Yuksel Yasharov was a city council representative for the town of Peshtara in South Central Bulgaria for two terms. Born in 1969, and raised in a Muslim Roma family, Yuksel attended secondary school in nearby Batak, and in 2016 completed a degree in social work from the New Bulgarian University, Sofia. He is married with two children; his daughter graduated from the agricultural university in Plovdiv while his son finished secondary school in 2016 with an emphasis on the hospitality industry. His wife, Feliza, who is also from Peshtara, is of Turkish background.

Yuksel cites training in policy management provided by the Washington, DC based, National Democracy Institute, (www.ndi.org) as providing key skills such as public speaking, campaigning, and organizational strategies necessary to a career of public service. Before entering municipal government, Yuksel was a building contractor. Through his work, Yuksel became keenly aware of discriminatory housing policies, which relegate Roma to segregated neighbourhoods. Roma have not been welcomed in cafes or shops outside their own mahala. NDI gave Yuksel the motivation to work for change, and the tools needed to affect positive policy initiatives.

Since 2007, the Roma have been allocated two places on the Peshtera City Council. Yuksel’s first action as a city council member was to create a directive against discrimination and to promote civil rights throughout the Peshtera region. The mayor followed through on the recommendations and levied fines on those businesses, which continued discriminatory policies. Thanks to the mayor, discriminatory housing policies have almost been eliminated from Peshtera. Nonetheless there are still two segregated schools in town, one kindergarten to fourth and the second, fifth through eighth grade. On a positive note, Peshtera schools offer bilingual education: Romanes-Bulgarian and Romanes-Turkish.

A complicating factor in the housing situation is that many Roma do not possess deeds proving their ownership. Houses deemed to have been built illegally, are currently being torn down, and residents of the former mahala are now on the street. This catastrophe has pushed some Roma from the region to leave Bulgaria. At present, Yuksel, through his position as coordinator of the Trust for Social Alternatives under the auspices of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, is actively working on remedying the Roma housing crisis. A project he put into operation engages local authorities in framing the municipal legislation necessary to provide deeds of ownership to Roma families.

Yuksel was voted off the Peshtera city council in the 2016. He attributes this loss to his anti-discrimination activism especially regarding housing and education. His family even received anonymous threats during the recent campaign season.

Yuksel is now a facilitator for the Council of Europe in municipalities surrounding Peshtera. He acts as a conflict mediator with an aim to increasing Roma participation at the community level in disputes over Roma integration and inclusion. As a Muslim Roma, Yuksel is also able to address issues of discrimination against Muslims, which is widespread in Bulgaria. ‘Faced with double discrimination, many Muslim Roma do not admit their Roma ethnicity. Additionally Romanes speaking Roma do not always recognize Muslim Roma as Roma. Regardless, both groups face similar social challenges and problems with integration into mainstream Bulgarian society. Effective policy change at a national level is imperative to ameliorate segregation and discrimination toward the Roma, Muslims and other minority groups in Bulgaria.’