Case study in caring—Part 2: Roma meets refugee
Roma are one of the most disadvantaged minority groups not just in Moldova, but globally. And Roma children are not spared any of the brunt of the discrimination that the entirety of the population sees. Even today, Roma children have less access to a safe, healthy, and educated childhood than their non-Roma contemporaries. And the Roma population in Europe is highly insular, rarely interacting with the rest of the population. This has only exacerbated the discrimination, lack of access, and oftentimes hostility between the Roma and other Moldovans.
There is an argument (though often debated for reasons I do not have space to get into in this article) to be made that at least Roma populations have a community within themselves. Regardless, Budulai arguably did not have access to that community and therefore experienced the prejudice of his ethnicity, without having the benefit of being directly part of its culture. But even his Roma ethnicity has become an asset to him and the work he does today.
The Roma contingent with regards to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been contentious to say the least. Reports in a wide variety of publications have attempted to portray the experience of Roma fleeing the war, but haven’t quite hit the mark. They paint the minority population in an understandably sympathetic, but ultimately incomplete light. Stories of Roma being turned away from camps, apartments, and distribution centers are not necessarily wrong, but to assume that the people running these facilities are acting purely out of racism and spite, is simply incorrect.
Given the complexity of the situation, coupled with the difficulty of fully understanding the dynamics of these profoundly insular communities, I am a bit nervous to comment, but it would be a disservice to everyone trying to address the situation in an understanding and equitable way to not mention what is going on to the best of my ability—so I will try in earnest. All of what is written here is based on first hand accounts of what I have either seen, or what people have reported to me regarding the Roma contingent.
First things first, the Roma community are undoubtedly seeing doors closed when it comes to refugee services, but to think that those doors were initially closed is not exactly fair or true to assume. As has been explained to me by many people working in refugee response, given the community’s deep and expansive international ties, many Roma have been able to tap into their own networks to find housing and resources. For a historically separated community, it makes more sense that they would find ways to solve problems outside of the established norm. But another important thing to remember is that disenfranchisement always plays a role in behavior. The more disenfranchised a group, the more apt certain measures are to be taken to get by. So ask yourself this, what if you were singled out from an already disenfranchised group—excluded from the excluded—how would that affect your behavior?
I ask this question as a means to start to get into the heart of one of the issues at hand. When it comes to things like early tent cities and short term refugee housing, Roma were, and still often are, welcome to stay. During my last trip to Palanca, the busiest border crossing in Moldova, I saw Roma families moving throughout the camps unencumbered and welcomed. Yet, if most of the Roma were using their cultural communities to travel and find places to stay, that left largely those who have been excluded from the Roma community using these facilities. Higher instances of acute poverty and mental illness, coupled with lower instances of access to resources, presented early refugee services with a population of people who were not using their facilities well. Issues ranged from lack of cleanliness to instances of conflict in refugee housing facilities—there were even concerns of human trafficking at the border on the most extreme end of the spectrum. Therefore volunteers had to make some tough decisions, which sometimes included barring Roma populations from using facilities in areas where the issues were most acute.
While Budulai and his team did not have to deal with tent camps or short-term housing issues, they did experience a different contingent of the Roma issue at their Bălți Distribution Center. The center was set up like many of its kind in the country. Like the Smokehouse Distribution Center, the Bălți Distribution Center offered food, toiletries, clothes and bedding to refugees as they resettled, or transitioned through, Moldova. The center was developed within the first month of the invasion and has largely been supported by Friends of Moldova (FoM), a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer non-profit, whose mission is to support Moldovan civil and youth activists, initiatives, and social entrepreneurs. According to its website, “As of Fall 2022, [FoM has] distributed over $830,000 (as of September 2022), in direct support to over 70,000 Ukrainian refugees.”
One example of an issue that the center had to address came about when they found Roma selling the items that they were getting from the center at the local Piața (outdoor market) the next day. Other examples were families coming in every day to get the same goods—clearly using more than they needed. It should be noted that that behavior has in no way been limited to Roma populations and has been seen across the board and often speaks to issues of scarcity mindset while under acute stress, navigating host family dynamics, and planning for unknown travel west.
Distribution issues are expensive and since the vast majority of the donations coming into the center were from individual donors, money was tight. So Budulai and his team had to figure out a way to address the issues at hand without isolating the Ukrainian Roma refugees who needed their services.
This is where Budulai’s background came as a distinct advantage. Though he lived outside of the community, he was still seen as a Roma and could therefore build a rapport with the groups coming in and find out what was going on. In the case of resellers, it was a frank conversation and a limiting of what was offered. But in the case of the groups coming in day after day after day, Budulai’s conversations exposed a subtler issue.
Many Roma were coming from a refugee center in Glodeni, 35 km (about 22 miles) west of Bălți looking for a wider variety of food goods than they were getting at the center. As it turned out, Budulai and his team were in fact providing the center with food and so yet another frank conversation had to happen.
Budulai explained that, “Hey, I get that you are probably getting the same kinds of meals every day, but you have to remember that you are not dying of hunger and everybody’s resources are very tight.”
He continued, “If you want to get a wider variety of food, that is something you will have to work with the director of your center on and we will accommodate as best we can, but we need to work together to build a system that works so that we can keep helping for as long as the need is there.” Budulai chose to build a bridge, rather than knock one down.
It is Budulai’s historic disadvantage that has allowed him to solve problems that might not have been solved otherwise. It is his patience that has brought every party around to work together. And it is his humor that gives everyone around him hope to keep moving forward. This is a common theme in Budulai’s story today.
It is this patience that becomes all the more impressive when I come to the realization that Budulai still faces stark and ugly prejudice against Roma every day—even as he works incredibly hard to better his community and the world. Bartosz (a long-time friend since Bartosz’s tenure as a Peace Corps Volunteer), once explained, “the most amazing thing I had seen when it comes to Budulai’s patience was one day when we were out for ice cream. A somewhat tipsy man comes up to us and strikes up a conversation. He somehow starts in on this monologue about how he’s never met a decent or hardworking gypsy (Roma) in his life. He must have been going on and on for almost twenty minutes.”
“Can you imagine?” Bartosz asked me, “Having helped thousands of Ukrainians by that point and having to hear that after a tough day of work? But Budulai just turned the other cheek. He said, ‘I don’t know that guy and he doesn’t know me, so we can’t really understand what the other is going through right now.’ When I asked him, ‘Do you get that a lot?’ He replied, ‘Yes, but at this point, I feel almost immune to it. There is good work that needs to be done that I need to focus on.’”
Despite his hard start and continued experiences of racism, Budulai has found himself with a mother, a loving family, and at the head of an impactful nonprofit in an oft-overlooked part of the world. As a father, he is sure to tell his daughters every day to hold strong in their Roma identity and never to feel less than because of prejudice. It is proof of his consistent ability throughout his life to turn the 2-7 offsuit hand that life dealt him into a winning full house.
But being orphaned and Roma were not the only things that Budulai struggled with early in his life. Budulai’s later troubles were what brought him, somewhat ironically, to volunteer work.
Up next Part III: A purpose in life