People Library

Whose are yous?

Overcoming 900 years of segregation to find a home and belonging in Bradford.

Belonging is a fundamental building block to life, as it allows you to build a home, feel safe and flourish in life.  Imagine the impact on your mindset if you were born into a people group that for 900 years have not had a land to call their own – a race that’s always seen as ‘the outsider’ or ‘lower class citizens’. Could you ever feel like you belonged anywhere?

In 2000, at only 10 years old, Daniel fled to the UK with his mother and brother in fear for their lives. Speaking about the reasons why, he says “I’m from a well known political family in the Czech Republic. My dad was a minister in the ROJKA party, my grandfather founded it as a means to give Roma community a voice… at that time, there was a lot of hate crime towards our people from neo-nazi groups. Adults and children were being killed.” Daniel recalls it being a really frightening time, especially at his age, “I remember hiding in our home for several days, and one day I snuck a peek out of the window – there must have been around 100, maybe 200 skinheads outside our home.”

Speaking of his first impressions of the UK, he says “We arrived with very little and didn’t speak English. I slept in the airport for the first 48 hours and then my brother got separated from us – to be honest it felt hostile!” He recalls, “before we arrived in Bradford, our refugee accommodation felt more like a prison than a place of safety.”

However not long after, his family were relocated to Bolton Woods in Bradford and Daniel soon began to find his feet. “On the way to England I used to imagine what it would be like to have an English friend,” he recalls, “I joined a local youth group here and soon made friends with a really diverse group of lads.” He fondly remembers his youth in Bradford as a ‘time of adventure’.

Growing up, his family moved around in Bradford “we always lived in the poorer areas because that’s all my mum could afford,” he explains, “I naturally came across gangs, drug dealers and experienced some racism.” However, none of those experiences dampened Daniel’s resolve to integrate within the city “I’ve never felt uncomfortable or threatened in Bradford, I’ve always felt I could be myself here.”

Over the next twenty years Daniel has made Bradford his home, and describes himself as a ‘true Bradfordian’ now, but there’s something very unusual about this statement, it’s not commonplace amongst the Roma community. The abuse and trauma their race has suffered for generations from segregation have left many with a deeply ingrained mindset of distrust towards anyone outside their own community.

With Daniel there’s a genuine warmth as you speak with him. He comes across as someone who always seeks the positive and has a deep desire to unite rather than divide. “My Grandfather is my hero,” he explains, “He moved from Slovakia to the Czech Republic when he was 21 as a crane operator and worked really hard to integrate with the people there. He built a name for his family and the Balaz name is still respected to this day.  Everyone loved my Grandfather, he became a spokesperson for the Roma community and that’s why he started the political party.” There’s a pride in Daniel’s voice as he continues, “Roma people have this phrase ‘Whose are yous?’ which basically means ‘Where are you from?’ and my Grandfather showed everyone that a gypsy man could belong in a wider community.”

Hearing of someone’s lineage often explains a lot about who they are and what they do with their life and it’s certainly true of Daniel. “When I was growing up I became a point of contact for new families because I spoke English really well and I knew a lot of locals,” he recalls.  As a young lad Daniel spent many years helping people connect with services and find their way around the city.

As Daniel began to build his life, he wanted to show others the amazing opportunities and possibilities the city had to offer. “The English system provided me with schooling, friendships, housing, benefits when I needed them and an apprenticeship through City Training,” he continues, with a sense of joy, “I even married an English girl that I met at college!”

He built a trusted reputation for himself, which eventually led him to forming a business working alongside organisations like the Police, the NHS and Social services as an interpreter for the Roma community.  It’s within this sphere of influence that he helped a wide range of people: from cancer patients to victims of human trafficking, from mental health patients to young mothers learning the benefits of nutrition for their children. In all cases he’s found a real fulfillment in being able to help both sides interact and understand each other.

His experiences, empathy and understanding of what it takes to integrate into the UK as a Roma individual has led to him forming a CIC (Community Interest Company) called ‘Connecting Roma’. His vision for it is to help the Roma community across Yorkshire overcome the many challenges involved in building a home in a foreign land.

There’s a sense of great gratitude from Daniel in how he speaks about life,“I class myself as a British-Roma and it’s something that’s taken a lot of patience and work but I now feel that I belong and that’s allowed me to build my life here.” However he also realises there’s still a lot of work to be done ahead.

“I think Roma people can be racist without realising it. Actually they’re not racist they’re just confused,” he explains, “It takes time and holding up a gentle mirror to dismantle mindsets. I want to show them they have rights too, that being British can be any skin colour.” He says that trust is a huge barrier for the Roma community in accepting help from outside services.

Fortunately Daniel is in a unique position to bridge the gap and he’ll probably spend the rest of his life enabling people to work with each other as fellow human beings, without prejudice or judgement, to facilitate many more finding a place to belong. This is surely something to celebrate in a diverse city such as Bradford.

To find out more about Connecting Roma:

Story & photos by Tom Harmer