By Rina Mihajlovic
NOVI SAD, July 16 (Serbia Today) – Good laws and kind words are not enough to protect rights of national minorities, enable them to preserve their culture and identity and exclude violence against them. To raise awareness on the diversity of European societies, the Council of Europe has launched a photo exhibition, taking the example of Serbia’s multi-ethnic Vojvodina province.
Entitled “National Minorities, Breath of Diversity, Breath of Europe”, it aims at raising awareness on the diversity of European societies. Envisioned as an exhibition in the open space, it is placed at the Liberty Square ( Trg Slobode) in the heart of the city of Novi Sad.
“We didn’t want to present this exhibition from political point of view but to show Vojvodina as a multinational region, to show minorities as people, for who they are. It is important for them to preserve their language, tradition and culture. They should not forget where they came from,” Stephanie Marcel of Council of Europe told Serbia Today in an interview.
The exhibition, born out of the desire to speak about the people referred to under the abstract name of “national minorities”, was first shown in Strasbourg, and from Novi Sad it will tour the entire Europe.
She explains that Vojvodina has been taken as an example as a small region and very diverse society with many minorities and an interesting history. “From Hungarian to Ottoman Empire it has always been multinational.”
“It is important to preserve someone’s culture and identity. Many of those minorities are born here, Serbia is their home. They don’t see their future elsewhere, they see it here. Even the ones who came from Kosovo, have come here looking for better life and they don’t want to go back. Of course they couldn’t go back either.”
Photographs of Roma, Hungarians, Croatians, Slovaks, Macedonians, and people of other nationalities, exhibited at the city’s central square, have attempted to capture each personality, a look in the eyes that is telling a story, regardless of where a person lives.
Marcel says those people do not feel like minorities. “The only problem is the problem that others have with so called ‘minorities’. Vojvodina is a peaceful region but there are still some problems. Not at large scale but it does happen. Not enough has been done by the justice system and police to stop the violence against minorities.”
“More attention should be given to it. This problem should not be overlooked and overshadowed.”
Roma are especially vulnerable, since many children do not attend school or drop out very early and parents do not understand that the education is crucial to break the poverty cycle. Although there are special classes at school teaching them their native language, those classes are optional and not integrated into the regular curriculum.
“There is an office for helping Roma here in this region. The office gives them money for self employment. We went to visit one girl who opened her hairdressing salon in the center of Novi Sad. She seized the opportunity to get a loan and open her own business. There are people who want to work; not all of them are without ambitions.”
The government should work more with parents and the community and to explain to them the importance of education, but also push them to register their newborns, which would give them the access to health care and social benefits. Many Roma in Serbia do not have any identification documents.
It is necessary that minorities articulate their needs and let the government know what those needs are. “Our role here is also to assimilate these two sides – worries and needs of minorities and what government offers. For example you can’t open a school for just two people, so that is why we step in, to integrate what government offers and what minorities ask for.”
“Talking is not enough; we want to see changes happen,” Marcel says. “My role is to analyze it from the legal side and I can say that Serbia is just to the minorities. There are good laws in Serbia but implementing is a bit problematic. Vojvodina is a quite advanced region but there are discrepancies in what Belgrade says and what is done locally.”
Respect of human rights is one of the conditions for the European Union membership.
“We would like to see government going from words to action and to be determined to do something not visa -vie Council of Europe but visa- vie local needs and minorities; to make improvements here on the spot.”