Valeria is the first young Roma woman to be elected to Berehovo City Council. At 28, she has held the position of councillor for her district for almost three years, along with the only other Roma council member in the city, who is a man.
Unlike the majority of Roma women in Ukraine, and in many other countries in Europe, Valeria went to university, in the city of Ternopyl. On her return, she decided to use her education to try to do something to improve life for her community, many of whom voted for her and live in a settlement on the outskirts of the city on the outskirts of the city in abject conditions. She says, ‘It was difficult to see how they lived. I needed to try and do something about it.’
When I asked her what that means in reality, she told me that one of the main problems for Roma in the city is lack of official ID papers. This was a recurring theme during my visit . . . without papers, Roma can’t work or travel officially, or access adequate healthcare or education. Significant numbers of Roma in the Zakarpattia region where Berehovo lies were born in the Russian Federation, and don’t have access to their original birth certificates, whilst many uneducated Roma women fail to register the births of their children in the city. Without a birth certificate, Roma citizens simply don’t exist and are forced even further to the margins of society.
Valeria spends much of her time helping Roma trawl through the bureaucratic labyrinths and engages with the authorities in order to gain the all-important papers, making photocopies for them and arranging meetings with lawyers, often using her own money and staying up all hours to make sure her constituents get what they need. She doesn’t get paid as a councillor, so works as an accountant to make ends meet, and her young husband, who was silently present throughout our meeting, works three jobs to support their family.
Yet she too has faced discrimination and hardship: for her gender, for being Roma, from other councillors and from within her own community. I asked her how she found the energy to continue, despite the many obstacles.
‘I trust in God. I am a religious person. I’m also heartened by the fact that I won this election, without bribes, although I had many opponents. I won because many people in my community trust me. I just want to improve their lives.’