Raisa Dumeniuc, civic activist and Roma mediator on the left bank of the Nistru river. Photos: Ion Buga/UNDP Moldova

They challenged the prejudices and the stereotypes deeply rooted in society... They got involved in defending the rights of Roma people, of women and children. During the pandemic, they were mobilizing the community to collect humanitarian aid for disadvantaged families. They guide people with disabilities in the process of obtaining identity documents, social allowances, and employment.

They are active members of the civil society organization (CSO) "Шатер на Днестре" ("The Roma tent on the Nistru river") and of the Roma Women's Club. Recently, they became the first women mediators for the Roma community on the left bank of Nistru river.

Civic activist and Roma mediator in Slobozia

Raisa Dumeniuc's memories in the personal photo archive

Raisa Dumeniuc is 57 years old and lives with her big family in the town of Slobozia, on the left bank of the Nistru river. She meets us at the gate, as is the tradition, and leads us with hospitability into the house. On the way, she tells us that she has three sons, one of whom graduated the Faculty of Law from Chișinău. In her spare time, she takes care of her grandchildren. "My mother was born in a tent, she was illiterate, but all her life she strived to getting education for her children.

Raisa Dumeniuc's grandchildren

I attended eight classes of Soviet school. However, I gave up studies because I had to take care of my younger brother. I insisted that my children go to school, because I don't want people to point the finger at my children and grandchildren. I want them to spend their lives working in a comfortable office."

For three years, Raisa has been talking to her peers about their rights and explains how to claim them. “I have started working at «Шатер на Днестре« right before the registration of the organization, when it did not have an office and no one was there, besides me and Gheorghii Vasilevici Damaschin (the leader of Roma community on the left bank of the Nistru river), after which other colleagues joined us.”

Recently, she participated in the competition for the selection of Roma community mediators for the left bank of Nistru. It was organized with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in partnership with the CSO “Шатер на Днестре” and her candidature was chosen.  

She made her voice heard and is seen as a local "baroness"

Her civic activity is treated with great respect and she is perceived by her peers as local “baroness”: “My husband is always with me and is not envious of my work. We are a modern family," says Raisa.

Raisa Dumeniuc with her husband at home, in Slobozia, the left bank of Nistru

She decided to promote Roma people’s rights because many of them are not aware of these, don`t know where to go to solve certain problems, how to write a petition or how to ask for help from the authorities. "Lately, many are calling me to help them. Some ask for my advice on which doctor to make an appointment to. I helped families in need to ask for firewood from the local authorities and I hope they will receive it. I have 200 people in my sector, under my watch. I visit everyone and I even encourage them to clean their houses," Raisa concludes.

The Roma Women's Club, a premiere for the left bank of Nistru river

Raisa moderated the first edition of the Roma Women's Club on the left bank of Nistru river. After that, two more meetings were organized, which were attended by 20 women. "We talked to each-other, we shared our pain. Our women have many problems, they don`t know their rights, not even how to register for perinatal assistance, how to obtain childcare allowances, how to register at the labour office. I help many of them to apply for identity documents, taking them on my own expense to Tiraspol."

In discussion with Raisa Dumeniuc

One of the main problems of Roma women is employment, aggravated by stigma. "We have nowhere to work, most of us work in the field in the warm season. During the cold period, they are registered at the labour office, as there are no jobs available in villages. They receive a social allowance of 300 Transnistrian rubles (US$18.5), and if they don`t have work experience, the allowance is even lower. They aren’t educated and therefore they do not get any job offers. I want us to be treated as everyone else. There are good and bad people in all ethnic groups, but some see only us, the Roma people, as the bad ones," noted Raisa Dumeniuc.   

However, Roma women find resources to ensure the education of their children from what they barely earn: “Our women live in poverty, but what surprises me is that, although they work in the field, their children go to school. I went to a family, and their house was falling apart, but their children were studying. I was thinking: how did she manage to pay for their studies only from seasonal work...?” tells Raisa.

The pandemic has brought some people at the brink of poverty and despair

During the pandemic, even more people knocked on Raisa's gate: “Poor families were almost dying of hunger. Most Roma people have one-day jobs. They sell in the markets, collect scrap metal, and during the restrictions they were left without a piece of bread. Now that the restrictions were eased, women are working in the fields. Everyone works, because they know that winter is coming, and winter for them is equal to death.”  

Raisa has recently started collecting aid for the most vulnerable families: food, clothing, hygiene packages. She appealed to a local network of stores, which agreed to donate supplies on holidays. She donated from her own reserves or asked colleagues from the organization to lend a helping hand, and several times she addressed to the Line of Goodness*, operating on the left bank of Nistru river. "When I saw them so unhappy and without any help, my heart broke. It is especially painful to see hungry children, crouched in a bed made of bricks and old clothes in a house devastated by fire, or older people with disabilities, left lying still and alone, or a pregnant woman in a damaged house that is about to fall, without water and any basic living conditions. It's hard to make a choice between those in need - whom you should help first and whom next week.”

Raisa Dumeniuc shows photos with beneficiaries and distributed aid

When ethnicity is not a burden

Vasilisa Avtutova, Raisa's colleague, was also waiting for us at the gate when we arrived at her house in the village of Gisca, located on the left bank of Nistru. She is a young, energetic woman, whom few believe she is 60 years old. She graduated from a Soviet school, worked as a cashier-controller, then studied at the College of Medicine: “Everyone in our family works. I started working in a factory right after school. I was thinking at the time that if I would marry someone from the village, I would have to work in the field. I didn't want that and that’s why I decided to study."  

Then she got married, and she encouraged her two children to continue their studies: “I have always supported my children to study and pursue a career. The daughter graduated from the Pedagogical College, then enrolled to the University of Tiraspol, now she is growing three children. The son works as a constructions supervisor."

Vasilisa Avtutova, civic activist and Roma mediator on the left bank of the Nistru river

In 2018, Vasilisa joined the organization «Шатер на Днестре». Her first project was related to the study of the Romani language. Now Vasilisa is a Roma community mediator and is responsible for the women's wing of the organization. She actively promotes the Roma women's rights agenda in relations with local authorities, helps Roma people obtain social allowances, distributes humanitarian aid and special equipment for people with disabilities.  

"Now we have two Roma persons with disabilities, who cannot leave their house, because they live in a block of flats. One of them lives on the third floor and has not left his apartment for five years. So, I helped him with a special stroller, with which he could climb up the stairs. Before that, I helped him with the determination of the degree of severity of disability. For the other one, I got a hearing aid from Chișinău. Until then, to communicate with his wife, they threw towels at each other. We called the Line of Goodness to raise money for this device and people helped them. A few days later, I had obtained this device. I'm so glad when I can help someone."  

Roma women have a hard time finding a job, especially if they wear traditional clothes

Vasilisa, like Raisa, believes that the most difficult for a Roma woman is to get a job. "In general, this is a serios issue for Roma women, especially if she goes to find a job dressed in traditional clothes. She is either declined directly or asked for a phone number to return with an answer, but, in the end, she is not called back, or they say that they have already hired someone else. I had a case with a woman, who wanted to work as a janitor at the Housing Administration Service. They suggested to her that the locker room was common space and that she could steal something, and they did not accept her.”

There have also been cases of discrimination against men at work. A typical case is when the employer accidentally finds out that his worker is of Roma ethnicity and fires him. In such situations, the women activists, together with the organization's lawyer, collect all the necessary evidence and go to court. Often, they record the incident of discrimination with their mobile phone and present the evidence in the mediation process or to the de-facto authorities.

Raisa and Vasilisa themselves face sometimes a discriminatory attitude when they go to various institutions to obtain documents for Roma people or to establish their degree of severity of disability and receive social allowances. Then, in the discussion with the officials, they refer to a series of provisions that guarantee the rights of the Roma people and convince them that their breach would hold them accountable.

Lack of trust, the root of problems

According to Vasilisa, one of the most critical problems of the Roma in the region is society's distrust of them and even distrust in their community. "When people see that we are doing something and not just talking, the attitude changes. For example, we help them to obtain identity documents. Some are afraid that we will use their personal data for various frauds, to get a bank loan, for example. But when they see that we are honest, they trust us."

Vasilisa and Raisa note that thanks to the One UN Joint Action "Cross-River Support for Human Rights", funded by Sweden, the situation regarding respect for human rights on the left bank of Nistru has improved.  

Thanks to a UNDP grant, the knowledge of members of the organization “Шатер на Днестре” in computer literacy, mobilization and managing Roma Women`s Club has been improved. Thus, the organization is ready to pilot the institution of the Roma community mediators on the left bank of Nistru river, following the similar model on the right bank of the Nistru river. 7 Roma community mediators have been selected, of which 2 are women, these being Raisa and Vasilisa. All mediators will be trained and will start their activity in September 2021.

"I felt the changes on my myself. If I go to an institution to help a Roma in case of breach of their rights and I present myself as an ordinary person I can be ignored, but as soon as I present myself as a member of the organization «Шатер на Днестре», the attitude of officials changes immediately and then I can solve any problem," says Vasilisa.

Volunteering consumes a lot of Raisa and Vasilisa’s energy, but the activists continue to help their community and do not spare their forces, so that their peers have equal opportunities for a decent life and their rights are respected.  

According to a study conducted in 2018 by «Шатер на Днестре» with the support of the One UN Joint Action, 7,500 Roma live on the left bank of the Nistru river.

* The Line of Goodness was created with the support of Sweden, provided through UNDP, in the framework of the One UN Joint Action "Cross-River Support for Human Rights".

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