We met Aneliya Dudinova at the Anna Café in Lesnovo, Sofia Province, Bulgaria on a sparkling fall afternoon. Aneliya’s family comes from Lesnovo – ‘all the way back to my great grandparents generation.’ Anna’s daughter, Anna Cristina is the only Roma student in the seventh grade at the Gorna Malina secondary school. Anna has ensured that her daughter has had the opportunity to attend integrated schools because she wants her to have a competitive education, which will prepare her for university.

Since Anna separated from her husband, she has had to sacrifice to provide extra classes such as gym for her daughter. She has also paid for a taxi to transport Anna Cristina safely to and from school each day. Anna’s parents, who both attended secondary school, completely support her efforts and help out financially as much as possible. Anna Cristina would like to pursue a master’s degree eventually and the entire family has agreed to support her goals in whichever field she selects.

Aneliya has an MA in graphic and visual arts. However her first job was as a kindergarten teacher. She then worked for more than fifteen years as a web designer for NEED.bg, a major commercial enterprise based in Sofia, which distributes a wide range of products to retailers all over Bulgaria. In 2014, Aneliya returned home to Lesnovo in order to focus her energy on improving opportunities for Roma there and to open her own small restaurant.

Aneliya’s brother and sister in law ran a convenience shop out of what is now the Anna Café. They allowed customers to run up credit accounts and the shop was unable to turn a profit. When her brother moved to Italy, the space became vacant. Aneliya applied through a Bulgarian small business grant to restart the shop, but her application was denied. Instead, she had to use money she had saved through her stock options with NEED.bg to open the Anna Café. Aneliya’s vision was to create a place for young Roma to gather and talk, particularly about their plans and obstacles. Aneliya’s first employee was a young woman of Roma origin, but within a few months she too moved to Western Europe.

Analiya is also a web master for the Bulgarian Roma NGO, Amalipe. Amalipe, the Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance is a major force in the effort to integrate public schooling throughout Bulgaria. Their mission statement expresses belief in ‘the equal integration of the Roma people in society by focusing on the preservation of the Roma identity and on the modernization of the Roma communities.’ (Amalipe.com)

Teachers from the segregated Lesnovo primary school arrived at the café in the midst of our interview with Aneliya to prepare their case for secondary school integration. The principal in Lesnovo does not want to integrate the local secondary school, but is also resistant to sending Roma students to secondary school in Gorna Malina fearing that the Lesnovo primary school will lose pupils and thus be slated for closure. Amalipe has arranged a visit by the Swiss Ambassador to the secondary campus. Through the auspices of Thirst for Social Alternatives, as part of the America for Bulgaria Organization, Roma students will receive scholarships to defer all fees and the cost of school supplies required at the secondary level.

Aneliya’s long-term goals are to build business opportunities for Roma throughout the area. She has applied through a government grant to hire two Roma employees to help manage the restaurant and handle the accounts. ‘It is crucial for the future wellbeing of the Roma community that both father and mother are employed and can support their children. The most important initiative is creation and expansion of Roma entrepreneurship.’