In recent years, many policymakers and NGO leaders have attempted to compile “success stories” demonstrating the results of their work to improve the lives of Roma. Oftentimes, they focus on their own short-term projects. But when you ask Roma communities, they do not see these projects as successes.

For the racist majority, this difference of opinion fuels claims that Roma do not want to integrate. For allies of the Roma movement and for many Roma advocates, meanwhile, it casts doubt and cynicism on whether change can be achieved at all for Roma.

If we want to see success stories, we need to look beyond short-term social assistance projects driven by the agenda of donors, intergovernmental agencies, and practically everyone but the Roma themselves. We need to look at communities where Roma have been relying on their own self-organization to amend local authorities and create equality and prosperity for Roma in the long-term.

Lom, a small town in northwest Bulgaria, is one of these communities. In Lom, the legacy of racism placed an artificial limit upon what Roma could achieve. Roma were marginalized and separated from the rest of the population by a sign which read: “No Gypsies beyond this line.” Roma children were not allowed to go to school; their parents could not find work.

But local Roma leaders pushed back and crossed the segregation line. They advocated relentlessly for authorities to work for Roma as they do for all citizens. Hardworking Roma families built up the rest: children went to school, they found employment or started their own businesses, they built friendships with their non-Roma neighbors.

Today, Roma are thriving in Lom: they are doctors, school principals, entrepreneurs, committed citizens. And their experience shows the remarkable success that can be achieved by ordinary people.

About the author: Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Roma Initiatives Office.

This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here.

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