The Romani, colloquially known as Gypsies or Roma (perceived as pejorative terms in some countries), are an itinerant ethnic group living mostly in Europe and the Americas. Around the world, historically and up to present day, Romani people are associated with poverty, are accused of high rates of crime and behaviors that are perceived by the rest of the population as being antisocial or inappropriate, leading to many waves of discrimination and racism against them.
However, a volleyball coach in Bulgaria has shown that many people are fighting for the rights and welfare of the Romani people. Jivko Zhelyazkov was recently one of the subjects of the “Islands of Normality” documentary. Among other things, the works shows Jivko’s efforts at coaching a group of Romani kids in spite of serious financial difficulties.
“Jivko has done something unique, he works almost alone with the layers that have been rejected by society. Such participation of minority children is nowhere else seen, and through sport they become like the others. It is positive, they play, listen, learn, and this is very valuable. There is a great deal of inclusion of this ethnicity in this activity, and they do not even have a hall, they play in the yards of various schools.” – Bulgarian volleyball authority Aleksandar Alexandrov
Jivko currently coaches about 40 kids, mostly boys aged 9 to 15 years old. As he works for free, he supplements his income as a teacher and assistant at his wife’s tailoring business:
“My wife wants to throw me out of the business because all I talk about is volleyball. For 3 years, 90 percent of my athletes are Romani. In some cities, there are sporting initiatives for Romani children, but in ours this is the only one. I hope to change that. The children here speak Bulgarian, do well in school, and try to assimilate with the community. Plus, they do very well in the sport, as last year we won the national U12 title, and are among the top teams in the country for every age group up until 15 years old.
The kids are very friendly, although they often live in deprivation. I see them coming to train with torn shirts. I see that they are hungry and they get tired very quickly. I ask them what’s going on, they say that they have not eaten. I do not know what to do in these situations, but they prefer to come to practice anyways without complaining. Thanks God, they have no injuries.”
Bulgaria is the country with highest percentage of Romani in Europe. In more than one occasion, the European Committee of Social Rights has found violations of the European Social Charter in situations with Bulgaria’s Romani population. It’s the work of people like Jivko that sheds hope for the improvement of this reality.