MEREFA, Kharkiv Oblast – Andriy Mykolaienko, 50, has a big family: He lives together with his wife, their five children, and seven grandchildren in Merefa, a small town outside Kharkiv.
Mykolaienko and his family are among the 1,000 Roma living in Merefa – one of the larger Roma communities in eastern Ukraine. As a high-ranking member of the community, Mykolaienko is well aware of the problems other Roma face.
“There are problems with documents, medical services,” he says, adding that Roma people often face inequality and injustice.
In Ukraine, the Roma have long been among the most vulnerable communities.
For decades, they have suffered violent attacks from far-right groups and discrimination in society at large. Many of them still lack identity documents, leading to widespread unemployment.
In view of all the challenges facing this vulnerable group, a group of volunteers and international organizations stepped up to defend and support Ukraine’s Roma communities.
In June 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ukraine, with financial support from Denmark, initiated a free legal aid programme for Roma people living in Merefa, due to the large numbers of them living in the town. The programme ran until November 2021.
With support from UNDP, the Kharkiv Institute of Democratic Development opened an office in Merefa with a full-time attorney working on the spot.
“We received a lot of requests from the Roma community in Merefa,” says Artem Semenov, the institute’s deputy head.
Mykolaienko says the mission in Merefa was particularly timely, as the COVID-19 pandemic had shifted many services online, and Roma people – especially those without identity documents – were struggling to make doctors’ appointments.
Semenov says they started by distributing brochures to Roma people to educate them about their rights. They soon found 20 mediators, representatives of the Roma, who helped them communicate their mission to the community and receive feedback about the most crucial issues for Ukrainian Roma. Mykolaienko was among the mediators.
According to attorney Roman Pustovytov, 38 percent of all consultations he held with Roma people throughout the project were about domestic violence. He had to explain, mostly to women, what domestic violence was, and to assist Roma people in going to the police for help.
“The police and medical workers often refuse to provide help to (Roma people), because of stereotypes,” Semenov says.
He recalls a young Roma man who had all the necessary documents, but was getting multiple job refusals due to ethnic stereotypes. The team had to accompany the man to a local employment centre to help him find a job. He is now employed.
“We try to explain to people, employers, police officers, and others that Roma people are just like everyone else,” Semenov says.
“We are all citizens of Ukraine. But we (Roma) just have our own ethnicity, we have our own traditions,” Mykolaienko says.
The team began to improve the situation by helping Roma people get necessary paperwork and jobs, as well as educating them about their rights. Throughout the five-month project, they managed to support nearly 400 local Roma with various types of free legal aid.
“Thanks to this project, thanks to the public organization in Merefa, we already feel more protected,” Mykolaienko says.
Author: Daria Shulzhenko