Violeta Draganova. Photo by John Feffer.

Bulgarian National Television presenter Violeta Draganova

On becoming a journalist

I learned to read before the first grade. So on the very first day of school, I was the only one who could already read. From those very early years, I was abused by my classmates, but still they had a kind of respect for me because I knew more than them. So I started to try to be the best, wear the best clothes and so on, to limit as much as possible the different ways they could abuse me. But it was not easy.

All my life I tried to be a perfect person in order to be accepted as an equal. It’s not easy to be a perfect person. After all, no one can say what is perfect. I was the only Roma in the classroom. There was another guy but he always wore dirty clothes. He came to school from time to time. He is he, I thought, and I am me. I was even kind of angry at him. Because of him, I had to have these abuses from my classmates. This also happened with my sister and with my brother.

I became a journalist by chance. I was 19 years old. I’m from Plovdiv. For our big holiday, many Roma go to Bachkovo monastery. I was there for the first time. There was a TV crew from Plovdiv working there. They had an ethnic program and had me on their show. This one journalist saw me and invited me to the station. I started working with the TV program, working and learning at the same time. I studied Bulgarian literature and philology at the university and worked at the TV station for three years.

I got an offer to work for Bulgarian national TV. I was the host of the morning news show. After that, I was host of the evening show for national TV. I was also a kind of reporter for the evening news. In 2006 I quit. I had been working for TV for 6 years. At some point, when I was still working for the morning news show, there was a kind of scandal. My boss, the head of the news program, told me in front of my colleagues that I was not good enough, without pointing out any specific mistakes. It was very rude. She told me I wouldn’t be a host anymore. Roma organizations gathered and wrote a note. As a result I went back to the job.

Still, I felt there was something wrong. I also felt I needed to improve myself. I was not satisfied. I went to Brussels as an intern for the European Commission. I worked there for three months for the information agency of the European Commission. When I came back to Bulgaria, I was invited to work for ProMedia. Now I really have the possibility to improve myself and learn things.

When I worked for the media here in Bulgaria, I already had a feeling that no one believed in me. When I worked in Europe as a producer in the information agency, no one ever looked at me like they didn’t think I could do the work. I had a job and I did it and everything was fine. I realized that I had underestimated my skills. If no one believes in you, then you start believing this yourself. I learned a lot there. When I came back here I knew that I was good enough to be on Bulgarian national TV and also to go the next level.

I think I was too young when I came to Sofia. I was 22. I was too young to really realize what it was and what I was. It was very exciting for me and I was not afraid. Now I can realize that I was the first Roma to do this kind of work, and that was a big thing. Most people who met me on the street and recognized me said that I was great, that I made them feel very happy. So that was very good for me. It’s not just fun to be on TV. It’s a huge responsibility. The main thing is to make people trust you. Of course there were abuses too. The first month when I was working for Bulgarian National Television (BNT) I understood that someone was complaining that I shouldn’t be there because they could “hear my Roma accent.” This was absolutely stupid. I don’t speak Roma so I can’t have an accent. Some of my colleagues liked me, some didn’t. No one ever said anything directly to me, but you can feel it. I learned over the years not to pay too much attention to those attitudes. There will always be people who do not like Roma.

From time to time I did reports on Roma issues. Whenever I was interviewed as a famous person, I talked about Roma. When I was working for BNT, you couldn’t see reports on Roma issues that were prejudiced. I’m not saying that Roma are perfect. But my reports were very careful, very accurate. I aimed to be professional.

There are a lot of Roma in different positions working on different things who are actually successful people. They don’t say that they are Roma. They don’t have dark skin. You don’t know unless they tell you. I believe that these people actually prefer not to hide their Roma origin. It is not easy to live a lie. But once you say you’re Roma, it is difficult. “Okay, we like you, you are educated,” they say, but this is until I try to go further. Then some of them start thinking, “That’s enough, you’re very good, but now go back to your place.”

My brother was in high school when I was on the morning TV news show. I was on the front page of a famous magazine. Unlike me, my brother doesn’t have dark skin. You wouldn’t know he is Roma unless he tells you. Some classmates of his bought the magazine and said, “This woman is beautiful.” My brother called me and asked what he should do. “If I tell them that you are my sister, they will know about me,” he said. “But I am proud of you.”

At some point, one of my friends had this idea to talk with different business people to see if it is possible for me to be in different commercials. He got this answer: she’d be really great if she were not Roma. You can’t sell anything with a Roma.

I’ve been to the United States four times. No one looked at me like this. No one cared about my origin. I was just a person and that made me feel really good. I didn’t have this big burden on my shoulders that I always have to wear as a Roma. When I am abroad people think I am Spanish or Indian. No one thinks that I am Roma.

There have been really bad incidents between Roma and Bulgarians. There was a huge fight in one of the Roma districts. In another town, a Roma boy was killed. The tensions have been growing.

Two weeks ago there was a scandal when I was not allowed to enter a swimming pool. I was with my sister and my nephew. He’s six years old. It was very hot, so we went to a swimming pool near my place. The woman at the front desk said that there was a private party at the pool and no other people could enter. I said okay. Then my nephew started crying. So I went again and asked if it is possible to find one place for him to go into the water. I asked to talk to her boss about this. She became very angry and told me, “Why do you want to see the boss? I already told you it was impossible. There are special cards for the people going to the private party. There’s catering inside.”

So, we were standing in front of the swimming pool thinking about where to go. I saw people going up to the woman at the front desk and just paying and going in. They had no special cards. I asked people entering if they had a special card for the party. They said no. I checked with the people coming out and asked them, and they said no. No one had even heard about a special party.

So I went back to the front desk, and told them, “Look, let’s not lie, is there a special party or not?” And they said again that no one except people from the special party could enter. I said, “Yes, but a lot of people are entering without a special card. Why can they enter?” The woman said, “Okay, what do you want?” I said, “I just want to know, is there a special party or is there another reason why you won’t let us in?” And she said, “I’m the person who tells you whether you can or cannot enter. This is private property, and you must leave.”

After that, I called the media. Journalists showed up. It turns out that there was no private party. The woman at the front desk couldn’t explain why I couldn’t enter. After that, I understood that this is a usual thing for this swimming pool to deny entrance to Roma. It turns out that it doesn’t matter how much you struggle, it doesn’t matter how much you have succeeded, this woman can make you feel like a nobody. My nephew was crying, asking his mother, “Are we animals or are we people?”

I got in touch with the anti-discrimination committee and filed a complaint. They will do what they will do. They haven’t gotten a result yet. But after that, I will go to the courts. I am going to sue.

Over the last 15 years, a lot of Roma NGOs have been working with donors from outside to set up education, health, and other programs for Roma. This is a huge step. Fifteen years ago, Roma often didn’t try to go outside the ghetto, didn’t try to be successful people like the others. These days, the groups are working to help Roma to survive, to get housing, for instance. But no one thinks about how to help Roma try to succeed in society. This is very important because a lot of young people say at first that they will try. But after they get two slap downs, they quit. They go back to the ghetto. So, the second step after survival is education.

A lot of Roma are trying to do something other than staying in ghetto. They are beginning to fight for their rights. I can’t say that this is Roma as a whole. If you watch the news, you will see that a Roma has stolen something, has done something wrong. But I don’t think that this has increased over the years. Maybe some groups in this society are not happy with the intention of Roma to be vocal and fight for their rights. If Roma stay in the ghetto and remain invisible, I don’t think anyone will fight against them. If you have cockroaches in the basement, you live for years with these cockroaches and you have known about them for years. But if the cockroaches try to go upstairs, then the homeowner will try to kill them. I am not saying that Roma are like cockroaches. But many in this society seem to think of Roma like these cockroaches.

Politicians play a very important role in this. When elections approach, fights between Bulgarians and Roma are more often and much bigger. This is not by chance. It has nothing to do with Roma trying to go outside the ghetto and Bulgarian society not accepting them. It’s just a political game.

There are Roma who live in the ghetto who don’t know what it means for Bulgaria to be accepted in the EU. But there are other Roma who want a better education, who are ambitious. For them, this is a good opportunity: to get out of Bulgaria and be part of the EU. Maybe some of them will go to different universities in Europe, and it will be easier for them to come back here and do something. In some way, they will break the glass ceiling by going outside and studying.

When dealing with the EU, a lot of Bulgarians feel a little bit, just a little bit, of how the Roma feel in Bulgaria. But they don’t make the connection. They don’t need to. If you are a part of a big group, you don’t care about the small group.

If you talk with some Bulgarians, they will say it is wonderful to see a Roma marriage. It is nice to see them have fun, the music is fun. Sometimes I don’t like this way of thinking about Roma, that Roma is only the fun and the exotic things, because it puts a kind of stamp on Roma. Yes, there are a lot of Roma musicians. It is different and exotic. If I try to be a musician or a belly dancer, they would say that’s fine. But if I want to be a lawyer or something else, they don’t like it. Sometimes it makes me feel like a monkey or like a clown, and I don’t want to feel like this. The perception of Roma and their connection to music – this is everywhere, and this is good unless people think that it is only this. I am happy that our Roma bands are famous around the world. But it is not good to have only this in connection with the Roma.

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