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Published: Wednesday, 4/3/2013

19-member foreign delegation visiting Toledo this week

Group in U.S. to learn about community organizing, democracy

BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bulgarian citizens Georgi Georgiev, Dzhevid Mahmud, Delyana Mihneva, and Milenko Milenkov, from left, joke as they talk about their country at a workshop in Maumee. The Bulgarians are part of a foreign delegation that includes members from three other countries. Bulgarian citizens Georgi Georgiev, Dzhevid Mahmud, Delyana Mihneva, and Milenko Milenkov, from left, joke as they talk about their country at a workshop in Maumee. The Bulgarians are part of a foreign delegation that includes members from three other countries.
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He was more interested in interviewing than being interviewed.

Laszo Oliver Jakab of Hungary wanted to know what life was like for Latinos and African-Americans in the United States. “Is there a lot of discrimination and prejudice?” the visiting social worker, a Romanian who grew up in Hungary, asked. “In my life, I have seen lots of discrimination, lots of prejudice.

“Non-Romas think Romas are lazy, dirty, and that their children are stinky.”

He added: “I think it’s like in America with Latinos. They don’t accept our culture. You have to lose your culture to fit in.”

Mr. Jakab, 32, is among a delegation of 19 people from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia who are visiting Toledo this week. Their goal: To learn how to become community organizers, so they can address social and political ills in their communities.

Their visit is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of Citizen Exchanges, Professional Fellows Division.

The theme: Building Grassroots Democracy in Minority Communities.

A group of leaders from local grass-roots groups is working with the delegation through Sunday. The visitors are learning about how democracy is supposed to work, how to organize communities, and how to address issues.

The delegation will be in the United States until May 11. It will visit Chicago and Washington D.C., where it will get training about applications for funding for their organizations, political messaging, and community mapping.

A group of 10 U.S. citizens visited Romania in January and February to evaluate grass-roots efforts in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Ramon Perez, a community organizer for United North in Toledo, made that trip, which he called an “eye-opening experience.” Up until 1989, Romania had been under Communist rule. Prior to that, the country was ruled by the Nazis.

But, people of that region don’t understand democracy, Mr. Perez said. The people aren’t used to having rights such as free speech.

“A lot of the older people are still scared of being killed,” he said.

There is a lot of political strife in Bulgaria because many people still don’t understand their rights and freedoms, Bulgarian journalist Delyana Mihneva said.

Ms. Mihneva, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2003, chose to become a reporter for the first private national radio station at the Bulgaria Darik Radio. The job gives her a chance to report about rampant political corruption in her country, she said. “It’s a powerful tool to make a difference,” she said. “It’s a great way to make a change.”

Miroslav Ragac, 32, of Slovakia always aspired to help people.

When he turned 23, he moved to Western Europe so he could learn how to become a community activist. There he worked with people living with HIV and AIDS, and helped them reintegrate into society. He worked with the homeless, the elderly, and people with physical and mental disabilities.

He returned to Slovakia five years later and works for an organization that helps new migrants resettle.

In 2008, he started his work for the Center for Community Organizing, a group dedicated to teaching people how they can accomplish more by working together. Mr. Ragac said the biggest success occurred two years ago when he was able to rally hundreds in a poor community to turn back a proposed development that would have had a negative effect in that area.

He wanted to make the trip to the United States so he can learn problem-solving methods that can be used in communities or neighborhoods with different backgrounds, cultures, and issues. Before he returns to Slovakia, he plans to visit New York for two days.

“I’m looking forward to New York and its diversity,” he said. “It’s proof that people that are different can live together in peace.”

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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