We began our Monday morning with a visit to the Research Institute for Quality of Life at the Romanian Academy, which is one of the largest research institutes in Romania. Established in 1990, the Institute for Quality of Life conducts research spanning many different areas, such as quality of life, standard of living, social policy, and social problems. Our specific presentations were focused largely on the socioeconomic situation and health status of the Roma population in and around Romania. I was really excited to learn more about the Roma, after hearing about just a small portion of the discrimination and struggles they face during a lecture at the beginning of our program. One of the key points that was brought up at the start of the briefing is the complicated question of who is a Roma. According to a 2011 census, it is estimated that there are 12 million Roma around the world, with 8 million spread across Europe and an estimated 1.2 to 2.5 million living in Romania. We quickly learned that the accuracy of these numbers is right to be questioned and that the idea of who is a Roma has varied across time, location, and political spheres and even varies in terms of language and race.
I really enjoyed learning about how Romanian policies concerning the Roma have changed and evolved over the past decades. Assimilation policies during socialism included forced settlement and proletarization, which mostly incorporated unskilled or semi-skilled workers. One point that I found really interesting was the fact that many socialist policies did actually manage to improve the socioeconomic well-being of the Roma; however, local authorities were not very eager to implement these policies. On top of this, socialist policies also unfortunately destroyed most traditional Roma craftswork. Post-socialism found the Roma in a place of economic restructuring, with mass unemployment and NGOs taking the largest role in addressing the Roma plight until the 2000s. In the 1990s, NGOs implemented several policies aimed at improving the situation of the Roma that are still utilized today, including providing school mediators, health mediators, and job fairs. On top of this history of oppression and discrimination, there are still many major unresolved problems that the Roma people continue to face. Discrimination of Roma takes various forms, including school segregation of Roma across Romania. There is also a lack of medical services and insurance, and Roma children often don’t benefit from mandatory vaccines.
It was heartbreaking to learn that there is an estimated 70 percent of the Roma population either in or at risk of poverty. There has also been an increase in settlements of Roma type ghettos, ethnic neighborhoods where Roma are forced to stay in one location either by police or because they quite literally have no where else to go. Issues in these ghettos include everything from overcrowding and extreme poverty to floods, industrial hazards, and landslides. One of the stories told that stuck with me the most is about a Roma family living in a small room in one of the ghettos, where on top of all there other struggles, has to cover their faces at night with anything they can find to avoid rats chewing at them as they try to sleep. It was difficult to hear about stories like these, but it really made me understand how incredibly important the work that the Institute for Quality of Life is doing to raise awareness about the struggles and discrimination that the Roma people experience everyday.
Later that day, we had the incredible opportunity of visiting the Ministry of National Defense and hearing an outstanding briefing from Major General Iulian Berdillo, the head of the Strategic Planning Directorate. He began by explaining to us some of the basics of the Romanian armed forces, which were established in 1859 but have significantly evolved since then. One point that was made that I found interesting is that despite the seemingly smaller size of the Romanian armed forces, they are still very strong in the region. Romania also has a strong commitment to NATO, participating in NATO operations in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. Another really interesting point that Major General Berdillo made was the strong ties between Romania and the United States. The United States recognizes the important strategic role that Romania plays in the area with both the Balkans and the Black Sea region. Romania and the United States have a relatively recent but strong history as allies, with just a couple examples being the Alabama National Guard State Partnership Program, a US led battle group in Poland, and the Aegis Ashore facility in Deveselu. Major General Berdillo did an excellent job answering all of our many questions, and I really appreciated how much he emphasized the role us students have in the future of international relations and security.
Following Major General Berdillo’s briefing, we also had the wonderful opportunity of hearing about a broader view of Romania in the EU, NATO, and defense planning. During this, we heard a lot about the importance of Romania’s opportunity to hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU. When talking about the Presidency, it was stated that Romania tried to be both realistic and ambitious in their goals. Although Romania faced some struggles during their six month presidency, I was really impressed to hear that they were able to achieve many of their initial goals, one of which being making significant progress with PESCO. Having the presidency for the first time and being largely successful with it, was of incredible importance for Romania and their relationship within the European Union.
One aspect of our stay that really made the visit so much more special was having our professor Dr. Markley there with us. The excitement she had for sharing the country she grew up in and cares so much about made all the difference when it came to really taking full opportunity of this once in a lifetime visit. I know all of the students are incredibly grateful for the unique perspective her background in Romania and experience with the Romanian Military has given her in teaching our classes and how our visits in Romania wouldn’t have been possible without her. Thank you Dr. Markley!