Roma restaurant project sours in Slovenia

Roma dish (pic: Phil Cain)
Image caption It is not clear if or when Maribor will get to try traditional Roma dishes

It could be a cultural breakthrough - an EU-wide chain of restaurants that puts Roma hospitality, food and music centre-stage, building relations with a much-maligned community.

But plans to set up the first link in this chain are in jeopardy, and ethnic relations have soured, after a Slovenian local council stepped in to prevent the first restaurant from opening.

There are Roma-owned or Roma-run restaurants elsewhere in the EU, but the restaurant in Maribor would have been the first to use the Roma theme as its starting point.

The restaurant's menu would give a Gypsy twist on dishes found in South-East Europe, such as dolma, burek, goulash and baklava. It would also offer diners a tea leaf reading of the future - the origin of its logo, an upturned cup.

The EU-backed social enterprise also hoped the cultural immersion might improve inter-ethnic relations, while providing employment for Roma, who suffer unusually high levels of economic hardship.

"If an employer in Maribor sees you are Roma you will not get a job," says 37-year-old Bayram Mehmeti, the restaurant's prospective waiter. His parents moved to Maribor from Kosovo 30 years ago.

Mr Mehmeti was among many Kosovo Roma families who moved at around the same time to find work in Maribor's then-thriving industry. But industrial collapse means Roma unemployment is now estimated at 97%, compared to the average of 18%.

Slovenia, a small Alpine country, joined the EU in 2004 - the first ex-Yugoslav state to do so. Like most of its partners in the eurozone it has suffered in the financial crisis.

Image caption Slovenia's Roma are keen to establish a proper restaurant - indoors


The restaurant project has already provided training for 23 Roma, five of whom were chosen to join the staff should it manage to open its doors in February. The plan is to reinvest profits to employ more staff and expand elsewhere in the EU.

But the plan was thrown into jeopardy last month, when a community council stopped the restaurant from moving into a vacant pizza restaurant. The premises had been promised by Maribor's mayor, Andrej Fistravec. The blocking move was "obvious xenophobia", says Mr Fistravec, a sociologist before being elected mayor in March.

The city's 3,500 Roma feel let down, says representative Fatmir Beciri, a Maribor resident for the past 35 years.

"I am very sad about this dispute. It is not just a restaurant, it is an opportunity for Roma to get employment," he said.

Having been promised the job of assistant chef Devrije Mazrek, 53, out of work for the past 15 years, says the setback is depressing.

"It put me in a very bad mood. I can't understand why we didn't get the location," she said.

Mr Mehmeti said he had been proud his daughter could tell her nursery friends about him starting work as a waiter.

Legal wrangling

Mr Fistravec blames his predecessor as mayor, Franc Kangler, for promising the community council the right to decide the building's fate before he resigned in December, having been the target of a series of anti-corruption protests. It is unclear how the legal tussle over the building will be resolved.

The community council denies having anything against a Roma restaurant, but opposes it because it conflicts with its own plans to turn the building into a community centre for all ages.

Critics say the council plan is unfeasible and a smokescreen for residents' antipathy to Roma, which comments about the story in Slovenian online media suggest are widely shared.

"Their [Roma] behaviour is catastrophic," says a middle-aged Slovenian woman privately. "Even the children behave badly, they spit and talk mean. The adults drive around with unregistered cars. They steal and they don't even think of working, especially the women."

According to Mr Fistravec: "Slovenians are outwardly tolerant until they personally get in contact with other ethnic groups". The Slovenian debate over Roma, he says, has evolved into something akin to the "Jewish question".

"We are shocked. We did not feel this hatred before," says Mr Beciri.

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