Mirela: A Resilient Roma Girl
Mirela* faces poverty, abuse and exploitation every day, yet she has managed to build up enough resilience to support and care for her family. Her goals are to get Serbian identity documents and claim her right to work and to receive health care.
Mirela, a seventeen-year old Roma girl, has learned to cope with challenges that would make even the strongest among us give up hope. She manages to support her entire family, including her mother, her older brother, who is a heroin addict and a sister who is a sex trafficking victim and also a drug user. Because of her family situation, Mirela is exposed daily to the risks of HIV, Hepatitis B and C infection.
“You don’t see parents like mine every day, parents who don’t care,” Mirela says. “Had I not been smart myself, I would have ended up like my sister. She has been sleeping on the streets and sniffing glue since she was a kid. She started to work “down the street” and sell her body when she was nine. The idea that she could get ill and die never occurred to her. Her first husband dragged her into the street to sleep with other men for money. Now, she has plenty of men. It breaks my heart to watch her walking, all doped up and other people touching her. Even while pregnant, she was doped every day.” Mirela’s sister Danijela* (16) is already the mother of a six-month old baby and is pregnant again. Social workers have already taken away the baby since Mirela was the only one taking care of the child, in their cottage in an unsanitary settlement in Belgrade. “When I was a little girl, I used to wash wind-shields at the traffic lights. Now, I do cleaning as well. That is how I make money to buy bread for the whole family,” continues Mirela.
Her older brother (19) also had two children taken into care by social services. He beats Mirela every day, which is why she sometimes runs away and sleeps in the street, thus facing additional risks. “We were hungry, and I worked to make money for his children as well. Still, I’m never good enough. He washes wind-shields every day but only to buy drugs, and he beats me if there is no bread at home. My brother does not want to be helped,” explains the girl, tears falling down her cheeks. Her brother and sister reject any kind of professional assistance. Until recently, Mirela herself was constantly vulnerable to direct risks – to try drugs or to get involved in trafficking. “Had it not been for these people from the Centre for Youth Integration, who knows where I would have ended up,” says Mirela.
Three years ago, when the Centre for Youth Integration (CYI) field activists found her, Mirela had lost faith in people, and was unwilling to communicate with outsiders. Only recently she came to the drop-in centre for “street-involved” children and gradually got involved in the centre’s HIV and Hepatitis Prevention drop-in and Outreach services, initiated by CYI and supported by Youth of the JAZAS organization and UNICEF. Following a series of motivational and educational sessions, combined with psychological support provided by the education officers and psychologists at CYI, she gave up the idea of adopting her family’s lifestyle.
Mirela has no documents, not one paper that proves legally that she exists. She never had the chance to attend elementary school, or use health care services. Getting a medical check-up meant taking money from the food budget. Naturally, she had medical treatment only when it was absolutely necessary. All she hopes for now is to get an ID card, with the help of CYI and UNICEF, and become a Serbian citizen, entitled to work and health care.
Note: *Fictional names were used to protect the identity of girls in story