By Siobhán Dowling in Alsószentmárton, Hungary
There are no shops, cafes or other small businesses in Alsószentmárton. One of the few things that stands out from the rows of one-story, shabby houses, is the imposing white church at the entrance to the village. Children play and cycle their bikes on the streets and young women, not much older, push strollers and call out greetings to one another.
Alsószentmárton is a small village in southwestern Hungary and all of its residents are Roma, Europe’s most marginalized people. Living here on the very edge of the European Union, right up against the border with Croatia, the villagers are fighting the affects of decades of social exclusion and disadvantage. A project run by the local Catholic priest is attempting to tackle that poverty and to address one of the Roma population’s biggest handicaps: the lack of access to a decent education.
Father József Lánko, a huge burly man with a white beard, wears a brown woolly jumper. The 55-year-old has been in the village for 30 years and has seen firsthand the ravages caused by the economic turmoil that followed the end of communism. “Earlier everyone had a job, the people in this village were in construction or road building,” he explains. “They had a minimum salary, but it was certain that every month they would have money, so they lived in security.” With the fall of the Iron Curtain, from one day to the next, they lost everything.
“The people live like beggars now,” Lánko says. “It is against human dignity, it would be much better if they could take care of their own families by working.”
Lánko says the unemployment here fluctuates. It is 90 percent most of the year, but drops to 60 percent during the wine harvest season — the village is located near Hungary’s famous Wine Road — when the people are employed in the local vineyards. “There is little here in winter, the families have nothing to eat, then we help for a few days, give them something so they don’t have to starve,” he says. Continue reading