Many fled Bulgaria in recent months and their faces spoke of strain and dejection. However, during a three-hour meeting and inspirational words from veteran activisit Toma Nikolaef, forty hands voted to create a new London-based organization dedicated to combating the worst aspects of today's out-of-control anti-Roma racism.
Some had seen houses set on fire, others spoke of relations held in prison. Prominent among the latter is Tsar Kirov, the Plovdiv leader whose release the new group is demanding, along with others from the partly suppressed civil rights campaign.
All feared the vigilante activities of the Attack Party and its maurading brigada, which have been menacing Romani quarters in Sofia, Plovdiv and other towns.
Neo-facist Attack entered the political arena in serious numbers after the 2005 elections when it gained 25 seats. Since then, despite Bulgaria's accession to the EU and promised improvement during the OSI-sponsored Roma Decade, the situation of the country's 700,000 Roma has continued to deteriorate.
At least 35 Roma have been murdered and hundreds injured in racially-motivated shootings and assaults. But its at the economic level that the majority suffer due to discrimination in employment, and in schools, which is reducing their prospects to virtually nil.
"We have to fight a system of apartheid almost as bad as that once tackled by Nelson Mandela in South Africa," said Nikolaev. "That's no surprise since we're the Blacks of Europe only this apartheid hides itself behind words and promises which appear to have even Hillary Clinton fooled."
Nikolaev is referring to the recent visit of the US Secretary of State to Bulgaria when she praised the authorities for their achievement in implementing a programme of desegretation and integration in the education system.
Yet many Roma at yesterday's meeting expressed the view that they had been better off under communism.
One difference between Sofia and London highlighted in discussion is that here Roma can count on a little more gadzikano support. In Bulgaria even the Labour Confederation has issued anti-Roma statements, while the few friends are increasingly afraid to speak out.
The foundation meeting of the new Roma London BG was attended by members of the Traveller Solidarity Network, who last year rallied to the defence of Dale Farm. They are currently engaged in a 25-town tour and are helping to organize the London Roma Nation Day march from Hyde Park.
"Both students and trade unionists are expected to participate," TSN activist David Landau told the gathering in Tottenham. "For one thing we're well aware of the way UK law discriminates against migrants from Bulgaria and Romania."
Nikolaev, editor of DeFacto, who himself fled Sofia after a four-month spell in prison and an earlier bombing of his home, says Roma London will quickly link-up with other groups. They include the revived Europe-Roma chaired by Ladislav Balaz and the longer established Roma Support Group. A partnership with Roma from Romania is under discussion - all witness to efforts by Britain's 80,000 newl-arrived Roma to find a voice.
A primary aim is to get many people out on the street for 8 April. Nikolaev is contacting Romani political parties and NGOs in Bulgaria to co-ordinate protest action, heeding an appeal from Budapest for a Europe-wide united manifestation.
Later in the month, a London delegation will be taking part in the World Roma Congress running from 20 to 22 April in Belgrade. The congress is expected to back calls for further demonstrations on 2 August, the day Romani communities around the globe remember the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager in Auschwitz death-camp and the extermination of 500,000 Roma by the Nazis during the New Order in Europe.
"Happens this congress opens on Hitler's birthday," commented Grattan Puxon, a speaker at the meeting. "The younger generation know they are facing a new fascism, official and unofficial, of the kind we saw at the assault on Dale Farm."
Links: http://romanationday.org/en/ and http://travellersolidarity.org
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