Zola Kondur

Just Like You is a joint project of Real Stories Production and the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

  • The Constitution of Ukraine guarantees to all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, equal political, social, economic and cultural rights and freedoms, and supports the development of national identity and self-expression.
  • In 2013, the National Roma Strategy was adopted to ensure conditions are put in place to protect and integrate the Roma minority in Ukrainian society.

“If you want to understand the degree to which human rights are respected in a particular country, ask, ‘how do Roma people live here?’”

Zola Kondur

Zola Kondur is a human rights activist, Vice-President of the Chiricli Roma Women Foundation; since 2018, she has worked for the Council of Europe

I am from a traditional Roma family, but my parents have always been quite progressive. I received a good education, and my voice has been heard since I was a child.

When the law on NGOs was adopted in the early 1990s, my father immediately registered one of the first Roma NGOs in Ukraine. At that time, I was studying at university, but I was already helping my father to print documents, write letters and organize events.

We fought for the right of Roma to receive quality education, adequate housing, employment, social services and healthcare, and looked for ways to counter discrimination. Today, about 120 Roma organizations are registered in Ukraine, but none of the issues above has been fully addressed.

In 2016, a terrible tragedy happened in the village of Loshchynivka in Odesa oblast: a man killed an 8 year old girl. The man appeared to be half Roma, so the local residents, together with the village council, decided to expel a dozen Roma families from the village. These families lost their homes, they were abused and their children will never forget the horror and humiliation.

In 2018, two Roma camps came under attack: one in Kyiv and another close to Lviv. People were beaten, and their property and houses were set on fire. In the first case, members of the right-wing C14 organization were involved. The llaw enforcement authorities issued them the notes of suspicion of a crime, but they found legal loopholes and appealed the suspicion. In the second case, the culprits were teenagers and two 20-year-old boys, who were released on bail. To date, no one has been punished. Dozens of families lost their homes, and the government and society just forgot about it.

Sill today Roma are not let into restaurants and other public facilities in Vynohradiv, a town in Zakarpattia oblast. There is a large Roma community there, well-to-do families, women wearing traditional clothes an extremely beautiful and very expensive outfit. But local Ukrainians say they are afraid to eat and drink in a place attended by Gypsies. We learned about this when we hosted a community event there last year. When the administrator of the facility discovered who our guests were, she started shouting that we had deceived them, that they “would have to close their business because Gypsies came.” It’s awful that there are cities in Ukraine where people think this is possible. We need to talk about this. 

We provide training on overcoming stereotypes and negative attitudes towards Roma for teachers, doctors, police officers, social workers and journalists. For example, it is important to know that Roma can have two names. The first is used in the community and the second is on the passport. Oftentimes, there are conflicts, social workers or police officers say, “He fooled me, he said his name was Vasia, buy in his passport his name is Petia.” But this is not a deceit, a person has two names and that is absolutely fine.

It is important to understand that Roma traditions developed during nomadic life. There was a high infant mortality rate back then. It was true happiness when two or three children out of ten survived. That is why many Roma families keep giving birth to many children.

The wedding tradition also developed at that time. And to this day, the traditional Roma family does not consider it necessary to register a marriage, but they always carry out the ancient rite before God.

Many Roma children do not have birth certificates because their parents do not have passports. And without documents, they are not admitted to kindergartens or schools, they are not let into hospital, they cannot get jobs, and so on. There are Roma legal centres providing advisory services. There is a mechanism for obtaining passports, but it is complicated and can take up to two years: we are working to simplify it.

We have a system of mediators who act as a bridge between state institutions and Roma families and communities. Mediators help collect documents and write requests. Sometimes, ambulance operators ignore calls from Roma camps, then people call a mediator who helps ensure that an ambulance comes, and sometimes they have to contact the Ministry for this.

We strive for equal access to quality education for all children. We conduct training for teachers to overcome stereotypical negative attitudes towards Roma children, and we work with Roma families to explain the importance of education for their children. Often, Roma children do not attend kindergarten, and thus they fall behind their peers at school. Teachers find it more difficult to work with Roma children, and other parents do not want Roma in the classroom with their children. But it is absurd at first to expel Roma children from schools and then to complain that they are not educated.

Conversely, successful Roma often hide their nationality in order to avoid prejudice. I know such a boy, a student at Shevchenko University. He only started attending our events and telling his classmates that he was a Roma in his last years of study.

I understand the anger of people who had their possessions stolen on the street. I understand that they are very aggrieved, they remember this incident all their lives. Indeed, there are people who do such things, we cannot but admit it. Every time I go to the subway I always look at my bag, because I know that many people could steal my stuff in the subway. But you can see that Roma do not pick pockets in the subway: these are people from other ethnic groups that you never think about.

I would like people to understand that Roma are just more visible on the street. Yes, there are Roma who do this. But first, we can never say that only Roma do it. Secondly, we have to understand why they do it. Often, they have no other choice. Nobody employs them, they have no education, they cannot live in another way. I think these problems have to be addressed.

Seven years ago, I was asked to hire a Roma woman who had been released from prison for theft. She has works with us since then; she is extremely committed to her work and says that over the years the mindset of her family has changed completely, because they never understood or knew and did not believe they could earn a living by lawful means.

According to our survey, only 37 per cent of Roma have official jobs.

It is extremely important to give people a chance, to show that they can earn money differently. It doesn’t always work out, but we don’t stop trying.

Our ambitious goal is the full inclusion of Roma in all areas of life in the country. For this, political will is not enough, it requires fundamental understanding and acceptance of the value of human rights in society. There is a long way to go. But there are successful examples from other countries: for instance, in Finland, Romani has been recognized as one of the official languages.

This year, we launched the Political School for Roma. This is a project for people who have political ambitions. The students include representatives of eight regions of Ukraine, men and women of different ages, and there are also two brothers from Vynohradiv. These people already have some experience of working with both the community and the local authorities. They want to try standing in the upcoming elections, to work not only for the Roma population but for all residents of their settlements.

All Roma are united by the value of their family. For us, family is the most important thing. Then, the cult of children, adults, and in general dedication to our people.

There were times when a Roma who got into trouble – for instance, found himself in another city or country, lost his belongings and had nothing with him and – could just go to the market, find a local Roma and say, “I am a Roma, I am in trouble,” and his trouble was immediately over. Now, unfortunately, this sense of unity is lost.

I really like the way Roma women are raised. Devotion to her family, to her husband – in many modern societies this is lost. It seems to me that the Roma have managed to retain very important values; in many respects Roma can lead by example.

But for a long time, a Roma woman had no voice and could not even go to another city without a man following her. My mother always took an active part in the Roma movement, and when she went to certain events, my father was concerned: what will the Roma say after he let his wife go?

Another issue is traditional early marriages. Girls are married at the age of 13-15, and often afterwards they drop out of school. We have programmes for girls, we do our best to persuade them to continue their education.

In 2004, my mother founded the Chiricli Roma Women Foundation to uphold not only her own rights but also the rights of all Roma women. Today, more girls are receiving higher education, representing the interests of their communities, and working in decision-making positions.

I can fight for human rights, for women’s rights, go on the march for equality and at the same time be a devoted mother, a wife, a Roma woman. I do not see any dissonance here; these are things that can be combined and are absolutely in harmony with each other.