing, but that I have not been able to forget since it happened.
I was walking down Knez Mihailova, one of the most famous streets in Belgrade, on my way back from work. It had been a long day, and I was headed to the post office to deliver some gifts to my parents. Up and down Knez Mihailova, there are always poor Roma children standing in the streets trying to collect money for their families. Nick’s organization in Belgrade works to integrate and educate Roma children, and he always reminded us to never give money to Roma children. His organization instead recommends referring the children to them, because education and integration goes much farther than a couple of dollars. However, between my inability to speak much of either Roma or Serbian and my uncertainty about cultural norms, I always chicken out whenever I see Roma children.
That day, though, I was feeling particularly adventurous. As I walked down the street towards Republic Square, I saw a small Roma girl, maybe 10 years old, off to the side of the street by herself, attempting to play the violin even though she did not know how. I thought to myself “what the hell,” let me give it a shot. So I went over to her, put some money in her violin case, flashed her a smile and began to walk away when I heard a scream from behind me.
I turned around to see the small Roma girl frowning and yelling at me holding her palm out. At first I was very confused, but I instantly realized that she was demanding me to give her more money. I was completely taken aback.
Everytime I stop and give money to a homeless or poor person on the streets in America, I always get back a warm “God Bless You” or at least a “thanks.” Here this girl stood, not thanking me, but reprimanding me in a language that I couldn’t speak. I just stood there petrified, partly from shock and partly because I couldn’t respond to her in her native language. Flustered and somewhat startled, I just decided to keep walking. I turned my back on the poor little girl and fled the scene.
At first, I could not help but be a little bit angry. “That girl had no right to demand more money from me,” I thought. “I am the good guy here.” Then, I started thinking what my reaction would be in her scenario. She is a 10 year-old Romani girl standing in the biggest street of the biggest city in a country where she is the lowest minority there is, playing an instrument she does not know how to play in order to get enough money for a meal.
If it were me, I would not feel terribly thankful to a man who half-heartedly threw me his pocket change on the way home from work.
My head started swimming. Why does this never happen in America? Is it because she is a little kid? Does she always do that? Is it because poor people in America have it better off than poor people here? Or maybe it is because poor people here have it better off than in America?
I thought about it everyday for the rest of the week, wondering if I should have done something different, trying to figure out why she reacted the way she did.
I would be lying to you lovely folks back home, if I sat here and said that I had an epiphany and finally understood why this happened. I am still perplexed to an extent; however, I have developed a theory.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of how Roma are treated in Serbia is racial segregation in America during the first half of the twentieth century. Roma people are considered complete outsiders, impure human beings. In fact, I have heard people talk about them as if they are not human beings. They have limited access to education, no access to any kind of sustainable housing, not even a sliver of social mobility, and many Balkan and Central European governments consider them a huge domestic problem. Almost everyday in Serbia, I have seen entire Roma families scavenging through dumpsters, looking for food, clothing, or anything they can use to their advantage. The worst part about it is something as shocking as that seems so normal, so casual to Serbian bystanders. I think a lot of us on this DukeEngage trip have become increasingly numb to it as well, including myself.
She yelled because, even though she is ten years old, she is tired. Tired of begging. Tired of screaming. Tired of being stuck.
I wish I had an answer to how to fix this human rights injustice, I wish I could look that tired, little Romani girl in the eyes and communicate to her why this is happening to her, how she can fix it, and that everything is going to be alright. But I don’t and I can’t. The only thing I can hope for is that organizations like Nick’s organization can continue to chip away at the issue, creating awareness and providing long-term solutions.
Ten year olds shouldn’t have to feel tired.