The only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for enough good people to do nothing

Roma Role-Model

The Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) highlights today’s article in “Eleftheros Typos” focused on a Greek Romani doctor who speaks with harsh words for the living conditions of Roma in Greece.

The Roma of Aghia Varvara [a Greater Athens municipality, with a substantial presence of Roma] call him “the example of the race”. He grew up and attended the local school, completed his studies at the Medical Faculty of Athens and his medical specialty at the “Sotiria” hospital. He opened his own medical practice and some time ago was appointed in a regional branch of IKA [the main Greek Social Security Fund that also has regional clinics]. The 42 year-old lung specialist Mr. Christos Vassileiou feels proud that he tore down the “wall” of illiteracy and wants to become a role-model for the new generation of Gypsies. “For the standards of my race, it is revolutionary to be working in the medical field”

The road to the University and professional accomplishment was anything but easy. “If you are a Gypsy, you cannot expect help from any quarter. You come across only walls and locked doors. Throughout your journey you need to keep your ears close and remain committed to your goal.

I was trying for many years to get a job at a hospital but in vain. I was patient and was ultimately rewarded. However, I was lucky too. Had I been born in another city, maybe I would not have made it”. Most Gypsies living in Aghia Varvara have managed to ensure a decent life. “Some steps have been made. Let’s say it’s one of the areas where the elite of the Gypsies lives. [You can find] educated people, doctors, pupils making good grades, professional businessmen. The model of Aghia Varvara needs to be widely promoted and to constitute an example for all settlements. In most of them, parents cannot afford milk for their children and collect whatever they can find from the garbage in order to live.”

In the settlements of Aghia Sofia and Dendropotamos inThessaloniki, in the settlement of Sofades in Karditsa and Nea Smirni in Larissa, the vast majority of Roma live in sheds without running water, sewage and electricity. In Votanikos [in downtown Athens] the kids play next to dead mice. In the area of Psari in Aspropyrgos, in fields with old olive trees and heaps of rubbish and rubble, approximately 100 families live in wooden sheds and tents. Even in Aghia Varvara however, the “model-city” for the Gypsies, basic needs in the fields of education and medical treatment remain unaddressed. In Mr. Vassileiou’s neighborhood there are children that have no I.D. cards, cannot speak Greek, never attended school. “They cannot even go to a hospital. They have no medical insurance or medical booklet. They have no name. The greatest afflictions of the race are illiteracy, unemployment and ghettoisation in schools. In Zefyri [another municipality near Greater Athens with a significant presence of Roma], there is a primary school where almost all pupils are Roma. No one sends his/her children to attend that school. How can young people be integrated into a society that keeps them in the margins? The same phenomenon can be observed in other areas, such as for example in Chalkida or Thessaloniki.”

For a few months now, he pays a visit twice a week to the offices of the Pan-Hellenic Gypsy Cultural Association and examines for free Roma with respiratory problems. “Most of them start smoking when they are eight years old. When they are in their 40s, their lungs have been destroyed.” Two or three times per year he visits settlements in various areas of the country and helps those who are in need, either by examining them or providing them with medication. “I try to be next to them. Since the State does not care for them, the responsibility falls on us who have managed to break out from the average fate of those belonging to our race. We have a duty to fill in the gaps left by the State”

“The third world is next to us”

“At school I was taught Ancient Greek History. Greece is my homeland, my home. And if the need arises, I will defend her. There are however young Gypsies who do not feel the same. The State needs to assign priority to the integration of our children in society.” Estimates regarding the size of the Roma community in Greece vary. Greek Helsinki Monitor considers that there are 350,000 Roma but the Pan-Hellenic Confederation of Greek Roma Associations (POSER) makes an estimate of 714,000. “It’s not important how many of us are there but under what conditions we live in”. In our country there are approximately 250 communities of Gypsies. In many settlements where “tent-dwellers” live, as much as 99% of the inhabitants are positive to hepatitis A, whereas 50% are positive to hepatitis B. 90% of the Roma living in Greece are illiterate, 40% are unemployed and 80% have no social security. “They remember us only in incidents that attract bad publicity. And during elections”. For a few months now, Mr. Vassileiou is gathering information regarding the living conditions of the people of his race. “Our only solution lies in appealing to European Union agencies. We have had our fill from wishes and promises. I keep hearing all the time people talking about the children in the third word. If they visit Aspropyrgos, they will meet them. They live next door to us. Among us.”

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  1. February 17, 2009    

    Wonderful article, thanks :)

  2. February 17, 2009    

    Yikes I really need to stop complaining about how over worked I am. Thank you Allah, Buddah, Krishna, God for the job!

  3. February 17, 2009    

    My husband and I were talking today about how the state of California (yes, I know it isn’t in Greece) handled the problem of Roma children not being educated. The laws in most states in the US say that children must attend school until age 16. But the Roma were not attending school.

    So, the state threatened to send the parents to jail if the children did not go to school, and actually jailed some parents as an example. Needless to say, truancy and illiteracy have been curtailed.

    Now, before you say this was only directed at the Roma; it wasn’t. In fact, the Roma came to the state’s attention when other groups found their parents facing the law while the Roma did not.

    Will this happen in Greece, no, and the entire country is the poorer for it.

  4. Michael Scowcroft
    February 18, 2009    

    The problem in the USA, is not only do the authorities jail the parents but they also jail the children.

    “Over 100 juveniles are in detention in the Baltimore City Detention Center on any given day”

    “Children in custody have been subjected to brutal physical force and cruel punishments”

    “this is a detention facility that houses women and children. There’s no pediatrician on staff, there’s no gynecologist or other doctor for women.”

    “USA: Betraying the Young: Children in the US justice system”

  5. February 18, 2009    

    This is very true. But most of those juveniles you site are not in prison for skipping school, which was the point of my posting. I am a believer that education is a ticket out of poverty and most other oppressing situations. Even if it is just the oppressor who becomes educated about his/her actions and reactions.

  6. Michael Scowcroft
    February 18, 2009    

    “Tam is just one of hundreds of King County students who have been jailed for missing school; since 1997, the county has jailed truant youths 974 times.”

    “Skipping school is usually met with fines and the threat of jail time; but, for two sisters, the punishment was much worse – they were deported.”

  7. Claus
    February 18, 2009    

    I think that amnesty international is a good site, but probably most countries have some issue that they report.

  8. Michael Scowcroft
    February 19, 2009    

    We owe so much to organisations like Amnesty International who report the totally unnacceptable abuses of human rights, such as America’s practice of jailing of children.

  9. February 19, 2009    

    Yes, sites like Amnesty are very important and they cover human rights issues from all over the world including from so-called “first world” countries. Welcome to my blog.

  10. Margaret
    February 23, 2009    

    What an inspiring interview – both in what the doctor has achieved but also in how much he gives back. I wonder how many other people’s aspirations he has influenced by his visits, but his pattern.

    Thank you for including it on your blog.