Correction: The Roma day was primarily organized by another volunteer. Coca attended some of the organizational meetings, but was not able to make it on the day of the event.
Calafat, a small city in south western Romania, is in the poorest part of a country that is far from rich. The infrastructure gave the impression that the clock had been wound back sixty years: many still drew their water from town wells, and traveled in horse-drawn carts. The hardship left scars in the faces of the elderly, deep wrinkles and squinted eyes that stared at us with wonder as we passed their benches on the side of the road. It was, at best, an unlikely setting to find a 19 year old volunteer from Uruguay.
Victoria Fernandez, better known as Coca, had been sent there by the EPYD, or the European Platform for Youth Development. She was to be there for 9 months volunteering, though the EPYD provided no guidance on what kind of work should be done. She was operating with almost no support in a foreign country, yet we were marked by the perseverance with which she attacked her duties. Simply put, Coca had a real passion for volunteering, and a patience for doing so that seemed heroic. Her self-assigned mission was both simple and enormously ambitious: to help build a culture of volunteering in Calafat, using it to help overcome prejudice between the gypsies and Romanians.
We met her in her apartment building, a relic from the communists that was essentially a big gray cube. The stairwell had no lights, only a few wild dogs that had made friends with the tenants. In her cramped kitchen, Coca explained the basics of her plans: promoting weekly dance classes, a theatre group, and volunteering at the hospital. A major facet of that was bringing the Gypsy community and the Romanians together to volunteer, which is similar to blacks and whites to work together in the WWII era. Today’s mission was hospital volunteering, an event for which she’d assembled a group of five or six Romanian volunteers.
Before we left, we headed down to the gypsy settlement to see if we could round up a few volunteers. We hadn’t gone fifty meters before we were stopped by two men on the side of the road who asked: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.” Coca calmly explained what she was doing on their stretch of public street, for which she received their tacit approval. “It’s okay because we know you” they replied, “but don’t come alone next time.” Coca explained that we were allowed through only because we were foreigners: if we were Romanians, we would have been thrown out before we passed the first house. Their approval allowed her to gather a few commitments from children she knew.
None of those children actually showed up. Coca was crestfallen. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the difficulties she faced was after we went to the hospital, when the small group of volunteers gathered in the park. Four gypsy boys were playing there, some of whom knew Coca. Coca turned her attention towards them, playing with them, asking questions about their lives. The Romanian volunteers immediately shouldered their bags and purses and stood up. They were uneasy. When one of the gypsy children approached the guitar, he was literally pushed away. I asked the guitar owner how he felt about the gypsies. “I hate them,” he replied. When asked whether he would force them out of the city if he could, he laughed. “With a shotgun.”
In the face of such deep rooted hatred and discrimination, Coca’s lofty goals may seem naïve. The stress and loneliness have helped her put on twenty kilos since she arrived, and were revealed in other moments that I will not describe here. Still, there have been small victories. At a major event for Roma Day that she and other volunteers organized, a few Romanians actually joined over a hundred gypsies for a barbeque. She also has a few Romanians signing on to an NGO she founded to increase volunteering and cooperation between the two populations. The problem of this discrimination will eventually be resolved by force of a few far sighted Roma and Romanian leaders. But it will take outside pressure and perspective, from volunteers like Coca and NGOs, to bring the issue into Romanian consciousness as something that needs to be worked on.