Violetta says she cannot sleep at night because she is experiencing a dream come true. It is not just that she is living safely with her children in Scotland, away from the deprivation, squalor, discrimination and oppression to which, as Roma, they are condemned in their native Romania and other countries.
She is also living in a clean housing association flat where she does not have to endure the bed bugs and cockroaches that infest many local tenement flats. Some days, Violetta works as a translator – she speaks Romani, Romanian and English – but also she works long shifts in a restaurant to supplement her income.
Violetta (not her real name) is one of 200 Roma families (about 1,500 people) being helped by The Space, a project launched several years ago by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in the square mile of Govanhill in south Glasgow.
Most Roma families live in overcrowded privately rented flats – often 15 people in two rooms. The project once found 25 in the same small dwelling. A small number of them have secure jobs and are paid the national living wage and so receive in-work benefits. However, most do not. Many of them, men and women, work as cleaners or have casual jobs in cash-and-carry stores, or wash up in restaurant kitchens and are paid far below the minimum wage and are on zero-hours contracts. To complain, or have complaints made on one’s behalf, is to risk losing a home or a job.
The aim of the project is to enable people to live flourishing lives in thriving communities. For example, Romani is not a written language and holding a pen is alien. When eight women at the project agreed to learn to write their name, it took three weeks to teach them how to hold a pen, and even then their names were written in large, child-like letters.
“We are working here at a pre-nursery level with adults,” explains Margo Uprichard, the project leader. “I have worked in the poorest parts of Glasgow but never until I came here did I find such a sense of people feeling worthless. They are not just impoverished when it comes to not being educated or not being able to read and write. They are cognitively impoverished – they fully believe that they do not have the ability to learn to read and write.”
However, some are now keen to learn.
There are thought to be about 5,000 Roma in Scotland and most of the 4,000 Roma in Glasgow live in Govanhill. They come from the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and some from Latvia. The Space’s first task is to get the families registered with a GP and the children into school, although there are waiting lists.
Roma speak the same language but with different dialects. There are also conflicts within the community – each will blame the other when something goes wrong, tensions that the project has learned to manage.
Romanians, Bulgarians and Hungarians tend to belong to Eastern Orthodox churches; others veer toward Pentecostalism, sometimes with a strong puritanical angle. The Slovaks and Czechs tend to be associated with the Free Church, the “Wee Frees”, but they all coat their faith with their own patina.
The project emerged after the Daughters of Charity, who describe their “cloister” as “the streets of the city”, reviewed their mission in 2012. Sr Agnes McGarvie spent a year in the neighbourhood getting to know it and listening to local people. The poverty behind Govanhill’s soft sandstone terraces and its large Roma community, living a few minutes from Pollokshields, where the order has a community house, suggested itself.
The project started as a shop front on Allison Street and now operates from much larger premises on Belleisle Street. This has enabled the development of different programmes to enable families to build a better life and the project recently won the Premier Christian Radio Love Britain and Ireland award for Inclusion.
About 40 per cent of the area’s 15,000 population are from ethnic minorities. Jews, Irish, Italians and Pakistanis found their way here. Most have now gone to live in more affluent areas, although a large Asian community remains.
Margo works with Helen Macleod and Michelle Holland, who have picked up some language ability and Uprichard has what to my unpractised ear sounds like fairly fluent Roma and Romanian. “The women are our tutors as they are eager to share their language and culture,” she says, as she attempts to teach them English. There are also two part-time interpreters and 12 volunteers.
Each day is a struggle for basic survival – food, housing, warmth, clothes for the children. The Space sells new goods at a price that families can afford – clothing, bedding, cots, furniture – donated or bought from money. Why sell the goods?
Margo explains: “It’s part of Vincentian values to respect peoples’ dignity, so we ask them to pay whatever they can afford – maybe, say, a school uniform for £2. Surely this is the Kingdom of God here on Earth: it does not matter how little money you have, you have enough.
“The Roma are the most despised and persecuted ethnic group in Europe, and so when we reflect on our Vincentian values, we believe that dignity and respect for the other are central to our work. As one Roma lady has said: ‘Thank you for treating us like this; as Roma, we are not used to being treated well.’”
The Space brokers relationships to ensure that families get access to social services, housing and health, especially ensuring that appointments are kept. This is important with GPs, as patients are struck off when they fail to turn for three appointments. Both men and women bring bank statements, letters, official documents and school reports for translation and action if needed.
Many of the women will have married (or met a partner – many are not legally married) at 13 or 14, and by their early twenties may have had four or more children. Domestic violence is widespread, and the women are encouraged to know it is unacceptable.
“We came to serve the whole community, but what transpired was quite remarkable, for we were chosen by them – the Roma community,” Margo says. “The Vincentian values are daily evident in the simple things – a warm welcome and a smile; sharing a coffee together; sitting side by side; offering comfort during difficult trials; listening to their voices; speaking on their behalf. When they walk through that door they are Christ’s beloved. With us, they know themselves to be worthy. St Vincent reminds us that we are to see Christ in those sent to be served and so we hope they may also see Christ in us.
“But we are firm. We make them accountable for what they do, or don’t do, because then you are treating them like adults and that, too, is to respect them.”
Phrases such as “social inclusion” and “community integration”, which so readily trip off the tongues of politicians and policymakers, seem far distant from the basic work at The Space. However, as Margo says: “What we try to do is nurture. What we are seeing now are great strides in self-esteem and self-confidence in someone who, say, nine months ago came here and was reserved and never said anything. Now she’s engaging in conversation and being animated. What we may see as small steps – say, being able to write your name – are huge steps to them and we must celebrate it.
“What we are trying to do is to build aspiration – when they come here, they don’t aspire; they don’t dream. If they can aspire, then they can see what they could do and what gifts they have.”
Terry Philpot – The Tablet
Terry Philpot is a writer and journalist.