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Hungary: Needy village hopes murals will bring aid

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, October 25, 2013 - 8:17 am

BODVALENKE, Hungary — Gypsy artists from across Europe have been out painting the town — creating large murals on the outside walls of 33 homes in Bodvalenke, a small Hungarian settlement in one of the poorest regions in the country.

The murals' themes include Gypsy folklore, religious scenes with portraits of angels and a smiling Jesus Christ, as well as folktales and views of daily life in this village of 230 inhabitants.

The last of the murals neared completion Thursday, part of a project meant to help the villagers, 90 percent of whom are Gypsy, also known as Roma, to take pride in their culture, offer a venue for Roma artists to showcase their skills and attract tourists to help the area escape its poverty.

Roma in Hungary and in many other European countries are among the poorest and least-educated citizens, many are chronically unemployed, victims of prejudice and among those hit hardest by the economic crisis which swept across the continent from 2008.

Guaranteed mostly low-skill jobs during Hungary's communist era that ended in 1990, many Roma, like those in this village near the border with Slovakia and 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of the Hungarian capital of Budapest, have found it difficult to find their place in a more competitive and often less merciful society.

The project managed by Eszter Pasztor was launched in 2009, when she began inviting Roma artists to paint murals in the village. Along with several Hungarian Roma artists and two groups of children, Roma painters from Germany, Serbia, Poland and Britain have coated their talent on the village walls.

"One aim was to fight prejudice by showing how much Roma culture enriches our common culture," Pasztor said. "We also wanted to help Bodvalenke rise out of deep poverty."

With financial assistance from foundations as well as individual donors, the Bodvalenke project recently succeeded in finding jobs for 11 residents in a biofuels company. Pasztor is still hoping to find money to create a modest infrastructure for tourists, including a small restaurant and guesthouse.

One of the large paintings, by Gabor Varadi, commemorates one of a series of attacks against Roma in Hungary in 2008-2009. In August, three people were sentenced to life in prison and a fourth was given a 13-year sentence for the six murders.

Half of the villagers in Bodvalenke, mentioned in documents as far back as 1204, are younger than 18 and most of the adults are unemployed, barely surviving on state aid, which for many has been halved in the past few years.

The main previous sources of employment for area residents, such as quarries, coal mines and the farming industry, have been shut or use less manual labor.

Basket weaver Jozsef Rusznyak said he liked the mural in his garden, painted on his neighbor's wall, although his favorite was one across the street in which he was depicted by Serbian Roma artist Zoran Tairovic.

"This is a very beautiful painting and the village is now very beautiful," Rusznyak said, standing in front of "Angels in Flight" by Jozsef Horvath. "The village was not like this before, there was nothing here."

Still, the mural project was given a mixed reception and it took time to persuade some of the residents to allow their walls to be painted.

Mayor Janos Toth, for example, remains skeptical that tourists will come to his off-the-beaten-path village just to look at murals, no matter how colorful or extraordinary.

"We need real jobs, not paint on the walls," Toth said in his distillery in the middle of town. "This project is dead."

Pasztor, however, remains undaunted and said the resistance is part of a local power struggle in a village where city hall, which employs 18 people, is the largest and practically only job provider.

"I believe we have achieved very significant results in improving the quality of life in the village," Pasztor said.