Author: by Gyöngyvér Barcs
Zsanett Bitó-Balogh (29), kindergarten teacher, is the Somnakou DromRoma Women’s Civic Association of organizer of the Civil Kollégium Foundation, coach of the Municipality of Miskolc and, last but not least, mother of a two-year-old child. I spoke to her about the differences between the upbringing of Roma boys and girls, the situation of people living in extreme poverty and her dedicated and helpful work.
Zsanett usually spins at 110%. Due to her busy schedule, we could hardly find time for the interview. She was even a few minutes late because, as she said, one of the trainers in Ibrány had become covid and she had to replace him. She held a workshop for the roma women working in the day-care centre on disinformation. The women had never come across this term before, but thanks to Zsanett, they are now informed on the subject. But this one topic – which they had not known before – is just a drop in the ocean.
As I waited for our interview, I tried to imagine what your life must have been like as a child. I wondered where you grew up, what kind of family you grew up in. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I grew up in a roma village in Szabolcs County in a traditional Oláhgypsy family. Yet I don’t live the traditional life that my ancestors lived, like my mother did.
How did you achieve this? Because I understand that your journey there is not an everyday one.
I managed to achieve this by not having a brother. Because the job of sons is that when the parents are no longer alive, or the parents grow old, they help the family, they help the younger brothers and sisters. So boys are brought up hard. I was brought up by my mothers to be strong, to be smart, to study, to be able to achieve everything, and I have to achieve everything and do everything, because I don’t have a brother. Because I have to help this family. Therefore, I was practically brought up almost like an Oláh Gipsy boy.
Is there such a huge difference between girls’ and boys’ education? Are you also saying that a boy has a much better chance of going to university?
Unfortunately, yes. Although this trend is now beginning to reverse, all the energy and money is still being invested in boys. Boys have much more prerogatives than girls, because they will be the ones to protect the family later on, but they also have a much stricter upbringing.
Of course, girls are also brought up very strictly, just in a different way. I had both: the boyish strictness and the girlish strictness, because boys are freer in the sense that they can go here and there with their boy friends, I couldn’t go anywhere.
I suppose you had to learn how to cook and all the other household chores a girl needs to know.
Well, when I was 12, when my mum and dad went to work and I came home from school, I went to the grocery store, bought the groceries – either with money or on credit – and cooked them by the time my mum and dad came home. I fed my brothers and sisters, lit the fire.
Did you even have a childhood?
No. I was treated as an adult even in kindergarten, because I took my sister to kindergarten and I had to take care of her, and yes, I was treated as an adult all the time.
Zsanett (balra) a University of Debrecen graduation ceremony
Now that you are no longer a child, are you still working so much? Do you still have the same drive? What are you doing?
In the wake of an atrocity that affected our family, the Somnakuo Drom Roma Women’s Civic Association was founded by my grandmother and mother. For a long time I was just a member of the association, but now I have been appointed as a professional leader. I like to help because I have a great sense of responsibility, I feel sorry for people and I want to do something for them. I also have a full-time job as an organiser for the Civil College Foundation and as a coach for the Municipality of Miskolc.
In the association, I write the projects, and sometimes I am also the implementer of a project. However, I don’t actually work on the projects. I only provide the association with the necessary resources for implementation and I am also responsible for the professional management of the association’s school.
What does the association do? As the name says, only women?
The association was founded by women, almost all our members are women, but we don’t just help women. As I mentioned, we have a school where we provide developmental classes for children aged 0-6 living in deep poverty, in roma settlements. We also develop parents in the school. We give them tools, we teach them concepts that will enable them to develop their babies, their toddlers, their young children in the puritanical conditions of their homes. This is supported by the Carpathian Foundation. This is our main profile now, and we have added to it the assistance to the Ukrainians. We also have a parents’ club, where we talk to Roma women about taboo cultural topics that they cannot discuss with others.
We simply have no energy left for anything else. Although we have now applied to the Hungarian Food Bank Association, because the economic crisis has reached such a level that we cannot watch the children, mothers and mothers who come to us go hungry.
Somnakuno Drom, means “Golden Road”. Why is this the name of the association?
Because the golden road means the golden.
I was in the theatre the other day and for the first time I noticed that I didn’t see any Roma spectators, and I hadn’t heard of too many Roma actors. There was also a young Roma woman in the play, played by a “Hungarian” actress. Do you think this is okay? Why are we still here?
It is not a healthy society that we have in Hungary. It’s not a healthy social image that children see in school, for example, that there is not a single gypsy. Nor is it healthy to go to a theatre and not see a single Gypsy there, because Hungarian society is not made up of Hungarians alone.
“When I ask the parents in the gypsy camp in the school, what is your dream? If you could start over, what would you be? And he can’t tell me, because he doesn’t even dare to dream.”
For example, these parents have never been to the theatre. They can’t imagine. They’ve never been to a restaurant. They’ve never even had a meal in a restaurant, they can’t imagine. And it’s terribly sad. I’m very sorry that a more elite part of the majority society, for example in Budapest, can’t see it, can’t feel it, can’t know it.
“People living in extreme poverty have virtually no experience of life. All they have is work and the struggle to survive.”
These people don’t know, because they haven’t been told, because they haven’t been shown, what it’s like to read a book. Nobody has told them, nobody has shown them that a book can take you from a roma village to Italy, for example. It is terribly sad. And this is how they live their lives. It’s not fair that someone goes on holiday to Bali, even the middle class goes to Lake Balaton, and the roma woman or child living in abject poverty spends the whole summer in the settlement. It is very sad. Now, that’s what moves us forward. At least it does for me.
How do you manage to juggle all these tasks, which are almost incomprehensible to me, while still being a mother?
Luckily I have a good husband and good parents and I am hyperactive. When I go on holiday, I feel guilty on the third day because it’s like being unemployed. I’m always on the go, doing something, helping people, because, as I said, I have a very strong sense of duty.
Zsanett with her family
When I’m really down, it never lasts more than a day or a day and a half, and then, as if I’ve been electrocuted, it goes away and I can carry on working with the same intensity as I left off.
Can you treat yourself? How do you recharge? Because especially for helpers like you, this is what they need more than anything else.
Rarely and with great difficulty, but now more and more. My husband taught me. For example, just before the long weekend, I saw a book that I really liked, but I didn’t want to spend it on myself. Finally, my husband talked me into it. I agreed not to work until I had read it. So I spent two and a half days on myself.
How about the fact that another winning organisation, the GoodSoul Workshop Associationwill now focus on you, the helpers?
I’m really, really looking forward to it.
What do you think a perfect world for Roma and for everyone would look like?
The perfect world for me, as a Roma woman, would be a world where colour, origin, would be the value for everyone, and not the bad, the good-for-nothing, the evil.
It was an uplifting experience to talk to Zsanett, a Roma woman with a huge drive to make a difference to the seemingly hopeless lives of others. And in doing so, change the lives of all of us.