“I decided to get an education and devote myself to activism”,— Roma activist Nelia Panchenko

Public movement today is the driving force of qualitative changes in society, rethinking values and fighting for one’s own and social future. Some people lack the courage to start activism, some lack the motivation and some are limited by the framework of patriarchy or national views. In any case, the path is difficult and thorny. This is exactly how it turned out for our today’s heroine, 25-year-old Nelia Panchenko, and only the support of her loved ones motivated her to move on: renew her studies, take on her first own projects and leave her comfort zone. Read more about Nelia’s personal experience and plans.

A girl was born in the Kherson region in a Roma family consisting of parents and three children. Like all peers from her environment, she went to school. She admits that in her childhood she did not feel any restrictions or pressure from her parents, and although some strictness in upbringing was evident, it did not offend or oppress her.

“My family cannot be called conservative; I did not have any significant restrictions. I was allowed to wear jeans, hang out with my peers of different nationalities and do what I liked. However, we always understood where the boundaries are”.

Nelia notes that, despite the lack of strict conservatism, as they grow older, Roma girls are treated more meticulously. So approximately from the age of 15-16, you cannot be seen together with boys without prior matchmaking, all decisions are made on the basis of the last “parental word” at any age. But the girl’s views and outlook always coincided with her family, so there were never any conflicts.

The girl says that social activities have always interested her, but for a certain time she stopped her development in this direction. After the 8th grade, Nelia was forced to leave her studies due to family circumstances, after some time she got married and dropped out of the process of activism. Already at the age of 19, she began to actively participate in Roma events. Since Uncle has his own Roma organization, he saw her interest and potential, so he delegated a certain part of his duties to her, and involved in public events in every possible way.

“My uncle took me with him to events, involved me in his projects and even gave me important tasks. I met guests of the organization and talked with journalists. All this gave me the desire to develop, I saw that they trusted me and believed in my abilities”.

The activities of her uncle and brother, the historian and activist Yanush Panchenko, became an impetus for Nelia. She joined her brother’s large-scale project: she assisted to find, crystallize and voice 10 Roma fairy tales. It was the first such important and global project in the girl’s life.

“It was scary and I had to leave my comfort zone. We voiced fairy tales in the Vlach dialect, which is not my native language. However, it was a good experience for me”.

Over time, she realized that she wanted to develop on her own. Nelia’s uncle, who raised her from adolescence and became an authority in making important decisions, also approved the beginning of independent and already professional social activities. She started her first own project last year. Having assembled a team, she filmed her own documentary, which was released this year. She admits that during the work on it and until its completion, she was worried about legal and accounting issues, the correctness of the budget distribution, and during every success, even a small one, she turned to her family to share her joy.

Society and environment are not always ideal, so not everyone was so unambiguous about Nelia’s activism. The devaluation by the Roma families, who somehow knew the girl’s family in the small town, haunted her. Returning from any trip, conference or initiative ended with questions, “Why do you need it?” “And what did they give you for that?”.

“Over time, it became a kind of meme for me and Yanush, that’s how we fought against devaluation and misunderstanding. After each such question, the motivation and desire to tell something disappeared”.

Today Nelia wants to finish school, get a certificate and enter an educational institution. All this is another step on the way to self-realization.

“I returned to the 9th grade in order to finish school. Of course, I did it in Nova Kakhovka, but now I have no connection with the educational institution due to the occupation. I am worried and hope that after the de-occupation I will be able to get a full education. After that, I intend to enter college or university, but for now I’m thinking about specialization”.

Nelia believes that education is one of the most important components of life in the modern world, as well as a certain foundation for girls. In Roma society, there is still a narrative that there is no need for education for girls, because they will get married and stop there, but the girl does not agree with this.

“I advise all girls to engage in their own self-realization. Marriage will not save you from problems forever; moreover, there are so many opportunities that will make life brighter, happier and more interesting, and to lose them is a great mistake”.

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