01 Jul 15

Language Loss Reflects Changing Identity of Bulgarian Roma

Zornitsa Stoilova

"How come I was born in Bulgaria and I don’t feel Bulgarian?! That’s not right." Yashar Hassan is angry. We are seated in the middle of the market in Stolipinovo, a Roma neighbourhood in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv with more than 50,000 residents. He is smoking cigarette after cigarette and his voice rises with the temperature of his words.

Yashar Hassan, a former town councillor from the neighbourhood of Stolipinovo in Plovdiv

Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

Yashar is a member of the last generation of Bulgarian Roma who actually felt part of Bulgarian society. Now in his 50’s, he speaks with nostalgia for the communist times when Roma had jobs, education and proper living conditions. Yashar used to be a town councillor for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party of the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. But he couldn’t stop the growing isolation and deprivation felt in his community that makes him so angry today.

"Why don’t our kids speak Bulgarian any more?" asks Yashar, his eyes wide open as if I can give him the answer.

I try to figure out an answer in the next few days as this question pops up in every conversation about a larger change of identity in Roma Muslim communities.

In Plovdiv, as well as in the neighbouring town of Pazardjik, Turkish is the mother tongue for the majority of Roma and many of them define themselves as Turks or simply as Muslims. Lately, in travelling abroad for work, they have also discovered that Turkish is the language of success and their gateway to the world. It helps them to find contacts and to settle and adapt in Germany, the country with the largest Turkish community in Europe. The sad irony is that they blend more easily into Germany than into Bulgaria.

People from the community in Pazardjik tell me even Roma in the smaller neighbouring town of Septemvri, whose mother tongue is Romani, make their kids learn Turkish instead of Bulgarian. They consider it more useful simply because they don’t see their future in Bulgaria.

A teenage bride and her mother shop for a wedding dress on the market in Stolipinovo

Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

Shenko, a 59-year-old businessman of Turkish origin who owns a gold jewellery shop in Stolipinovo, observes another trend. More often than not, he says, the young men he hires from the neighbourhood read and write in Arabic, not Bulgarian.

As we speak, a young man with well-kept beard and tight white T-shirt passes by and Shenko waves to him. As the young man approaches, Shenko tells me his name is Ramiz, he is 24 years old and although he grew up in Stolipinovo, he speaks almost no Bulgarian. We can barely exchange a few sentences with the help of Shenko about Ramiz’s knowledge of Arabic and the life of young Muslims here before he seems embarrassed by his inability to speak Bulgarian and leaves quickly.

Children play in a street in Stolipinovo

Photo: Zornitsa Stoilova

Shenko later explains that many Muslim families like Ramiz’s send their children to Arabic courses at the local mosques or during their time in Germany because they believe that every Muslim should know Arabic, the original language of the Koran.

But young Roma are turning their back on Bulgarian not just because Turkish offers more economic opportunities and Arabic is part of their religious identity.

Previously, Roma children learned Bulgarian in schools and kindergartens run by the state, in addition to the mother tongue they picked up at home. But parents and grandparents told me the quality of those schools in Roma neighbourhoods is now so poor that they don't see the point of sending their kids there. The children may end up with diplomas, they said, but would be practically illiterate.

"There’s not a single student at a university who has come out of any of the schools in our neighbourhood," says another Yashar, from the Iztok district in Pazardjik, who works at the municipal administration. Both his sons live in Germany and he is waiting for them to call any day now and tell him he can move there with his wife.

"There are no young people left here," Yashar says.


Zornitsa Stoilova is a journalist and editor at the Bulgarian business publication Capital Weekly. She is investigating the spread of radical Islamist ideology among some Roma Muslim communities in Bulgaria for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

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