The Dream

A photographic essay
among the Chergari Gypsies
in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria

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Story and photos
by Stacia Spragg, © 1996

Beyond Predel Street in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, the road turns from Communist-laid pavement to a magma of mud, animal waste and run-off sludge. Children half-clothed, run with lame dogs, chickens, and over-worked horses through the streets, amidst tangled piles of rusting iron collected from the city's refuse. Very few Bulgarians, including the police, venture behond this unmarked boundry. It is the tsigan mahala, the ghetto of the Gypsies, a place where social and economic conditions continue to worsen while the country is trying to form a more democratic society after 45 years of Communist rule.

Far from the image of wandering, mystical fortune-tellers of the West's collective stereotype, Gypsies are becoming the scapegoats for escalating social and economic problems such as unemployment and climbing crime rates. In this region, beseiged for centuries by ethnic hatred and conflicts, minorities are an easy targets for attacks. Gypsies are the largest minority population, with an estimated eight million scattered throughout Europe. Yet as a people without a country, they have no one to protect their interests and no home where they can seek refuge from intensifying nationalist attacks.

As the next generation of Gypsies comes of age in Bulgaria, it is apparent they are slipping into a cycle of poverty that not only threatens to hamper economic and social reform attempts, but also the very nature of their culture. Many young Gypsies do not speak their native language, Romany, banned for years in schools and public places and today widely ridiculed.

Nationalistic attacks in the form of pogroms, police attacks and discrimination are leading many Gypsies, especially the young, to lie about their ethnic heritage; many claim to be ethnic Turk rather than "admitting" they are Gypsy.

Gypsy culture was traditionally rooted in nomadic lifestyle. In 1958 the Bulgarian government took this away by forcibly settling Gypsies into collective farms or in housing projects, contrary to their traditional lifestyle. Settlement caused many Gypsy clans to abandon their trades as smiths, traders and musicians; the new climate fostered a dependency on welfare programs.

The community of about 1,200 Gypsies in Blagroevgrad, a medium-sized city in southwestern Bulgaria near the Macedonian border, illustrates the reality Gypsies are facing throughout the country. In the poorist parts of this community, nearly 80 percent of Gypsies are unemployed. Many Gypsies have resorted to low-paying occupations such as street cleaning or gathering scrap iron to sell.

As in Blagoevgrad, most Gypsies nationwide live in ghettos on the outskirts of the city, comprised of poorly constructed houses lacking running water. Residents often do not have access to sanitation or other public services. Gypsy children are mostly placed in schools for Bulgarians with learning disabilities, where the emphasis is on learning low-skill trades, dooming them to perpetuate the poverty cycle.

Most worldwide attention in the Balkans has centered around the war in the former Yugoslavia. However, Gypsies will continue to fight a quiet war, and Bulgaria will lag behind in social and economic reforms until broader understanding of the ethnic minorities can be reached.

Stacia Spragg recently spent a year in Blagroevgrad, Bulgaria while teaching journalism at the American University. Her work with the Gypsies was done in part to earn her Master's degree from the Missouri School of Journalism. If you would like to send Stacia a comment about this essay, you may contact her by e-mail at:

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