by Florian Ripka
In Stara Zagora, a city 230 km east of the capital, Sofia, there are about 28,000 Roma; most are children and teenagers living in huts, or half-finished, decrepit houses. They are despised, hated, excluded from social life; in most cases, school education is rudimentary. Thanks to the Salesians and the support of the “Auxiliary to the Church that Suffers” (ACS), they now have a church and a center that can offer them better opportunities.
"If we do nothing, the destiny of Roma children is already written," says Salesian Fr Martin Jilek. "At 14, the clan makes them marry. They soon have children and live on the state subsidies, a family allowance for their children which amounts to about 40 lev (about 20 euros per child), which for many Roma families is the only source of income."
The Salesians have organized extracurricular school activities for children, but these come to represent much more as the children eat together, play and learn, and are also taught elementary rules of behavior. "After coming here for a few weeks," says Fr Jilek, "they begin to say 'please' and 'thank you.'"
The Salesians of Stara Zagora have no office hours. "We dedicate our time to children, so parents are beginning to hear what their children are doing at the center and are beginning to come," says the Salesian missionary. The Roma enter and leave freely throughout the day. They attend Mass, ask for advice or simply visit the religious.
Now the Salesians have a new project: to open a refectory. "This way, we will have the opportunity to talk to them. We want to convince them to send their children to our school," the Salesian explains. This is precisely the main problem: many parents do not let their children go beyond primary school because, in that case, they cannot get married immediately. However, the first results are already clear. Fr Jilek concludes: "Many Roma know us and know that we want the best for them."