Chard, onions and hope – a greenhouse in Bijeljina offers opportunities for Roma

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups supports a nongovernmental organisation in building and running a greenhouse. The vegetables and lettuce grown here not only help the gardeners and their families, the project also has a positive effect on the work of the city’s welfare office.

Outside, fresh snow covers the muddy ground: it’s an unusually cold February and the people of Bijeljina in the northeastern tip of Bosnia and Herzegovina are struggling with the low temperatures. But on the southern fringes of the city, under a greenhouse’s new glass panes, fresh produce is sprouting. Onions and chard are growing here, and lettuce was also added more recently – Farzila Dzanić walks up and down, watering the individual seedlings. Soon, an irrigation system will do this job, but until then, Farzila will make sure every single plant gets exactly what it needs.

The greenhouse is managed by Otaharin, a nongovernmental organisation founded in 2005, which mainly promotes education for Roma children. As in many Western Balkan nations, Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina are pushed to the fringes of society and are virtually cut off from vital social services. The circumstances in which the circa 1,000 Roma in Bijeljina live are precarious. Not only are they isolated from the non-Roma, getting a job on Bijeljina’s regular labour market is almost impossible for Roma, which is why the majority of them are unemployed.

Farzila, who is a Romni, has never found work, even though she is a qualified hairdresser. Unlike many other Romnija, she finished school and went on to receive proper professional training on her mother’s insistence. Nevertheless, Farzila could not find a job. That is until Otaharin began the greenhouse project, with support from the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups. The project is directed at socially disadvantaged groups in the Western Balkans. In Bijeljina, the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups mainly collaborates with the state welfare office – and with Otaharin.

‘I want to work and earn my own money’

The greenhouse, which grew out of the collaboration between the NGO and the regional project, has become a catalyst. In the long-term, it will provide 15 jobs, all for Romnija who will then be able to earn a living and their place in society. After volunteering with Otaharin, Farzila became the first woman employed here. For 41-year-old Farzila, it is a huge relief that she can finally earn her own money through working. ‘My mother always used to say, “To survive you have to work. Or get married,”’ she says and grins. ‘I am now married – for the second time. But I still want to make a living and earn my own money for me and my children.’

With her help, the Otaharin greenhouse has started to produce healthy food that improves the diets of chronically neglected and malnourished Roma families. The new gardeners attend courses and brief training sessions, where they learn about healthy eating and basic medical care. After their shift, they take this new-found knowledge home and share it with their families and neighbours. The project partners, the NGO Otaharin and the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups consider these women to be local role models. This is good for Roma communities, but it also aids the development of municipal social security offices.

This is because the effect the project is having can also be felt within the administrative structure – even the mayor of Bijeljina supports the project. ‘The municipal authorities have become aware of our project,’ says Dragan Joković, founder and director of Otaharin. ‘They recognise our work and even provided the land on which the greenhouse now stands.’ In this respect, the project is entrenched in the municipal structures, which is good for both long-term planning and for the continued improvement of living conditions for the Roma. ‘This is important,’ says Joković. ‘In reality, the state should be doing our job. This is not the way we should be doing things. But we are more efficient and cheaper than government organisations.’ However, a part of his work also consists of advising the government on how to implement, or at least finance, social services. ‘This will take time,’ Joković believes. ‘We have got ideas and solutions; we do our work, but we are also winning them over as partners.’ And the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups also supports him in this mission.