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Vincentian values in Govanhill

The women helping Glasgow’s Roma

A Daughters of Charity run project in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas is helping Glasgow’s Roma community build better lives and integrate fully into society. Dani Garavelli reports on The Space, with photos from SIMON MURPHY

 

IN A freshly-painted hall in Glasgow’s Govanhill neighbourhood, Dorina Damian, one of the thousands of Roma people who have flocked to this vibrant but impoverished corner of Glasgow, is explaining why she made the journey. Like many of those who attend The Space, a project run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, she left a country where discrimination was rife and work hard to come by in search of a better life. But Dorina had other problems too. Her older son, Florin, 17, suffers from muscular dystrophy; he is blind and needs constant care. In Romania, medical treatment had to be paid for and Dorina and her husband Daniel could not afford it. Florin’s condition deteriorated and he was increasingly isolated. Today, with help from The Space, he is registered with a doctor and his health is improving. “He is a happier boy now,” Dorina said through interpreter Calina Toqer.

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Nor is this the only help the Damian family has received. A few weeks ago, Daniel’s father died suddenly from a heart attack while visiting Scotland. There was no money to pay for a funeral here and, besides, Daniel wanted to take him back to his own country. The Damians got some support from the owners of the kebab shop where Daniel works, but The Space helped arrange the transportation of the body. “The funeral wasn’t exactly how they wanted it, but at least they were able to take him home. And we made sure he was dressed in a suit and shoes, in accordance with Roma custom,” project worker Helen Macleod said.

The Space began life several years ago when the Daughters of Charity pinpointed Govanhill as a community that might benefit from their intervention. First, the group sent Sr Agnes McGarvie on a ‘listening ministry.’ Then, once the need had been established, Margo Uprichard, a former industrial microbiologist, was brought in to manage the project.

The Space was not targeted at any particular ethnic group, but it was Roma women who showed the most interest. They came along, tentatively at first, but then—as the men gave their blessing—with growing confidence. “They call us ‘Geevano,’ which simply means ‘to be,’” said Ms Uprichard, who, with her long, dark hair and brightly-coloured clothes, seems to have a natural affinity with the Roma women.

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Until recently, The Space was being run from two shop-fronts in Allison Street, but with 200 families on its books it needed bigger premises. Luckily, the former hall of the Community of the Risen Christ on Belleisle Street became available, and they moved in autumn. The new building provides a communal space for social gatherings, private rooms for one-to-one conversations and a fully-fitted kitchen.

There are three strands to the project’s work. The first is the thrice-weekly drop-in sessions where the women can meet and pick up tickets for the food bank and essentials such as bedding. The drop-in sessions also provide an important forum for the building of relationships. “Our work is based on Vincentian values: truth, honesty, dignity and accountability,” Ms Uprichard said. “We are very compassionate, but by holding people accountable we treat them as adults.”

The Space also plays a vital role in community integration, helping families access services, such as doctors, dentists and schools, and working with them to tackle debt and housing problems. This can be labour-intensive. The Roma have existed on the margins of society for so long they struggle to live within the system. The Space helps broker relationships and will even take families to NHS appointments to make sure they don’t miss them.

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The last strand of the project’s work is ‘building better futures,’ particularly the fostering of self-esteem. So far, the project has offered lessons in literacy and cooking, with numeracy classes due to start in January. Ms Uprichard hopes exercise and personal care sessions will soon be added to the list.

 

When I visit one morning in mid-December, The Space echoes with excited chit-chat. Though there have been influxes of Roma from Slovakia, Bulgaria and Latvia, most of the women who have turned up are more recent arrivals from Romania. Many are related by blood or marriage and share the same surname. There are elderly women with leathery faces and broad smiles and younger, more diffident ones, who have to be coaxed to speak. One girl dressed in an old-fashioned red coat and a headscarf looks as if she has been plucked from a fairytale.

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Along the back wall, a painting of a Slovenian mountainside—with snow-capped peaks and a swathe of purple crocuses—provides a contrast to the urban drizzle outside, though a Christmas tree perched incongruously at one end serves as a reminder of the festive season. A few days earlier, The Space organised a trip to see Cinderella at the King’s Theatre and there is some laughing about the pantomime dames, while in a back room donated presents are being sorted into bags ready for distribution.

Ask the Roma women about their lives in Glasgow, and they are resolutely upbeat. “Everything here is great,” they say. Their flats are ‘fine’ and the people are ‘friendly,’ but the briefest glimpse at their lives hints at a less palatable reality.

 

Govanhill is one of the most complex and intriguing districts in Scotland; its sheer diversity—42 different nationalities within one square mile—has created a dynamic clash of cultures. Walk its streets and you encounter Irish bars, Italian chippies and Asian sweet shops, their windows laden with green and pink confections. The fruit and vegetable shops are a psychedelic explosion of red tomatoes, green peppers, and purple aubergines, while the scent of pakora and kebab meat seeps from the many takeaways.

But the poverty is unmistakable. The area is plagued by slum landlords, rubbish piles up in closes and there are blocks where bedbugs are endemic. The aroma of exotic spices mingles with the stench of unemptied bins. Though the ethnic tensions may be overstated, they do exist. The Roma, persecuted across Europe, are not given an unqualified welcome here. In Govanhill, as elsewhere, cultural quirks, such as the tendency of the young men to hang around street corners, can see them used as scapegoats.

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Felcera Covaciu smiles wearily as she stands at the door of her tenement flat. At 28, she has four children under 14, and her fifth is due any day now. Her home is clean, but spartan. In the front room, there is a cot, ready for the new arrival, but there are few toys visible.

According to Ms Uprichard, large gaps in the railings on the close stairs went unrepaired, turning them into a potential death trap; they have now been patched up with wire, but the stairwell is still full of junk. Part of Ms Covaciu’s bathroom ceiling has rotted away and it smells of damp. For others, the problems are even worse. Ms Uprichard talks of an extended family of 18 living in a three-bedroomed flat, and a woman in her early 30s who has nine children. “I have worked in the most deprived parts of Glasgow, but I would say the poverty among the Roma in Govanhill is different because it is about survival,” Ms Uprichard said. “We haven’t known that kind of poverty for generations because, much as we like to denigrate it, we have a welfare system. These people have not been used to a welfare system. If they don’t work, they go hungry. When you wake up in the morning and your first thought is ‘How am I going to feed my children today?’ you operate on a different level. You operate on your wits.”

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Some of the problems affecting the Roma are cultural. Grooms still pay a ‘bride price’ so many girls are married off young and there is evidence of trafficking. In a male-dominated society, few women can read, which makes it difficult for them to integrate. And they have little access to even the most basic information on health or hygiene, which fuels stigmatisation.

With little sense of their own value, the women have to be convinced of the importance of developing new skills, so much so that when Ms Uprichard first broached the idea of literacy classes, they would laugh and push their arms away dismissively.

“We would look at the barriers in their lives and present them with potential opportunities, yet when we asked ‘What will you be?’ they would reply, ‘I will be nothing,’ she said.

Eventually, The Space held an open day aimed at teasing out the women’s strengths. “We got to the end, and, again, we asked, ‘So what are you good at?’ Again there was silence. Then one child said ‘My mum is great at telling jokes’ and I thought ‘Bingo.’ That’s the answer. We can reach them through their children.”

 

As it has expanded The Space has taken on more staff; it now has three full-time workers—including Ms Uprichard—two part-time interpreters, Sr Agnes McGarvie, and 16 volunteers. In the future, Ms Uprichard hopes it will be able to reach out to other ethnicities in an attempt to improve community relations.

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Many of Govanhill’s problems appear intractable, but the degree to which lives can be transformed is evident when I speak to Lamita Covaci, 28. A single mother, she left her two daughters, Debora, eight, and Elisa, a tiny baby, with her own mother in Romania, to come to Glasgow two years ago. She worked hard, learned some English and soon she was able to bring all three of them over to join her.

Now, she lives in a Glasgow Housing Association flat and works as a part-time interpreter with The Space. “When I first arrived in Scotland, I used to cry,” Covaci said. “The people I worked for would ask ‘Why are you crying? What is the problem?’ and I would say ‘I miss my daughter.’ But life is good for me now. Everything is getting better.”

 

 

 

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