Ever been to a ghetto?

(not on the standard European tour)

Ever been to a ghetto?

It’s been over 10 years, and I can still picture the tattered details of the gypsy ghettos of Bulgaria.

Yes, there are ghettos in Europe. Gypsies live in them, all over Eastern Europe.

And if gypsy kids don’t live in a ghetto, they fill the orphanages, hospitals, and insane asylums of many former Eastern-block countries. Gypsies are the blot on European culture–they are the race no one wanted around, no one trusts, and few help. A resented drain on the economy. They are a race of people who have been marginalized, quarantined, and forgotten. Many gypsies live on farms or in small communities where neighbors bear the same distinctive heritage. They reminded me of the poor I’ve seen in other countries.

I remember a hilltop ghetto, where children awaited our coming with electric energy, standing soldier-like against a brick wall, giggling and wriggling in excitement to meet Americans. We played sharks-and-minnows with them and painted their faces and handed out candy.

But those who live in the ghettos broke my heart. The Communists built walled communities to keep the gypsies separate from the rest of society. Generations later, they still live there in the same houses, the same community, the same space. One unforgettable ghetto sat just outside of a bustling city, a ghetto built for mere thousands during the Communist regime but now housing over 30,000 residents.

The first house in the ghetto belonged to the local drug lord. With a gated yard, the house looked only slightly more presentable than its neighbors, minus the Mercedes parked safely inside. Still, his home bordered the slum, the house closest to Bulgarian life and farthest from the filth of his own community. Regardless of money, gypsies are still gypsies. They are not welcome to live in town.

We walked down that ghetto’s twisting “streets” rutted from tire treads, side-stepping streams of the waste and rain water trickling downhill past our feet. Dirty toddlers and children roamed these narrow streets, unsupervised and under-fed. A flea-bitten, 3-legged dog limped along in front of me.  On either side of us apartments rose several levels, some rigged with electricity from neighboring public street lights, some without. All lacked indoor plumbing, and some even lacked outside walls, standing like dollhouses, but with real people walking around inside. I kept my eyes generally fixed on the path before me, partially to watch my footing but mostly to hide their shame. I didn’t want to see inside their broken dollhouses or watch them urinating on the side of the road. I didn’t want to see the babies losing their balance in the muddy, fetid alleyways.

Everywhere, their dark eyes followed us, like unsmiling Mona Lisas.

The ghetto felt like a movie set, not real life. We were instructed to stay close to one another and not to stare at them or their home. And not to take any pictures. We kept our hands on our purses, slung over our necks and shoulders. We would not go deep into the ghetto; many residents there did not even have clothes to wear. I couldn’t imagine it: people naked, in Eastern Europe? In the winter? How is that even possible?

Everything in a ghetto reeks of poverty–a smell I had not yet experienced anywhere–the stench of sewage, mold, disease, filth, burning. Everyday breaths for them, but gagging intakes of air for me.

The last ghetto I entered was Turkish. Also walled, its slum houses lined narrow, dirty streets. A mosque with four towers rose above the tiled roofs. These inhabitants were both gypsy and Turkish, a double-curse in Bulgaria. Thousands of years of bloodshed and dominance has insured that the local Bulgarians would never associate with any Turkish residents, even those in the next town. And to be a gypsy on top of being Turkish? No legitimate work for them. Drugs, robbery, and the Black Market were their only means of income.

No plumbing here, either. We had gotten used to holding our bladders and denying ourselves water for hours prior to visiting anywhere on threat of having to use a Turkish toilet. In the end, that adventure proved unavoidable. I found myself in the pitch dark, squatting over an immense hole of putrid filth, trying not to fall in, while a friend guarded the open doorway to the outhouse.

To see this marginalized and forgotten culture is a lesson in the value of humanity. What right do people have to decide the destiny of others? Why should gypsy children’s dark hair be naturally streaked with gold, due to a lack of nutrients? Why should so many of those kids have crossed eyes, deformities, and learning disabilities from the genetics of in-breeding?

And the orphanages. Everywhere, filled with gypsy children, whose parents have gone to jail or who given them up so the state would feed them and send them to school.

I remember one sad (but we were told, typical experience). As we left a fairly nice orphanage, a taxi pulled up. In the back seat, a young gpysy mother cradled her baby. She was crying softly as she stepped out of the back seat, baby in her arms. The cab waited while she walked inside the orphanage. “No!” I cried out to her under my breath. “Don’t do it.”

I had sat that day in a room filled with orphaned gypsy kids. We watched as a group of chubby-faced two-year-old boys were ushered into the room, to their new home for their childhood. No mothers there. No familiar faces at all. I had sat down and piled as many boys as I could onto my lap and held them close. They stared, frightened by all of it, but they succumbed to the touch of a woman holding them, whispering, “It will be okay” while she cried. But I didn’t believe it would be okay.

I still think about all those kids, now teenagers, and wonder how they are and what they’re doing. Did they break free of poverty and the gypsy culture? Was the state-run system of care enough to give them a chance in the world?

Some of their parents have probably returned for them and sent them to work. Some will drop out of school and hit the streets, as a drug dealers, thieves, or pimps. Hopefully, some with learn a trade.

All this because a small country has experienced too much war, too much poverty, too much dominance, and too little compassion. They are trying to save the children, but it is too little, too late.