By Christine Joy Ferrer
Day 7: November 2009. Filming in Sofia, Bulgaria for Welcome Nowhere. Excerpts from the journal entries of the film’s director and producer, Kate Ryan.
As I learn more about the situation here in Sofia, I can’t help but ask what is being done for the children. There are a few kids in this community that stand out to me–one girl in particular who is 8, but looks like she is 6 years old. She has the most beautiful big brown eyes, and matted hair. We asked her if she liked school, and she yelled, “Da!!” As in, Yes! I love school!”
The Bulgarian neighbors are saying that they are thieves. That they are dirty and leave a trail of dirt wherever they go. Sure, there are a number of people in the community who have given up hope, who don’t bother to work, and who sit around and drink and complain, waiting for someone to help them. But it’s not them who I am here for. I’m here for the kids, the ones who were born into this and who have potential to change. Not change in a way that forces them to lose their culture (language, traditions, family values), but in a way that allows them access to sanitation, healthcare, and education. My heart breaks to see these kids, who love to go to school, who are wide-eyed and hopeful. To see them living amongst such filth and hopelessness, with such a narrow vision for the future.” – KR
It started at the dark end of a street. It has to have been nearly a decade ago when a dear friend of mine, Kate Ryan, joined a group of missionaries on a trip to various Roma communities in Eastern Europe. But it was Sofia, Bulgaria that imprinted on her life. Instead of seeing caravans, she saw shacks in garbage dumps. Instead of laziness, she saw talented people gifted in the arts. Children eagerly grabbed her hand to proudly show her their colorful homes, and young mothers lovingly displayed their babies for her to admire. They danced, ate, and prayed together. As she caught a glimpse of their fascinating culture, she knew that she was witnessing something that very few have been privileged to see.
These moments sparked the idea of her first feature length documentary film, Welcome Nowhere, which tells the story of a community of Roma people (commonly known as Gypsies) struggling to survive in a Bulgarian ghetto. It’s now in its final stages of production.
The situation of the Roma, boxcar community also represents the current state of poverty and prejudice in our world. It’s posed me to ask this universal question considering all our American grandeur, and all the wealthy that enjoy so many splendors in our thriving industrial nations, why does poverty STILL exist? Even in America, this is something far too familiar, that I’m sure many of us have turned a blind eye on while shackled to our comforts. How long will we go without admitting the connection between our wealth and the poverty of others and denying people of the basic necessities of life?
As you can imagine, for Ryan, just seeing the daily struggles of this Roma community—who have been robbed of the basic human rights of adequate food, shelter, healthcare, clean water, and education—is something very visually and emotionally overwhelming. Now try putting yourself in their shoes.
I’ve always known Ryan, since when I first met her in our adolescence, to have a video-camera in-hand. Either that or you’d catch her hours on end editing her footage in front of a computer. During this interview, her words are so candid and so genuine that I did my best to NOT keep it short. Whatever she sets her mind to, I know she’ll move mountains. I’m ready to embark on a journey to that dark end of the street too and be welcomed to nowhere, just to see the beauty that will rise above the darkness.
Day 21: Today while filming at the Boxcars we were yelled at by a drunk guy to go home unless we pay him to film. Turns out yesterday there were some reporters who had come to report about the community, and then wrote an article about them that misrepresented and misquoted them. Plus, so many people have come in promising to do something to help, but nothing ever changes, so naturally they have a mistrust towards anyone claiming to have their best interest in mind. Which made me examine my own motives. Is it okay to tell their stories, do I have the right to, and will I do them justice?” -KR
Christine Joy Ferrer: Tell me about the Roma people and how they inspired Welcome Nowhere?
Kate Ryan: I have been working on it since 2008, although the idea for it came in 2005. The film started as a way for me to learn about the Roma people. I was always curious about their situation, and had a ton of questions that I felt books couldn’t answer as well as the people themselves could. I am a documentary filmmaker, so my pen and paper, or tools, are a camera and microphone. That is how I make sense of the world, and in doing so I can hopefully use my films to educate others about what I’ve learned.
Welcome Nowhere follows the attempts of this boxcar community to resist persecution and improve their living conditions. Documenting their struggles for acceptance in the intolerant city, I examine the challenges they face and the steps they must take in order to make progress as a community.
An encampment of nearly 200 Roma people live in boxcars just off the main highway in Sofia, Bulgaria. Ignored by the very government that forced them into this unsanitary and cramped living situation, they hold on to the hope that soon the government will follow through with their promise of a better future. Yet year after year, their living conditions do not improve, and the community is barely surviving with what little they have.
The Roma people rarely welcome outsiders (or, gadje, anyone who is non-Roma) into their communities. For fear that the gadje will contaminate and change their centuries-old traditions, and also because they have been so badly persecuted, most Roma people are extremely wary of sharing their private lives with anyone who might threaten their culture. This mindset has prevented many gadje from entering their communities, limiting how much the outside world knows about them.
The majority of Roma neighborhoods are segregated from other nationalities, and, at least in Bulgaria, Bulgarians rarely enter the Roma neighborhoods. This is because of safety issues, and also a lack of desire to interact with them. Some neighborhoods are so dangerous that even policemen and taxis won’t venture in, so they certainly can’t understand why Americans would have any interest in going into these places. In fact, an American friend of mine who lives in Bulgaria working with the Roma people is often warned not to go into their communities because of the possible danger. Yet without going down these streets that lead into their lives, we will never fully understand who they are and why their problems exists.
While I was there I was asked by numerous Bulgarians why would I want to come to their beautiful country and film what, in their eyes, was the ugliest and most embarrassing ‘problem.’ I don’t see it like that. I believe that no matter the poverty or attitude, these stories deserve to be told just as much the other aspects of Bulgaria that they have to be proud of.
CJF: Who are the main characters in this film?
Ryan: The lead characters we are following are two Bulgarian pastors who work with the Boxcar community, and a few people who live in the neighborhood. Zhoro and Mariana Penchev work with the Roma people and have been trying to meet with the local government to get them to move the group to better living conditions. The main family we spent time with there was Stefka, a 27-year-old woman with four children, who works as a street sweeper to support her family.
CJF: Tell me more about the culture and traditions of the Roma people.
Ryan: The Roma people, or Gypsies, are an extremely misunderstood and outcast ethnic group. First of all, most people call them “Gypsies”, which is considered to be offensive by many Roma communities. The correct term is “Roma,” which is the name of their ethnicity. To be Roma is the same as being Irish, Italian, or Russian – it’s not just a lifestyle. Most people only know about the stereotype from their former nomadic lifestyle and traditions of fortunetelling, caravans, and musical skill.
The Roma have suffered years of oppression. Enslaved until the late 1800s, they were one of the largest groups killed in World War II, and were later subjected to forced sterilization* by the communist regime in Eastern Europe. Because of their refusal to assimilate into Western culture, the Roma people have never been fully understood, and thus, continue to be persecuted.
There are an estimated 15 million Roma people worldwide, with nearly 800,000 living in Bulgaria alone. Without running water or electricity, many suffer from living conditions that the UN has repeatedly described as “inhumane,” “unacceptable,” and “deplorable.” Forced to work remedial jobs picking fruit or collecting trash. Many can barely afford to feed their families. Their children are refused access to medical care, sent to segregated schools, and often turned away from shopping or eating in public places. Despite attempts to integrate them into society, Bulgaria has been unable to provide Roma people the rights that the European Union has insisted must be accessible to all Bulgaria’s inhabitants.
Yet the Roma culture is alive and well. For the neighborhoods that can afford it, food can be found everywhere, loud music and dancing is a constant. We attended a wedding in Kazanlak, Bulgaria, where a young couple celebrated their vows by dancing for hours around the town square. The bride changed into 4 different brightly colored dresses, part of their tradition. Another night we attended the 30th birthday of a woman in Faculteta, a large Roma neighborhood in Sofia. She entertained her guests with tables overflowing with food, and hired a loud Roma band to perform Gypsy-Kings-like songs. The family danced around the tables, and we ended up having a dance-off in a circle that was filled with laughter.
It is important to note that my observations were limited to the communities that we visited in Bulgaria, and don’t necessarily reflect the many variations of the Roma culture throughout the world. Therefore, what I observed of the Roma culture in Bulgaria may not apply to Roma families in America, and all over Europe.
CJF: How were you able to meet this community where they’re at and convince them to open their doors to you, an outsider?
Ryan: I have returned to Eastern Europe numerous times to get to know the specific communities. To my benefit, the group I traveled to Eastern Europe with had spent years establishing a friendship with the Roma communities, and had earned their trust over time. This connection allowed me to be welcomed into their communities as a friend.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enter their lives for an extended period of time, not only to see their culture for myself, but also to document it and share it with the world. I’ve also had a few friends come alongside me to help, particularly my friend Mirella Contoli, who went with me to Bulgaria as the director of photography. We have also partnered with Global Celebration and New Life Ministries, two non-profit organizations who work with the Roma people. They have helped introduce us to the community.
Day 15:We are getting puzzle pieces here. The issue is so complex – it’s not black or white. There is no bad guy, or good guy. Both sides (Bulgarian government especially and Roma) are equally at fault and equally responsible. Which means that they both can solve this, but it has to come from both sides. Met with Sofianski (the former mayor of Sofia who was responsible for moving the community 10 years ago) today. He didn’t fully answer some of my questions, but admitted that he didn’t solve the problem while in office. In one sense, it was wrong what he did, because they are human beings and need a place to live. But on the other hand, the Roma people were living there illegally, and the city was not obligated to provide housing for them. The government doesn’t help these people because they are not doing things legally (like building on city property without permits, etc.). The Roma people become largely dependent on handouts from the city. It’s a vicious cycle.” – KR
CJF: How does the film shed light on the lives of those in the Roma Boxcar Community and of Roma people as a whole?
Ryan: It’s all about the micro and macro issues that the Roma population in Bulgaria faces. The micro story that we tell is of one community in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Ten years ago, this community of Roma were kicked off of their land and promised that the government would provide new housing for them. Before the new housing was available, they were placed in old train boxcars, without any plumbing, toilets, and only one sink for 250 people. For various reasons, the new housing fell through, and, ten years later, this group of people (which has grown to over 300 people), are still living in these run-down boxcars. The local government is saying that they don’t have the resources needed to help them, and that it’s up to them themselves to move to better housing. The people, on the other hand, blame the government for taking away their former homes, and are still waiting for new housing that has never come.
On a macro level, the film explores the reasons why Roma people are considered outcasts in Bulgaria and all over Europe. I had the chance to interview politicians, professors, Roma activists, and sociologists about why the Roma people are undereducated, hated, and unemployed. I learned that it, again, is a very complicated issue that goes back to before the fall of Ccommunism, where both the government and the Roma people have played a part in creating the situation that exists today.
Day 17: The problem is so big and seems so hopeless, which in turn leaves me feeling helpless. I am just an American, the last person who could be used to bring change. So instead, I must focus on what I CAN do. I can educate. I can bring awareness. And if nothing else, I can give these people a voice so they can be better heard. When I focus on that, it doesn’t seem so impossible.” -KR
CJF: What was most challenging about filming Welcome Nowhere?
Ryan: I had underestimated how difficult it would be to produce a film in a foreign country without someone helping me with the daily details. Our translator fell through early on in the trip, so we spent a week trying to line one up. Then once we had one, I had to adjust to directing through a translator. So many things got lost in translation!
Also, earning the trust of the Roma people wasn’t easy. Many of them were doubtful about our intentions. Were we there because we actually wanted to help or to exploit them? So many outsiders have come in promising to help, only to leave and never bring about any real change. Many of the Roma believed that I was the same, and that I was only there to take pictures that I would go and sell for my own profit. I struggled with this a lot, the feeling that they didn’t really trust my intentions, and also, the doubt that I will be able to keep my word about trying to bring change for them. The last thing I want is to be yet another person who comes in, takes their picture, and never returns. I know it will take years to prove this to them, yet in their eyes, if things don’t change in the next few months, then I am no different from the others. So trying to hold onto hope that what I was doing wasn’t doing more harm than good was probably the most challenging.
Day 9: I can’t even describe the filth that we have been walking in, especially since it’s been raining the past few days. There are puddles of mud, human feces, animal feces, and food remains, all within tiny alleyways in between each boxcar. The stench is overwhelming, because horses live in tiny stables in between the boxcars, so it is the smell of humans who don’t shower, animals, and fires that are made by burning rubber.” -KR
CJF: What are their living conditions of the Roma, boxcar community? Describe their environment.
Ryan: Words can’t fully describe the smells, the claustrophobic spaces, and the urine and human fecal-filled mud. Many of the alleyways between the boxcars are so narrow that you have to turn sideways to get through them. Rats climb inside the homes, lice is rampant, and while we were there, there was a Tuberculosis scare. Obviously, the unsanitary and tight living conditions are a breeding ground for sickness.
We visited other Roma communities in Sofia and other towns across the country, and the Boxcars were definitely the worst of the worst. Other neighborhoods consisted of makeshift homes, or apartment buildings, some with relatively modern amenities. It just depended on their income. The Boxcar community has around 300 people (and a few horses) crammed into a tiny area no larger than a football field. Sadly, there is only one sink with running water to service all of these families, and, even worse, there is no toilet. This hugely contributes to the smell, and more than once we went home with fecal matter on our shoes.
The children often play in a large field behind the boxcars, where ashes from fires and broken glass lay on the floor of their ‘playground’. Piles of trash are everywhere, and there is usually the smell of burning rubber filling the air.
CJF: Describe a typical Roma family structure.
Ryan: The family units in the Roma community tend to be on the larger side, which is typical of impoverished families. Within the Roma culture, getting married young and starting a family is celebrated. In fact, you are looked down upon if you haven’t had your first child by the time the young bride is 17 or 18. This leaves many young families with many mouths to feed, and no way to provide for them.
Many of the Roma in this boxcar community hold down consistent jobs, but because of the low pay and the need to share their income with unemployed extended family, the pay simply isn’t enough to get them out of the Boxcars. For example, one of the families that I met had three beautiful girls, all under the age of 8 (Todorka and Little Maria are in some of the pictures, they are sisters). Their father has had a full-time job for the last 8 years, but it’s only enough to cover their food and medicine if they get sick, leaving none left over to pay for rent at an apartment building or elsewhere. The poverty continues, but at least the children are fed.
Most Roma living in the ghetto cannot read or write. This is not because they never went to school – some of them made it through junior high. But the education was so bad, and they were neglected because they were Roma, that they never actually learned. This is in part because some Roma children are sent to segregated schools where the teachers didn’t feel it was worthwhile to teach them properly. Others went to non-segregated schools and never learned properly because Romani is their first language, and they were being taught in Bulgarian as a second language. Without a proper education system set up to get them to the same level as the other students, many were left behind. Stefka, one of the women we spent a good deal of time with, dropped out of school early because of the continual abuse she received from the teacher and other students. It was such a traumatizing experience for her. She left not realizing the effects it would later have on her ability to get a decent job. She now sweeps streets for a living, and regrets having dropped out.
CJF: What is the general stereotype about the Roma people?
Ryan: In America, knowledge about the Roma people is often limited to what they have seen in old movies, and is tainted with negative stereotypes. Most know them only as Gypsies (considered by many to be a derogatory term), and have no idea that they are an ethnic group, not merely a nomadic lifestyle. They are assumed to be dirty, lazy and dishonest thieves, incapable of learning or adapting to Western culture. These stereotypes are in some aspects true, but most people who call them these names often do not stop long enough to ask why they are this way. Most Roma people do not have running water in their homes, so of course they are dirty – how can they stay clean all of the time? Sure, I met Roma who could be deemed as ‘lazy’, but I also met ones who worked from sunup to sundown trying to support their families. Yes, some steal, but I also heard one Roma pastor say, “I would rather die than be called a thief.” In fact, one day, we had lost a very important piece of camera equipment in the mud, and after hours of searching, I figured it had been lost forever. Instead, all of the men, who normally eyed us suspiciously, gathered together to help us look for the piece. Turned out that one of them had found it and still had it in his home, which he graciously returned to me when he found out it was mine.
CJF: What can be done to help their situation?
Ryan: We asked politicians, sociologists, and professors this question, and each had a different suggestion on how to solve the problem. Some expressed that more government programs should be established to help integrate the Roma people into society, especially in the areas of education and employment. For example, some suggested a program be put in place where the Roma are given supplies to build new homes, but have to do the labor themselves to instill a sense of ownership for their property. Or teachers could be trained on how to better handle the language and cultural differences between their Bulgarian and Roma students, thus closing the gap between their educational levels. Others said that it was up to the Roma themselves to take the initiative to improve their lives.
But, for every suggestion, there was a reason why it wouldn’t work. And more often than not, those reasons were because of the prejudices and disconnections between Bulgarians and Roma. If given a choice, companies would rather hire Bulgarians to work for them instead of Roma. Children need to go to school, but are bullied and ridiculed by the teachers and the other students. The community would move them to other housing except no one wants them as neighbors. Ultimately, it is a vicious cycle.
CJF: What do you hope those who watch it will take from it?
Ryan: I hope that audiences are able to walk away from this film with not only a new knowledge of the Roma people and their culture, but also empathize with the struggles that they face on a day-to-day basis. I believe that the Roma people are missing an advocate, someone who can take their side for once. I would love it if this film created thousands of Roma advocates who will begin to raise their voices demanding change.
I also hope that by exposing the situation in Bulgaria, audiences might be able to recognize racism in their own hearts, not necessarily towards the Roma, but simply towards those who are different than us. The truth is that the Roma plight is the plight of minorities, low-income people, people of color, and the poor, all over the world. One of my main goals is to show that, underneath the differences in lifestyle, the Roma people care about the same thing that White America does. They want a better future for their children. They cry when their elderly parents end up in the hospital. They are concerned with how they are going to put food on the table. They love music and celebrating with family. When we start to focus on the fact that we are all human, our similarities often cancel out our differences. Only when we recognize that will racism begin to lose its power.
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED
If you’d like to support the Welcome Nowhere or just would like to know more information please visit, www.indiegogo.com/welcomenowherefilm. Kate Petrick has been combining her passion for film and other cultures since 2000. Having traveled to over twenty-two different countries, she has produced numerous short documentaries highlighting the plight of the third-world. A graduate of California State University, Northridge, School of Cinema and Television Arts, Kate continues to travel extensively, always with a camera in hand.
* American eugenics refers to compulsory sterilization laws adopted by over 30 states that led to more than 60,000 sterilizations of disabled individuals. Many of these individuals were sterilized because of a disability: they were mentally disabled or ill, or belonged to socially disadvantaged groups living on the margins of society. American eugenic laws and practices implemented in the first decades of the twentieth century influenced the much larger National Socialist compulsory sterilization program, which between 1934 and 1945 led to approximately 350,000 compulsory sterilizations and was a stepping stone to the Holocaust. Even after the details of the Nazi sterilization program (as well as its role as a precursor to the “Euthanasia” murders) became more widely known after World War II (and which the New York Times had reported on extensively and in great detail even before its implementation in 1934), sterilizations in some American states did not stop. Some states continued to sterilize residents into the 1970s.