Unity in diversity: the 18th Children’s Roma Festival “Open Heart” turned Veliko Tarnovo into an oasis of songs, dances and cultural diversity

20 years, 18 festivals – a tale of children’s talent, beauty, joy, fun, peace. Hundreds of children showing their skills and expressing their desire for tolerance and kindness in the world. This is Open Heart Festival in a nutshell.

On June 9 and 10, 2023. “Marno Pole” park in Veliko Tarnovo was echoed by children’s laughter and decorated by hundreds of sincere smiles, gathered from the annual children’s Roma festival “Open Heart”, which Amalipe Center organized for the 18th time. This year we marked the 20th anniversary of the first Amalipe Center festival. The event was opened again this year, as in 2022, by the wonderful and incredibly talented Leticia Trifonova from Secondary school “Hristo Smirnenski” – the town of Gulyantsi, who performed the Roma anthem “Dzhelem, Dzhelem” with incredible feeling and technique. At the opening, the participants welcomed Soni Dahiya – representative of the Embassy of India in Bulgaria, Eng. Georgi Guguchkov – regional governor of Veliko Tarnovo, Elena Cherneva – deputy ombudsman of Bulgaria, Rositsa Dimitrova – director of the “Social Activities and Health Care” Directorate in the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo, Neiko Genchev – Deputy Mayor of the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo, Dr. Lalo Kamenov – Director of the Center for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities, Sara Perin – Executive Director of the Trust for a Social Achievement, Prof. Dr. Mariana Mandeva from VTU ” Saint Cyril and Methodius”. Also present were representatives of the non-governmental sector in the city and the country, as well as experts from Regional management of education-Veliko Tarnovo. Congratulatory addresses were sent by the Presidency of the Republic of Bulgaria; the Prime Minister Academician Nikolay Denkov; Lyudmila Ilieva, Member of Parliament in the 49th National Assembly. Doctor of Science Yanka Takeva, Chairman of the Union of Bulgarian teachers.

While the festival program was running and presenting the culture of different ethnic groups – Roma, Bulgarian, Turkish, the entire park was decorated by numerous studios. There was something going on in every corner. That’s why we made a map with studios – objects for the children to visit, explore, and after they’ve gone through all of them, they’d receive a prize. Among them were the museum of Romani crafts, featuring basket makers and cutlers; the delicious atelier of the group from Etropole, who prepared pastry and traditional kachamak for everyone; Cassandra, who foretold the future of anyone who wished; the Advocate’s studio, where legal advice was provided free of charge by professional lawyers. Schools, too, had their corners throughout the park where students painted or presented materials they had made to interest clubs. On both days, you could see a queue of children waiting impatiently to have their faces and hands painted by our student volunteers or to be beautified by the talented students of the Veliko Tarnovo Professional High School of Fashion Design. And next to them, the active students participating in the “Intercultural Academy for Civic Participation and Tolerance” project took interviews and collected messages from children and adults on the questions “What would you change?” or “What message would you write on a billboard?”, within the youth civic campaign “One question, endless answers: The change I want to see in the world”. More on the campaign coming soon.

Walking in the park and reaching the stage, everyone could get acquainted with the “Open Heart” Festival since its beginning in 2003 until now through the “Alley of Time”, collected photos from all editions held so far.

As always, there was no shortage of side events. During the festival week from June 6th to 10th, Training for young people on the topic “Promoting positive stories about the Roma” was held under the YAG project. Center for Interеthnic Dialogue and Tolerance “Amalipe”, Bulgaria, in partnership with the International Network “Phiren Amenca” and RGDTS, Hungary, organized and held a training course for young Roma and non-Roma activists on the topic “Promoting positive stories for Roma”. The training took place in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. More on training coming soon.

On the first day of the festival, parallel to the program, the Round Table “Perspectives on the Sustainability of Educational Mediators” was held at 3:30 p.m. Educational mediators, school principals, NGOs and educational experts participated in the Round Table in the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo. They were joined by the second secretary of the Embassy of India, Sonny Dahiya, Elena Cherneva-Markova (Deputy Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria), Sara Perin (Executive Director of the Trust for a Social Achievement), Dr. Lalo Kamenov (Director of Center for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities), Rositsa Dimitrova (Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo) and others. The event was joined online by the Minister of Education Prof. Galin Tsokov, Nataliya Mihalevska (Chief of the Cabinet of the Minister of Education), Dima Kotseva and Sonia Krastanova (Directorate of Finance of the Ministry of Education and Science). The Ministry of Education and Science will make a change in the Funding Ordinance, which will allow schools and kindergartens to receive a separate resource for the appointment of mediators, social workers and other support staff. This change will happen by the end of June and this year’s budget is secured. Thus, all schools and kindergartens with a concentration of vulnerable groups will have the opportunity to keep their educational mediators or even appoint them. This was assured by representatives of the Ministry of Education and Science during the Round Table. Find out all the most important things that were discussed here.

With the end of the round table, the first day of the festival program in “Marno Pole” park ended. The participants lined up for the following colorful procession at the beginning of the main street “Vasil Levski” and continued, singing and showing their beautiful costumes, to walk calling for peace and tolerance in the world. The procession ended with a fall dance in front of the building of the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo.

The program continued in the Great Hall of the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo, where students from the Theater Studio of Professional high school of chemical and food technologies, city of Pazardzhik, from grades 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 presented their author’s play “The Challenge”. The leader of the students and creator of the play is Elisaveta Klanska. The play included very serious themes relevant to young people today, related to hate speech, dangerous challenges, acceptance and more. The talented students gathered the applause of all the spectators in the hall.

On June 10, 2023 – the International Day of Roma Women, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., in the The main hall of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Administration, the Amalipe Center gathered Roma women and girls for a meeting under the title “Girls with dreams – we are strength!” Let’s live with dignity!” The meeting is the third in a row and is organized within the framework of the RTransform project: Roma women transform educational systems throughout Europe through their social and political mobilization.” It was attended by women and girls from all over the country who are actively working to change the situation of Roma women. These are mostly female students, educational mediators, active girls and Roma women working to improve living and learning conditions in the Roma community. The issues we face inside and outside the community and how they differ from women’s issues in general, how we deal with challenges and what are the paths to success were discussed. Dr. Liliana Kovacheva raised the question of the preservation of the Romani language, and although the girls and women at the meeting came from different communities, those who speak and those who do not speak the Romani language, they all agreed that the language is key to the preservation of identity. As a result of the meeting came the proposal to unite all those who would like to get involved and to start a process to unify the recording of the Romani language in Bulgaria. The meeting was also attended by Soni Dahiya (representative of the Embassy of India), People’s Representative in the 49th National Assembly Elisaveta Belobradova, Elena Cherneva-Markova (deputy ombudsman), Milka Trifonova (representative of Zonta International). Deputy regional governor Stanislav Nikolov welcomed the participants in the national meeting of Roma women.

Parallel to the meeting in the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Administration in Marno Pole Park on Saturday, the colorful and varied festival program continued. At the end of the day, at the official closing of the Festival, special awards were also presented. Namely:

The “Award of the Mayor of the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo Dr. Eng. Daniel Panov” was presented to Secondary school “St. Cyril and Methodius”, town of Garmen

A special award for overall contribution to the promotion of the traditions, language and culture of the ethnic groups was given to the United school “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Tishevitsa.

In the category of the most numerous and artistic group, a certificate was awarded to the Vocational High School of Textiles and Clothing “Dobri Zhelyazkov” in Sliven.

In the category for a group with the best costumes, the students from Primary school “St. St. Cyril and Methodius”, Staro Oryahovo.

“Hristo Botev” Primary School, Kamburovo received a special award for their good performance.

Honoured were the students from Secondary school “St. St. Cyril and Methodius”, Bhutan, who caused a rapturous ovation with their performance.

For an attractive and memorable presentation, the students from Vasil Levski High School, Valchi Dol and Professional High School for Agricultural Mechanization, Septemvri, were awarded.

With a special diploma for the smallest and most charming participants, the children from the Primary School “St. Cyril and Methodius”, Rajdavitsa.

Of course, we did not forget to highlight the most attractive studios. The “Best Atelier” award went to the participants from Etropole and Romano drom community center.

We thank all students, leaders and principals for their wonderful participation in the Festival!

Thank you to all guests!

Thanks to all the volunteers!

We thank the Municipality of Veliko Tarnovo, Prosveta Publishing House, Kaufland Bulgaria and Extrapack, who were sponsors of the Festival.

We also thank all our other partners for their support.

And most of all, thank you kids! You can!

You can see all the emotion of the Festival in our picture gallery here.