The cool breeze of the Danube River swept through my long, brown hair. Wearing my black Duke windbreaker and faded blue Levi’s, I had prepared adequately, yet I could tell that the mix of teenagers on the shore had not from the chattering teeth of locals at the bus station. A clap of thunder punctuated the impending storm. I approached the advertisement-littered kiosk, where two elderly women, chatting aimlessly about the price of Plazma cookies, moved aside so that I could wait out the thick drops of rain. While Belgrade’s weather oscillates frequently, Serbians’ hospitality remains as constant as the winning record of Duke’s men’s basketball team: amicable, generous, and always willing to lend a hand to a foreigner.
Or so I thought.
When I initially applied to DukeEngage-Serbia, I was intrigued by the possibility of establishing solidarity in communities for marginalized groups. Just as anti-black racism has not dissipated but merely evolved over the course of American history, from chattel slavery to legalized segregation to targeted, mass incarceration, so too has prejudice against Roma remained largely unchallenged. Certainly, the stereotype of Roma is not exclusive to Serbia or even Eastern Europe; indeed, I remember quite vividly learning as a child in the Massachusetts public school system that Roma, whom we disparaged as gypsies, are filthy vagabonds who wear variegated clothing and constantly attempt to “gyp” you out of money.
In high school, my history teacher was aware of my Armenian and Slavic descent and insisted that I study the culture of Roma more incisively, a task which I undertook in earnest. Thus began my urge to improve the lives of Roma abroad.
Unlike in terms of American white supremacy, sentiment regarding the Roma is expressed loudly and visibly in Serbia. Derogatory language towards American minorities is condemned publicly and reserved for houses of white security; it is tolerated, if not encouraged, broadly in Serbia. Whereas white American politicians make subversively racialized remarks and promote biased policies, such as the War on Drugs or the defense of abhorrent law enforcement officials, those who hold power in Serbia have the leeway to say anything which enhances an idyllic vision of Serbian hegemony across the region.
Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia and a long-time member of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, said that “for every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims” during the height of atrocities committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
With a president like Donald Trump, who famously boasted of his ability to seize women by the genitals and has argued that Latino asylum seekers present a rampant invasion to American civilization, perhaps Vučić is not hard to imagine for you. Authoritarian-leaning leaders of a feather flock together, to paraphrase that common axiom. Yet the Serbian president’s opinions are not restricted to the National Assembly. Indeed, some with whom I have conversed make Vučić appear as docile in his bigotry as Senator Elizabeth Warren. In the context of this struggle against the status quo, Roma remain sidelined and unable to affect change. Even though some Roma represent the population in government, these scarce men are under the control of Vučić and his benefactors. Their situation is akin to a capybara trapped in the ever-tightening vice of an anaconda; vie as they may for equality and access to fundamental necessities, Roma are trapped with seemingly no escape.
To talk about Roma and racism in the abstract is intellectually fulfilling, but to see it in person is another situation entirely. As the raindrops steadily grew in frequency and size, from grains of sand to gummy bears to baby carrots, my thoughts became consumed in this spiraling vortex. I recognized my good fortune to have avoided the worst thanks to the compassion of those women, who had since departed under a pink, glossy umbrella. Just the shop owner and I remained, he within the compartment of the kiosk and I under the small roof, made of black aluminum which especially emphasized the patter of the rain.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a small, brown boy huddling for warmth under a leafless tree. He was wearing a striped blue t-shirt and cargo shorts, yet smears of dirt streaked under his eyes and across his cheeks. His skinny arms and bulging neck muscles revealed his evident hunger, and he instantly gravitated toward someone who would interact with him. Twenty years of indoctrination against a specific group of people instantly evaporated on the sight of this Roma child, and I was instantly reminded of another scenario, seven thousand miles west.
In the summer before my freshman fall, I lived and worked on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. While there, I was stunned by the egregious lack of responsible parenting; toddlers literally wandered on all fours onto the dirt road, where inebriated motorcyclists sped by without any regard for a speed limit. These children had only dogs, scruffy, starving animals, as their companions. The only trait these two shared was the sharp points of their exposed ribcages. In short, these children needed supervision. However, when I asked them if they felt safe or needed aid, the children could not understand the objective of my desire to assist them. Without previous guidance, my attempts, especially as a white man who speaks quickly and with a thick Boston accent, struck them as completely alien. Privilege, at least in part, is having the ability to not recognize where your grace lies; during those weeks, I realized how lucky I am to have two assiduous parents who would do anything for me and to have grown up in an environment where that was typical.
With this experience in hand, I knew that I had to act cautiously and responsibly. I ventured out into the rain and beckoned him to join me under the kiosk, where at least we could speak and determine a course of action. Yet the booming voice of the salesman halted me in my tracks. “No Roma,” he exclaimed in broken English. I wasn’t about to protest, considering that we did not speak the same language and that I did not want to risk ruining Duke’s reputation, so I simply held my coat up over us and handed him my phone for Google Translate.
“My name is Aleksandar. I am ten but turn eleven soon. My parents sent me onto the street to collect money for food tomorrow, yet I do not know where they are now. His younger brother is waiting down the street, but we should not go now because we will interrupt him. No, I am fine. I am fine.”
Against his protests, I contacted the nearest city official, cloaked in the recognizable neon garb of the Belgrade police. I must have been quite a spectacle, waving frantically with a young boy behind me in the middle of torrential downpours. I was glad to finally have contact with someone who spoke fluent English and would know what to do; after all, public servants, by mandate of their position, have a duty to assist citizens to the extent of their power. At a minimum, the translations could flow more smoothly, unhindered by technology.
The officer eyed us warily, but he greeted me courteously enough. After a brief explanation of the circumstance, I watched as Aleksandar and the policeman engage in laconic Serbian. The officer then turned to me and said, a thick Slavic accent with the hint of an extended trip to London, “Go home. All he wants is money.”
“There is nothing you can do.”
I was stunned. My emotions swirled from anger to sorrow to, finally, begrudging acceptance. As much as I may have liked to help, I do not understand Serbian culture well enough to provide a proper solution. How could I have taken back Aleksandar to my host stay house? How could I ensure that his parents would not seize the money to buy alcohol and drug paraphernalia? And then, because my stay in Belgrade is limited, what happens when I depart? Any solution I could provide would be temporary at best and damaging to Aleksandar’s best interest at worst.
To harbor a savior complex is to enter a foreign environment, ravaged by poverty and drugs and isolation, and suggest that you, the American with all of one year of an undergraduate education and all of eleven words in the local language under his belt, can solve any dilemma. Worse yet, this mindset assumes that your arrogant commandeering of the situation surpasses any ideas of the community’s residents themselves. This experience with Aleksandar taught me that a push for genuine, relevant justice lay within local empowerment. Americans can petition a corrupt government to modify laws strangling the growth of social enterprises, yet the desired result, an equitable culture, can derive only from Serbian businesses which feel that sense of responsibility to their community.
As I enter the halfway point of my time in Serbia, I have set an additional goal for myself: to remain vigilant to the needs of marginalized groups and then report on the evident severity back in Durham. While I myself do not yet possess the skill necessary to encourage reform, there are certainly powerful actors in America to whom I can describe my memories. Furthermore, as I promote Duke Engage-Serbia around campus and to my peers, I will ask each of them to shed any idyllic visions of magically rescuing these disenfranchised. Rather, observe and hold on to that discomfort until the fall semester, where one can amplify his/her voice to make a permanent change. While a ragged coat may keep a child dry for a short period, an umbrella, bolstered by internationally respected American advocates, could grant shelter into perpetuity.