Have a look at our logo. It began its life 20 years ago in the shed of an English Romany in Kent. One day as Gary Brazil was repairing an old wagon, powerful beams of bright coloured lights, like ribbons, broke through the shed window "pinning" him to the wagon, a spinning rainbow of light breaking into his heart. "What does this mean?" he asked. Years later he has come to understand his experience in this way: "each ribbon of light stands for each of the tribes of the Gypsy people. Right at the heart a purple cross draws them together with all the people of earth into one single new humanity!"
Luton Roma Trust adopted Gary's vision as our logo as it captures so evocatively our desire to see all Gypsy people blessed, as the walls that separate us from each other come tumbling down.
Martin Burrell's work with the English Romanies began in the 1990s and carried over into his new work with the Eastern European Roma when he moved to Luton in 2009. This started one day back in 2009 when the local police asked him for help with the Roma ladies who were begging in the streets. Martin was given an address to visit. Welcomed into the extended family, he found the only language they had in common was French! Week by week they taught him new words and phrases in their Romani language. Gradually Martin got to meet more Romani families who had migrated to Luton from across the globe, though who had originally come from the Hunedoara region of Romania. There were three tragic deaths of babies which drew Martin in more deeply. By 2011 a weekly gathering was underway in one of the family homes. This overflowed then into the church on the corner which was rented for services in the Romani language. Pastor Stevo and his team from London came fortnightly to help us get going. Minibuses brought families in from across Luton. A team formed to carry the work forward.
A call came through from a pastor who was trying to help a Roma couple in desperate need in nearby Redbourne. Martin brought them back to Luton and they were taken in by one of our local Roma families. Mum gave birth to triplets, and their other children arrived by bus with uncle ("Vasile" Bobiica) and his all his family from Romania - suddenly the church changed dramatically in character, as these were Roma Pentecostals from East Romania.
The way forward became clear. The leadership would of the church would be gradually handed over to them, releasing Martin and his team to focus on the holistic vision we had for the Roma families in our midst. A vision in which every family would be blessed in every area of their lives - from accommodation to education, from employment to health, from literacy to welfare.
From the early days our aim has been to lift the eyes of the Roma to glimpse a future they may not even have dreamt of - a future beyond persecution, beyond mere survival, and towards a life in which the lowly are lifted up and given the place of honour in the wider community. But dreams without realisable goals remain just dreams!
The long term focus of our work is therefore on empowering the next generation - many who were born in the UK - to embrace Education, understand it as an opportunity their parents were denied, and begin to see it as the gateway into a new life. Here our families will retain the best of their Roma traditions, and at the same time begin to make a real contribution to the community which has hosted them.
But noble goals remain just ideas if they are not resourced! It became clear that our work needed charitable status to proceed on a firm footing. Luton Roma Trust was formed in February 2015 with Martin, Bishop Richard and Chris Neilson acting as trustees. New steams of funding were awarded to carry forward the vision. Our first post was created as Assen Slavchev took up the role of Roma Community Champion, followed by Paul Sayers being appointed as our Roma Education Champion. Whilst Martin and Assen focused on daily crisis interventions with the Roma families, Paul was allocated to building relationships with our local schools especially those where there are large numbers of Roma children.
We were joined for a year by Rachel Humpris, who carried out her Oxford based PhD research as together we worked with the Roma families. Later Sara Zawacki, an American PhD student carried out her research on Roma health issues as she helped us with our daily interventions.
On acquiring charitable status we began to record every intervention on our Lamplight internet-based data-base system. This made it possibly to monitor closely the progress each family was making as they strove step by step to become economically stable and ensure that each child was in full time education.
As the holistic work of Luton Roma Trust proceeded, the Roma church continued to develop in the background. The initial weekly gathering developed into three separate churches over time. Vasile Bobiica, supported by the Tufton Trust, brought his gathering under the oversight of the international Roma Pentecostal group called Rugul Aprins - "The burning bush". These networks of diasporan churches reach across Europe and are for many the principle way our families remain in contact. Family events of all kinds are shared through Facebook night and day.
Shortly after the formation of Luton Roma Trust, our work with the Roma children took off in a new way. We were approached by World Beaters, a London-based group of professional musicians who specialise in helping minority ethnic communities to integrate well into the wider community through music, trans-languaging and singing. Once Spulber Cantaragiu was discovered one day busking in the street in nearby Harpenden, we had our Roma musician for the team. From 2015 the music project grew through a set of dynamic partnerships: Luton Roma Trust / World Beaters / Flying Start early years centre at Beech Hill school / Luton Music Hub. As a Roma children's choir formed, invitations came in to sing at the Carnival Arts Centre, London-Luton Airport, the Annual early years 'Picknick in the Park', Moorland Gardens Care Home and High Town Festival. As well as raising our Roma children's confidence and releasing their latent musical gifts, the project has carried them out into the wider community of Luton. Invitations followed to present this work to major early years networks at London and Cambridge.
Martin had a dream one night of an event in which Gypsy people from all nations would tell their stories in their own words and sing their own songs. Together with the Churches Network for Gypsies, Traveller and Roma we hosted "This is our Story - This is our Song!". From across the UK Roma came to take centre stage. Gary Brazil shared his personal story - from which the inspiration for our logo came. Most contributions came from women who spoke and sang with great passion of the reality of their lives. Our Roma children's choir sang as well as a band of Czech Roma from Margate. Bridges were built across otherwise estranged tribes and languages and cultures. We heard their stories from their own lips! A second "This is our Story - this is our Song!" event is planned for 4 November in Cranbrook, Kent. We want the story to be heard everywhere!
All along, the number of Roma Luton based families coming to us for help continued to grow and reached over 700 by mid 2017. Martin and Assen meet their clients in cafes in the centre of Luton and in the homes where the Roma live. Our interventions take us to the Town Hall, to banks, letting agencies, doctor's surgeries, hospitals, courts, education welfare services, employment agencies etc. As well as helping our clients navigate their way through UK civic life, and to overcome the language barriers.
Meanwhile, as our work with the Roma children became more widely known, local schools began to approach us to help them raise the educational standards of their Roma children and to help them integrate into the life of the school more fully. Paul Sayers, our Roma Education Champion, was invited by Putteridge Academy to help the English As a Second Language (EAL) class. A little later in 2017 Stockwood Park Academy invited us to partner with them in setting a project in their Youth Zone. An open evening was held for all Romanian and Roma pupils and their parents and further plans were underway for Autumn 2017. Paul's work continued into 2017-2018 as fresh funding comes in from the Bedford and Luton Community Foundation and from the Wixhamtree Trust. This made it possible to double Paul's hours of work in response to expanding work. Futher partnerships were set up with other local schools where there are large numbers of Roma Children: Ashcroft High, Beech Hill Primary, Maidenhall Primary, Denbigh Primary, & Dallow Primary. All these schools invited us to have open events for parents and their children to meet the staff and other key professionals.
To help us tackle the growing administrative needs we created a new position of Company Secretary which was taken on by Pauline Neilson. We also welcomed on board new Trustees: an English Romanical, and a Romanian Roma, and the lead chaplain at Luton Airport.
Thanks to funding from the Tudor Trust we were able to create a new post for Project Manager which was taken up by a Romanain Roma woman, Crina Morteanu.
Meanwhile our daily interventions with the Roma in the Mall in Luton had been steadily increasing in number and the need for a premises of our own grew. Finally, in April one of our Roma women told us that she had found the ideal place! Along we went to "Soar", another charity in town doing similar work to us. They welcomed us in and invited us to share one side of the shop with them. Around that time we were approached by Wesminster - Lord Bourne, Minister for Faith, was keen to meet some of the Luton Roma. All Saints hosted the meeting at which the Roma told them of their need to learn English and our need of a premises. We were invited to apply for funding under a new steam for G,T,R projects. Our bid was successful and we were able to open our Roma Community Centre in April 2018.
Our Roma families quickly found out that we had left the Mall and now at last had a place of our own. In July 2018 we registered our 1,000th beneficiary and began our "English for Life" project with new volunteers coming on board to do the teaching under Crina's guidance.
The BBC got wind of this and filmed us both in our new centre and the Roma Children's Choir at Beech Hill Primary School. Our appearance on the news was picked up by Noble Solicitors who offered to provide free legal advice at our centre. A local dentist offered to provide advise too.
Thanks to funding from Luton Arts, the Roma children's choir repeated all their appearances again around Luton. Our Annual Celebration was held at St Andrew's church in July - this time packed with Roma families, partners, new volunteers, friends - Spulber and the Roma men sang - Martin reviewed the work of the year and passed the baton to Crina who took on the overall leadership of our team. Martin remains chair of our charity.
In September 2018 Assen Slavchev rejoined our team in the new role of Support & Empowerment Officer.
The need to grow our team to respond to the ever growing needs and aspirations of our beneficiaries is at the top of the agenda. As the move to Universal Credit draws near, so our need to set up computer stations for our Roma adults to access their civic affairs on line becomes more urgent. Brexit also looms. Our Roma families are here to stay.
Click below for our 2018 Annual Report in full! Watch this space...
Lrt Annual Report 2018