Ghettoes – Bulgaria


In the last 10 years I have been at least twice a year to Bulgaria. I spent time in some of the largest urban ghettoes in Bulgaria Fakulteta – Sofia and Stolipinovo- Plovdiv. I saw also the living conditions of Roma in Vidin and Ruse. The problems there are well documented and very similar with the problems of the urban ghettoes everywhere else in the region.


toxic creek full of garbage –next to the Roma ghetto – Kyustendil Bulgaria 2013 

Unsanitary living conditions, drugs, trafficking, prostitution, abject poverty, small criminality, usury, violence, people broken by addiction, poverty or discrimination are all there.

Education is devalued and overall ignored as a way to success by the overwhelming majority of parents and children. Generations after generation of children are lost – used to start with begging then the garbage work, early marriages, then temporary migrations. Nowadays trafficking of children, selling or abusing drugs, theft, robbery, usury and prostitution are the main threats as many youngsters see these as the only way for becoming successful in a society that despise them.

Many children live in these ghettoes far above the average percentage (3 to 4 times more)– the majority of them will become broken adults in overcrowded prisons with practically no chances to break the ghetto cycle. The ghettoes are feared and despised by the Bulgarians. The local administrations ignore them and used people living in the ghettoes at elections. Here  are some of the easiest to buy votes in  Bulgaria.

The infrastructure is terrible and there is practically no policing. Safety in the ghettoes are ensured by gangs or extended families .


living from garbage – generations –Kyustendil – Bulgaria 2013 

People that abuse the most vulnerable in the ghettoes are getting rich -criminality and bribing the system are tools that get them there These very few become the role models for the many children growing up throwing the ghettoes in a dangerous spiral of looking for fast success through illegal means.


sign of success – built on drugs, usury and small criminality Kyustendil- Bulgaria 2013

Isperih is very different from an urban ghetto- a tiny city in north rural Bulgaria – 30 min drive from Razgrad or 3 hours from Bucharest. There is a significant  percentage of Roma  among the population here. Some of them live in nice big houses. The “Alo-Alo business” is what brought significant amounts of money to the city and the region I am told.

The business is in fact a con. Turkish speaking Roma girls and women use specialized chat rooms to get in touch with Turkish men living in Western Europe – mostly Germany. Some of these women are already married and is their husbands or their fathers that push them into getting involved in these “relationships” over the internet. After a few days of chatting on the internet the women will ask money for different reasons including cost of travelling to go visit. Nowadays video-chats some with an explicit sexual content are becoming more and more common.

Shark-loans and facilitating grey or black market trades between Turkey and Western Europe are some other ways to make easy and fast money.

The Roma mahala is very far from that sophistication. The entry in the ghetto is typical. The road becomes a dirt path going downhill.


entry in the Isperih Roma Mahala 

Whenever it rains access becomes to and from the community is difficult or impossible due to the mud. In case of emergency people need to carry their sick up to the main road as the ambulances can not reach the houses.

In the past there were incidents with the children as the school teachers refused to allow children to attend as they came dirty -full of mud. The few women that consider education important do carry their children in their back through mud in order to get them to clean to the main road.


road in the mahala , woman with children  Isperih 

The houses become worse and worse towards the end of the “mahala”. Around 700 people live here the majority of them children. Most of the houses have mud floors and are poorly built. No sewage system either.


mud housing and satellite dish Isperih

Satellite dishes seem an odd presence considering the poverty around. TV remains the cheapest way to avoid the ugly reality and escape in the dream world of Turkish  soap operas.

At the end of the main street of the ghetto there is a house where 10 people live. The parents, grandparents and 6 children crowded in around 25 square meters.

All children look much smaller than their age. One of them has a serious disability. He is 10 but his mind is at the level of 3 years old. Another child has a very serious skin condition – is mostly due to the insanitary conditions they live in.

The vocabulary of the adults is very limited in Bulgarian. They speak almost exclusively Turkish with a few Romani and Bulgarian words here and there.  The entire household is illiterate.

Nobody in the Roma mahala has all the needed papers to prove the legality of their houses. Some do not even own the lots where their houses are built. Many are disconnected from electricity for running big bills. Some steal electricity.

Turkish minority that runs the mayoralty but Roma from the mahala have no representation whatsoever in the local administration. The health mediator that comes here from time to time has himself very limited knowledge about the way local administration works and what could this people do.

The local councilor meetings are kept secret complains the informal leader of the community. Unable to ask for their rights these people seemed to be doomed to a life of abject poverty. The adults collect garbage or medicinal plants for enough money to survive from one day to the other. All wish they could migrate one day.

Social inclusion is meant to avoid extreme poverty and discrimination but means the ability to negotiate, gain and retain power. The chances for inclusion here are  in the short term zero – migration represents a much more realistic ideal.


housing – Isperih 2013

As I sit there the woman starts cooking. The stove works with wood. The water looks dirty and the meal has very limited nutritional value.

Quality of the housing is terrible. The electrical wiring is dangerous. The windows are broken. The floor becomes muddy during rain. The winters must feel terrible as none of the houses around have any thermic isolation whatsoever.


Over the street there is a man holding his trousers , no shirt and making weird noises. I thought he is 50 but he is in his early thirties. He suffers of a severe mental disability too. The family built for him a separate hut as they were afraid of him in the night. From time to time he forgets to use the toilet and soils himself.

The husband is 50 but he looks as he is  over 70. He worked for 17 years in the old communist cooperative that used to function in the village. Now he is recycling garbage or picking up herbs from the hills around. His house looks like it could fall on them anytime.

He is small and his clothes are dirty, smelly and look too big on him. His hands shake and he looks like he might have a problem with drinking. Inside the house it smells of cheap alcohol.

He is not employable. There is no chance in a depressed city like Isperih with a high unemployment rate for him to be ever be able to find a job. He says he badly wants a job but I have troubles imagining him able and willing to have a regular job.


house –Isperih 2013

The inside of his house looks depressingly poor. Many of the wood-beams are decaying  and the space is full of bugs, flies and mosquitos.


inside of a house- Isperih 2013 

As we leave I see a horse – the owner is the son of the community leader. He uses the horse to pull  a cart that collects garbage. Over 300 adults can vote here more than enough for getting two local councilor. Last election they have been bribed with around 5 Eur each. No representation in the local council for the mahala in Isperih.

Shumen is a bit farther away on the way towards Varna around 200 km away from the Romanian border at Giurgiu. On the outskirts of what it is a medium size Bulgarian city we meet the first Roma family. They live from garbage and they have a one year old baby. We met them twice – the second time the man showed us the food he found in the garbage. They started eating the bread found in the garbage while I was there.

His sister is 24. She has a serious disability. Her trousers were soiled as she is unable to control her body.  She looks like 12 years old. None of them have ID cards as their house is built illegally and they need an address in order to get their ID. These are ghost people for the system. There are many in the same situation – over one hundred is the estimate of the Roma expert there. The father and some other relatives are around. They look dirt poor.  The father makes a cigar with some tobacco rolled in a piece of a newspaper.


Family living on garbage- Shumen

They know almost nothing about how the system works. They are discriminated or at best ignored by the local administration and in turn they do nothing but fall farther away from the social grid.

The disable girl should benefit of social housing and a pension. She has no ID paper therefore they can not register her I am told.

Drugs started to be available here too and there is an increase in prostitution and trafficking. It is linked directly to the fact that there are more and more young people in very vulnerable situations.

On the outskirts of Shumen – 500 meters into a field there are a few of Roma houses.  In the first one live two very young couples. The house is very clean and newly painted. None of the youngsters here went to school for more than 4 classes.  They are young – none over 20 and one of the girls is pregnant.

People like them are the easiest targets for drugs –kings as the need for dealers is increasing. There is also a risk that they can end up exploited by the prostitution gangs in the cities. It is not rare that the man in the couple will “pimp” his girlfriend in order to make money. None of the four people here works and all wish to leave – Belgium, Netherlands or Italy were among their choices.

The road to this settlement is the same like almost everywhere else. Whenever it rains seriously the road becomes impossible. The apartment buildings mark the end of Shumen.


end of city start of the ghetto

In the past there were Roma that used to live in those blocks.  They were evicted a few years ago – some of these apartment buildings were almost destroyed. Some Roma took their horses in their flats I am told. It happened the same in my town in Craiova. During the cold winters after they were cut from the heating system due to the huge debts they ran people burned their wood floors. Nowadays there are a few Roma still living in these buildings but most of the people living there are Bulgarians


Roma housing – outskirts of Shumen

There are lots of youngsters in the ghetto on the outskirts of Shumen. Most are illiterate; very few have enough basic education to be able to read. No place to work. The houses are badly built. Satellite dishes are everywhere – the TV addiction is up to this point the worst addiction in the ghettoes as TVs are on most of the times.  Drugs started to creep into the city but it did not reach yet dangerous levels. It will sooner or later. Many people here steal electricity. Running water and sewage is exceptional. During the winter a good number heat their houses with stolen wood or scraps collected from the garbage. In many cases the heating is toxic.

Male prostitution seem to have increased significantly in the last years I am told but most of the male sex workers prefer to work abroad.

Frustration of youngsters is increasing. Aggressiveness comes as a logic result. Bulgarians avoid the ghettoes as they are afraid to be beaten and robbed. Tensions among the two communities have increased constantly during the years.

The Roma population is a young population with a much faster growth than the Bulgarians.  Most of the children will be pushed into small criminality if there is no intervention to start curbing the existing trend. Such interventions are costly and most money for the social inclusion of Roma in Bulgaria go for conferences and paper production.

The intervention of health mediators – a program that is often presented as a positive practice is practically inexistent in these places. The local authorities do whatever they can to incentives Roma to leave by creating obstacles for them to access social services instead of trying to find solutions for their social inclusion.

European Commission I am told is both clueless and uninterested when it comes to the problems of these places. The ping-pong of avoiding responsibilities between Brussels and Bulgaria leads not only to frustrations and disillusion but to an accelerate dissolution of the already very thin social fabric in the ghettoes.

Leave a Comment