I’m spending a couple of weeks in Belgrade, Serbia, doing some contract work. I hope to be able to occasionally post some of my impressions, thoughts, and stories. I made a field visit with some partners and colleagues today and wanted to narrativize my experience before I lost it.
The cold war era high rises cast a long shadow behind us as we trudge along the muddy lane to the settlement. It’s been an unseasonably warm winter, so the ground is still wet from the floods from several months ago. It’s passable–if you dodge the puddles. Dogs with matted hair circle your group playfully. Most have matted hair. One, a pup, has what looks like a mark from a pink highlighter on his forehead. Another much older dog hops on his three legs, tail wagging, working hard to keep up.
Both sides of the lane are covered with so much trash. Plastic recyclable bottles, computer parts. plumbing. The dogs lead us around the bend in the lane, where the houses are.
We are in one of many informal settlements of Roma in Serbia. This particular settlement sits on a swath of public land in New Belgrade, and the houses are ramshackle shacks made of wood, plastic, metal, and other materials, gathered from God knows where and assembled God knows how. It’s not unlike other informal settlements I’ve visited–Somali migrant workers in Soweto, South Africa, Kibera in Nairobi, Earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince, casteless families in alleys in Kolkata, or farmworkers in Central America. The smell of burnt wood and garbage–a migrant’s central heat– is the same.
We are invited into one of the houses. The dogs, excited by the company, jump at us, the three-legged one cautiously.
This is an unusual family, I am told. They keep a clean house.
The inside of the shack was immaculate, held together by a mix and match collection of floor rugs, some furniture, and a spiderweb of extension cords that kept the TV and other devices plugged in.
The mother speaks to my colleagues in Serbian. Her daughter, a teenager who switches off between texting (of course!) and writing in a little note pad, smiles radiantly from the couch. Her son, who has a heart condition, I’m told, lays on a little mattress, playing with a long rod, or stick, or something, running it against the thrown-together. The mother speaks more frantically now, and a colleague tells me the backstory.
Unlike many of the families who live in this community, this family had a house, somewhere outside of Belgrade. They moved to Belgrade to be closer to quality medical care, and having no connections or family in the city proper, found room and some semblance of a network in the informal settlement. When the floods hit the Balkans in late 2014, not only were they impacted in this new community, but their home was lost as well. They’ve received some help, and there may be more on the way, but the weight of devastation is heavy in this little house.
The Roma are, arguably, the most marginalized group of people across Europe. Low literacy rates, low skills, vast prejudice, and generations of social ostracism and outright persecution have led to limited economic opportunity. Much of this community sustains itself through collection of recyclable goods from trash containers, as well as more creative scavenging. It’s a hard life, often complicated–many of the families from the settlement are in other parts of Europe, eking out a living until their documentation requires them to return. Even more than complicated, it’s dangerous. I’m reminded of that as we walk over the charred remains of what was once a house.
“Two babies died in this fire,” a colleague tells me. “Happens all the time.”
Not even a mile from the entrance to the settlement, set on the far edge of cluster of high-rises, is an apartment building that is at the center of an effort to make life a lot less dangerous, and a little less complicated. One Ffirst floor classroom is abuzz with children coloring. Another is packed with adult learners, many of whom are learning to read for the first time. When I ask the class about their favorite subject, a woman in her fifties begins to talk about volcanos. She had no idea–until today!–that there was lava beneath our feet. She is so glad to have the opportunity to learn.
The apartment building, made up of “Social Flats,” is funded by the Serbian government and charges its tenants no rent. Residents are responsible for their utilities and other expenses, which can be a challenge. The classes not only cater to the residents of the flats, but also to those in the informal settlement. In fact, during our visit to the informal settlement, a parent tells one of my colleagues that he has a couple of children he would like to enroll.
We spend a little bit of time in the apartment of the woman who was so excited to learn about lava. She tells us about the transition from informal settlement to social flat. What it was like to have no protection from the wind or flooding. What it was like to be cold.
Now, she tells us, she has this paradise. A compact, one bedroom paradise. Her husband sits and watches television while we talk.
On our way out, a colleague tells me that there are difficult logistical issues involved in getting folks from informal settlements into the social flats. One must have proof of residency in Belgrade to qualify for the subsidized flats, and like so many migrants world wide, the informal settlements are made up of people who come to the city from smaller towns and rural areas, looking for work or even, as we saw, closer proximity to healthcare. The men, women, and children are, thanks to the outreach being done by the folks I’m walking with, take advantage of the classes offered in the Social Flats’ classrooms, but the path from shack to apartment is even longer than the trash strewn mud road suggests.
There are other things, too, my colleague mentions. He points to the other high-rises.
“They resent the social flats. They say that the people are dirty, that they leave trash around. And they certainly don’t like this.”
He gestured toward a mongrel of a vehicle coming across the parking lot. A pullcart with added front wheels, powered by what looked like a lawnmower or rota-tiller engine and a steering wheel. It looked like something out of Mad Max, and it both sputtered and thundered its way across the parking lot to a set of garbage cans.
Three young men hopped out and started digging for something they could sell, redeem, trade.
Time to go to work.