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Many of the Roma in Bulgaria, whose total number is estimated over 320,000 in a country of 8 million, are entitled to health and social care but simply cannot receive it because they do not know how and where to look for it. Health mediators are there to help. Tzvetina Borisova reports for Southeast European Times in Sofia.
Sabire Raim Ramadan has taken up the difficult task of helping the huge Roma community in a small Bulgarian municipality get social and health care. Many of the Roma in Bulgaria, whose total number is estimated at over 320,000 in a country of 8 million, are entitled to such care but simply cannot receive it because they don't know how and where to look for it.
Mrs. Ramadan's role is officially known as health mediator. It was introduced in Bulgaria in 2001 after its efficiency was proved in other countries in Europe. The Bulgarian model is based on the experience of the Romanian Roma non-governmental organisation Romani Christ and the Romanian Health Ministry and that of the Dutch Public Health Institute. Currently, Bulgaria has a national network of 111 health mediators in 55 municipalities whose work is financed by the municipal budgets.
We meet Mrs. Ramadan in her small office in the building of the municipality in the southern town of Septemvri. There are 29,000 people living in the area, and 40% of them are Roma, she tells us, giving us a general idea of how busy she must be.
She welcomes us in and asks us if we can wait until she fills in the documents of a Roma woman who is applying for social aid. "I can't write", the woman explains when we ask her if she often comes to Mrs. Ramadan's office. "We come to her whenever we need to fill in some documents and she helps us every time".
The health mediator, whom we begin to call by her first name of Sabire, explains filling documents is not exactly part of her official duties, but she does it because otherwise the Roma would be left without the little money they can get. She also sees it as a way to become more familiar with the people's problems. "While I am filling out the documents, I am communicating with the people and I learn a lot of things that are important for my further work."
While we talk, the phone rings. [phone ring tone] Sabire tells us after she finishes the conversation that it was the secretary of the local commission for combating and preventing crime among minors, who said several children from a local village who were caught stealing. Apart from her work as health mediator, Sabire is also a member of the commission. In this case, she must visit the children and prepare a report about the health and social status of their families.
Speaking of other aspects of her work, Sabire tells of the problem of early marriage and undesired child conceiving among the Roma. "I have spirals, condoms, for women, who have given birth to many children and have made many abortions. I communicate with them and suggest I could go to the doctor with them to implant it," Sabire says. She adds she also organises meetings with the Roma community to improve their sexual education and increase their awareness of the risk of early marriage.
People also come to get advice about how to get medical treatment. She organises visits by physicians to the Roma neighbourhoods.
According to Sabire, the most interesting case in her practice recently is about a girl who is officially registered as a boy under the name of Kiro. "The mother suffered a stroke. People from the neighbourhood collected some money to restore her medical insurance. They were 56 leva short, I applied to get this money from the municipality and the provided it.
We paid everything, but the woman died aged 43. This was the start of a very long and difficult road," Sabire says, adding that this is usually what happens in her work -- she starts from one problem which leads to a series of others that she can't just turn her back to. "You simply move on," she says.
"We had to collect a lot of documents to secure social pensions for her 11 children, three of who are under 18 and are eligible to receive assistance from the state. We collected all necessary documents, including the birth certificates of the children." "I looked through all the certificates and thought -- we have three children who will be eligible for pensions, but Kiro will not be among them because he has turned 18. And the father said: 'yes, I know she is not eligible, she's turned 18". And I say 'it's not a him, it's a her'. He asks his daughter in and says 'Please meet Kiro'." "This is a very difficult case because we have to hire lawyers, go to court and so on", Sabire goes on.
"It's always like that - you start from a health problem, reach a social problem, and then back to the health problems again. That's what my job is like. You can't say that one of them is over, never," she explains. "Once you have taken up a case, if you can actually bring it to an end, it should be settled," she adds.
Sabire suggests we should go to one of the Roma neighbourhoods in the town to meet Kiro, the boy, who is actually a girl, and we agree. Kiro is too shy to speak to us, but her family and other people in the neighbourhood are more than happy with an opportunity to share their problems.
Everybody seems to know Sabire and gives her a warm welcome. "She is the queen of the neighbourhood... She comes to us all the time and helps us in all cases". " "We address her for all our problems -- for the pensions, for the social assistance, for the heating allowances -- she takes care of all applications", one woman tells us.
Many of the Roma see Sabire as a saviour who can settle all their problems, most of them originating from their poverty. "We are very, very poor, dear, and she helps." Mentioning the financial aspect opens a huge debate and a show of complains and voices of hope for a better future.
Many want to take us to their houses to show us the misery they live in, others say they want the local government to build roads in the neighbourhood and build a sewerage system, while third take the issue even further saying "We are not going to vote for anyone (in the forthcoming local elections in the autumn) even if they give us money". "We don't want money, we want work to be able to feed our families, that's all", the Roma say.
This has been the Southeast European Times podcast for the week ending July 14th, 2011.
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