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Roma Community Building through Gardening

16 June 2015
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URBACT Expert, Bela Kezy, reports from Hungary on an effective way to work with Roma communities

The distribution of firewood and used clothes was a big event in Huszártelep, segregated neighbourhood, home of 1800 Roma people in Nyíregyháza, North-Eastern Hungary. Families lined up at the gate of the schoolyard. People waited patiently and chatted with each other. Rumour was, that the firewood was a present from the company doing the reconstruction of the buildings and from the director of the local school.

Everybody arrived well-prepared: they knew they needed means of transport – but not what one may expect. Actually, the area in front of the schoolyard gate looked like an exhibition of vintage strollers – representatives of different models from the past 30 years were all showcased. None of them carried babies this time, however; their duty was to transport the firewood to the homes of the people.

Gardening

The firewood and used clothes distribution was organized as part of the integrated social urban rehabilitation project initiated by the city, co-financed from the EU Regional Operational Programme.

The construction company - implementing the investment parts of the project (wall insulation, replacement of windows, quality improvements, etc.) - realized early in the process that implementing this rehabilitation is not like an average construction project – there is a strong need to ensure the support and commitment of local people to avoid damage, theft of materials, conflicts during the works.

So they teamed up with a local foundation (“Alkossunk várost” – “Co-create the city”) to deliver a “consultation with the local stakeholders”.

Roma gardening project
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Using URBACT experience

One of the activists of the foundation, László Török is an URBACT “veteran”: as the notary of a small town (Nagykálló) he had already participated in three URBACT projects. One of these projects was RomaNet, bringing together cities from Europe to share experience on Roma integration.

In addition to using his learning in Nagykálló, László wanted to apply the good practices he experienced also in his hometown, Nyíregyháza. That was the motivation behind establishing “Co-create the city” – an initiative to involve citizens in the development of the city.

He already knew from experience that a traditional consultation or hearing would definitely not work in the Roma community. So following discussions with the construction company they came up with the idea of distributing firewood and clothes - using this occasion to ask locals about their expectations, needs and also fears. During the event representatives of the foundation and the construction company walked around, entering into small chats with roma families – and thanks to the relaxed atmosphere the families gladly shared their problems and also ideas.

Not a usual construction project

The inputs from the “stakeholder consultation” made the construction company to “tweak” its general approach in order to adapt to the local conditions.

Instead of bringing its usual security team to the site they employed locals as security guards – as a result, there was no conflict or theft during the entire construction process, and the local community appreciated the trust.

After a selection process, the company employed locals also as labourers; this gave work to a number of unemployed young people in the neighbourhood at least for the duration of the reconstruction; however, some of them – the best performing ones -managed to continue working for the company even after the project completion.

The company quickly realized that the Roma people have a slightly different work culture; so, instead of expecting the locals to immediately adapt, they made some changes to their usual practices. For example, they realized that the Roma workers are more likely to appear at the construction site every day and actually perform better if they have a shorter working day – so they offered them the possibility to work less hours a day. They also offered a weekly wage instead of the usual monthly salary that proved to be more motivating.

The company offered  locals the opportunity to collect and take away the demolished building materials. This way they did not need to take care of removing materials from the site, while the locals found many building materials to be perfectly usable.

The site manager appointed by the construction company also made regular visits to the homes of the families – demonstrating respect and trust.

These little tweaks actually did not incur any additional costs to the construction company but offered numerous benefits to the residents and ensured a smooth, problem-free construction process. The rehabilitation has been completed one month before the deadline, the tenants did not need to leave the apartments during the construction, and no material or equipment was stolen.

Building fences to build communities?

During the “stakeholder consultation” the representatives of the foundation also learned, that for families living in small single family houses (not affected by the rehabilitation project) the lack of garden fences is a major problem.

Using this need as a starting point the foundation – in cooperation with the construction company and the local school – prepared a project proposal. The proposal was submitted to the small project fund operated by the municipality as part of the social rehabilitation project. The purpose of the fund was to support small-scale bottom-up initiatives – like the one submitted by the foundation – that can complement the housing rehabilitation and strengthen the local community.

The project proposal of the foundation – selected for support  - had three main elements:

  1. Gardening: the purpose was to support small-scale vegetable production of the local Roma community. Activities included joint preparation of gardens together with the locals, building the fences and providing practical training. The project covered the expenses for the soil, seeds and seedlings, concrete fence posts and wire – but the fences to protect the gardens were already built by the locals.
  2. Storytelling mothers: the second element was to organize regular „storytelling” workshops for mothers and small children – joint reading of fairy tales, helping mothers with reading problems. This project element has also included regular distribution of storybooks; it turned out, however, that there is a bigger need for hygienic products, so later the books were replaced with basic toiletries.
  3. Neighborhood cooking competition: at the official closing of the project, a neighborhood (outdoor) cooking competition was organized, using the raw materials produced in the backyard gardens. The schoolyard hosted the event, the necessary equipment (benches, tables, cauldron and sausages) was provided by the foundation. The winners were awarded plates, pots, dishes and cutlery. 

The guest is always the first!

On a beautiful summer Saturday the children, women and men of Huszártelep come together at the schoolyard. Some people set the fire, others cut vegetables or prepared other ingredients: this is the first community cooking competition. While the teams work frantically, the little children (Roma together with the non-Roma kids of the organizers, helpers, volunteers) play in the middle of the yard.

The vegetables used by the teams have all been produced here, as part of the gardening project started half a year ago. People walk around and look at the work of other teams, joking and chatting with each other, and everybody enjoys the shared activity.

It’s 12 o’clock the teams make the final touches as the jury – consisting of the bishop of the Greek-catholic church, the owner of the construction company, the head of the foundation and the director of the school - starts to walk around. They stop at every team, talk with the team members, taste and praise the food prepared, and make notes. There are actually so many teams that by the time they reach the last team, the food they prepared gets cold. Still, nobody had eaten from it. The jury asks why they have not started to eat – and the leader of the team answers leaving no doubt about it: “nobody in the team can start to eat before the guests”.

What can you learn from the Huszártelep example?

Although there are no one-size-fits-all solutions – especially not in Roma integration – there are a number of lessons other cities may learn from this project. No doubt that is why the project was selected as one of 10 examples showcased at the Cities Forum that took place in Brussels on the 2nd of June 2015.

But what are these lessons?

  1. Take baby steps instead of big changes – you cannot expect Roma integration to take place overnight – you need to keep working, take small steps – and those small steps eventually add up to big change. Do not hurry, though.
  2. Focus on smaller communities – you can make change happen with specific measures on the level of small communities, rather than with large-scale, general interventions, policies. The small project directly involved around 20 families.
  3. Let them tell you what they really need and do not assume – more often than not we assume we know what Roma – or other – communities need. More often than not, we actually don’t. So why don’t we ask? Find the right place and way to ask – and you’ll get the answers.
  4. Be prepared to fail - flexibly adapt, be ready to change if the original plan fails. It seemed like a brilliant idea to distribute kid storybooks to families – but there was a bigger need for hygienic products. The foundation quickly adapted and found a way to make a last minute change. (To avoid such situations, though, see lesson 3.)
  5. Personal relationships and trust are key – they have to be nurtured and constantly demonstrated. The representatives of the foundation took with them their children whenever there was an event at Huszártelep so that they could play together with Roma children