The forgotten children of Zagreb

Roma in Zagreb 

In the east of Zagreb, in the district called Savica Šanci, 17 Roma families live on a plot of land located in the middle of an industrial area. This property belongs to the Croatian government. Therefore, these families can be moved elsewhere only by the government. But the government wants nothing to do with the Roma living there. At the beginning of March, Andreas Heerwagen (Managing Director CBN Deutschland) and Diana Lagat (Humanitarian Manager) visited these families together with the CBN Balkan Team. Vanja Bule, the head of CBN Balkan, told that the Roma children are called “the forgotten children of Zagreb”. 

History of the housing estate 

The settlement was established in the 1980s, when a family from Bosnia moved to Croatia. Gradually, more family members moved in. They came believing that the government would provide them with free housing because of their poverty. But four decades later, these families are still waiting for the housing they thought they were promised. This is how the Roma housing estate in Zagreb came into being back then, where about 100 people live today. Most of them are children. The contact between CBN Balkans and the Roma families was established in 2019. Since the beginning of 2020, CBN Deutschland has been supporting the Roma families with food and hygiene packages distributed once a quarter as part of Operation Blessing’s Hunger Relief Program. 


Photo: food and hygiene package distribution by Operation Blessing – Diana Lagat. Source: CBN Deutschland


Condition of the settlement  

This settlement has no running water, electricity, heating or sanitation. The houses are assembled from old wood and construction debris and are surrounded by electronic waste and piles of garbage full of glass and pollutants. Since there are no outlets, people tap makeshift electricity from the power line, but this repeatedly causes dangerous house fires. Rats and other pests are rampant in the compound. Garbage is everywhere and children play barefoot among dirt, broken glass and wires. Since there is no garbage disposal, the Roma community burns their garbage right on site. This exposes villagers to harmful chemicals and toxic fumes almost daily. It is shocking that there are people living in such poverty in Europe.  

Photo: Roma housing estate in Zagreb. Source: CBN Deutschland

The life of the children 

Over 60 children currently live in this village. With no running water, no heating, and no sanitation, the families are faced daily with how to cook their meals or wash dishes, how to clean clothes for the children, how to shower or wash their children, or how to use the toilet. The children and their families struggle daily to survive. In the dead of winter, children are often seen without coats or shoes. Missing or dirty clothes and shoes, as well as malnutrition and health problems, are ubiquitous.  

Because many parents cannot properly feed and clothe their children, most are ashamed and therefore do not send them to school. Thus, the younger generation also do not learn the importance of school and education. Those who do make it to school often drop out after a few years. Many leave school at the age of 13, marry young and remain trapped in this cycle of poverty, unable to find access to society. They remain permanently excluded and discriminated against.  

CBN’s educational offers 

Due to the trust built between CBN Balkan and the Roma families, parents now allow their children to be picked up daily by the CBN team and taken to school services for preschool children.  About 2.5km (6min drive) away and west of the housing estate, the CBN charity Orphan’s Promise has rented a small building where the preschoolers have a clean and safe place to do crafts, play, and learn every morning. Here, the young children have a chance at education and a normal life outside the village. In the afternoon they are brought back home. The school children also come here after school so they can do their homework. There are two groups of school children who each come to this place of learning two days a week. It takes a lot of effort to drive all these kids back and forth every day and take care of them, but the work is worth it.  

Photo: Orphan’s Promise learning space. Andreas Heerwagen with the children. Source: CBN Deutschland

Vanja Bule explains what CBN Balkan’s vision is: “Our intervention aims to give children the opportunity to make a choice for their lives, to break out of the poverty cycle and its negative consequences. Children are at the center of our interventions and our main goal is to influence a generation that will make a positive change within the Roma community.” 

Current situation 

As CBN Balkan is the only local actor working for the community, the City of Zagreb is very interested in working with us. In the future, the city plans to provide housing for the total of 17 families. Even though this process with the local administration remains long and arduous, CBN maintains its commitment to the Roma community.  

Photo: Roma children with Vanja Bule (left), Diana Lagat and Andreas Heerwagen (in foreground) and a CBN Balkan staff member (right). Source: CBN Balkan

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