December 31, 2008

'Twas the Night Before 2009

Today should have been a great day. It's New Year's Eve and our little town is feeling quite festive. The streets are decorated with lights. I could hear a band playing all afternoon, the Macedonian turbo-folk sounds drifting up from the city center. Our local market was just swarmed with revelers stocking up and everywhere we go we run into someone asking about plans for tonight. In short, this is a big holiday.

This morning Jillian and I went over to the kindergarten for a little celebration with the kids. With Safet we laid out a nice spread for them to munch on as the anticipation of Santa Claus' arrival built. Those kids weren't the only anxious ones--as I mentioned last time, Safet told me I should play the part of Santa; I demurred, but he insisted. It became clear yesterday that he had no backup plan and so this morning there I was, climbing into the lamest Santa suit I'd ever seen. When I had finished assembling this thing, I more closely resembled a member of a hazmat team, as if the elves were making the toys with lead paint and there was a spill in the workshop.

Who loves you more than Santa?

There was a package for each child and I gathered a few of them under my arms and stood outside the door to the classroom, listening to Safet tell the kids that he heard Santa arriving in his helicopter. Then I made my grand entrance, let rip a few obligitory ho, ho, hoes, and sat down on the teacher's swivel chair to hand out gifts. Much to my relief, the younger children (2 and 3 years old) really believed they were seeing Santa and crowded around, joyously yelling out for me and my packages. The four-year olds? Not fooled for even a second. One little boy in particular seemed to examine me with pity, as if to say, "Wow, Safet made you wear that?"

One by one the children came forth for their packages, sitting on my lap next to the Christmas tree for a picture. I tried to talk in a deeper, more grandfatherly voice, using a few basic Macedonian phrases. But inevitably I had to break character to say something like, "Mane, wait your turn!" or "Fernando, don't touch the tree!" In other words, this was a professional job from top to bottom.

Then Santa departed to the waves and cheers of the little ones. It was just in time, really, I was sweating quite profusely in my winter coat and vest under the costume and the fake beard was agitating my real one (which could be clearly seen, by the way). The kids gobbled up the rest of their food, a group picture was more or less taken and the parents shuttled the children away and left us to clean up the plates and forks and cups. And then things went south.

The kids gather 'round

Fica takes her turn on Santa's lap

The kids wave Santa a fond farewell

So this Roma youth center is operated by Safet and we have come to see over the last few months that while he recognizes many of the ills that dog his community and that while his heart is in the right place, Safet is amazingly stubborn and self-righteous. These qualities manifest in all sorts of situations, but the one that is particularly frustrating and (on this day) hurtful is his complete unwillingness to work with ethnic Macedonians. He is utterly convinced that all Macedonians are bad people who only wish the worst for the Roma community. I regret to report that this sentiment towards the Roma is quite common here, but Safet is way off the mark with his generalization.

Exhibit A: Tina. We have been helping Tina with her college applications and we have come be good friends with her. Not surprisingly, as she tends to have a much wider world view than most people in this town, Tina volunteered to join us at the center. This is a perfect idea--she's great with kids, she can work with them to improve their Macedonian language skills (which is so essential if they are to succeed) and she can translate for us in our conversations with Safet. She's been coming for about a week and the kids just love her. Safet has been regarding her with suspicious acceptance...until today.

As we all sat together eating the remains of kids' snacks and talking about the future, Safet launched into one of his tirades about discrimination and how he is the only person willing to challenge it, etc. This speech, which we've heard three dozen times, really grates us because while Safet professes to want different ethnic groups to come together to defeat the discrimination, he also takes this ridiculous pride in going it alone and not welcoming anyone into his project (we're exempt, somehow, because we're Americans).

Inevitably and unfortunately, the conversation turned to Tina, who did an admirable job of arguing to Safet that there are young Macedonians like herself who recognize the issues and prejudices facing the Roma and who are willing to help. I mean, for god's sake, we didn't drag Tina to the center at gunpoint! Not good enough for Safet, who took this opportunity to look past present evidence, condemn all Macedonians, accuse Tina of having ulterior motives and informing her in no uncertain terms that she's not welcome there anymore.

So Tina was in tears and Jillian and I were way beyond angry. His callousness was unlike anything I've ever seen and it really called into question just what kind of person Safet is and what kind of project he's running here. Inclusion? Looks increasingly to me like Safet is actively working to reinforce the exclusion and marginalization of the Roma, even if unintentionally.

Well, that put a real damper on the day. Poor Tina, a 17-year old wunderkind of social awareness, just had to learn the hard (and personal) way that altruism isn't always recognized as such. If Safet is truly going to succeed and expand, as he plans to, he will need young Macedonians like Tina and her friends to join in and lend a hand. And our relationship with Safet certainly has just been altered. This center, and our work there, is supposed to be about the children, who we really adore, but this rather serious roadblock has emerged. Worst of all, Safet seemed utterly oblivious to the gravity of his actions and how mad he made us. A change is going to come, that much is certain...we'll keep you posted.

Happy New Year! (and lots more pictures from the Roma center, including some sweet Santa pics, are available by clicking on Our Photos on the right sidebar)


GS Counselor: said...

Happy New Year! In the photos you look like one of those vintage look wonderful. And in the end it's not about what you said or how you looked it's about you made those children feel. I'm sure it will be a Christmas they will look back on with fond memories.

I'm sorry to hear about the tough situation with Safet. It's awful. Remember you're always rewarded for doing the tough thing.


seth frost said...

always rewarded for doing the tough thing, yes yes, no good deed goes unpunished