Supporting Romani Children

“If we don’t do anything, the fate of the Romani children will be sealed,” Salesian Father Martin Jilek from Stara Zagora in Central Bulgaria, 230 kilometers to the east of the capital of Sofia, said. “They are married off by their clan when they are fourteen.

Then they have children early on and live off of the child benefit, which is about 40 leva per month and child.” That is equivalent to about 29 dollars – the only source of income of many Romani families.

Around 28,000 Roma live in Stara Zagora, most of these children and adolescents. They live in shacks, run-down houses or in the shells of unfinished buildings. In Bulgaria, around a million people are said to belong to the Romani people (sometimes better known by the name ‘Gypsies’ in North America). No exact numbers are known for they live in a parallel society. Clan structures are opaque to those on the outside. The Romani people, in this country, are despised, hated and banned from public life.

The resentment is so great that even Bulgarians who have a slightly darker skin tone have a hard time getting jobs. The Roma generally only achieve a rudimentary level of education, if any at all. For this reason, many Roma fall into unemployment and a life of petty crime. This in turn strengthens the clichés and creates even more obstacles. The only source of income that remains is the child benefit.

Bulgaria, Stara Zagora 2012 – Summer activities for youth in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, an initiative taken by Salesians of Don Bosco: break dancing

Father Martin and his confrères are not content to leave things as they are. With the support of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), they have established a building for education right in the middle of the Romani district and want to offer them better opportunities.

Bulgaria, Stara Zagora 2012 Summer activities for youth in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, an initiative taken by Salesians of Don Bosco: Stations of the cross (cross way) – with Father Martin Jilek (center)

“For many it comes as a surprise when we address them by their names”

The Salesians have, for example, set up a kind of after school homework program – which offers so much more. The children come after school, eat together, play and learn. Unfortunately, many don’t get any attention at home from their parents. They roam the streets, are avoided by other pupils. “For many it already comes as a surprise when we address them by their names,” Father Martin said. “We take time for the children.”

Bulgaria, May 2017 – Salesian fathers at the building site in Stara Zagora (on the left: Father Martin Jilek)

In their monastery, Roma come and go at all hours. They come to attend Holy Mass, carry out small everyday tasks, seek advice or just pay a visit. The Salesians want to do a lot more. A food bank is also planned. “This will give us the opportunity to talk to the people.”

This is an example of the impact of one the projects supported by ACN: the construction of the church and the spiritual center of the Salesians in the Roma settlement in Stara Zagora.


*Leva or Lev, Bulgarian currency


By Florian Ripka, ACN-International
Adapted by: Amanda Griffin, ACN Canada





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