Breaking the glass ceiling: meet the first of a new generation of Romani lawyers at the ERRC

By Senada Sali

The most common question I am asked these days is how a 25-year-old Romani girl from a small town in Western Macedonia succeeded in developing a legal career in Budapest. Well, I believe that everything happens for a reason…

My first encounter with the law was at the age of five when my parents divorced. I was the second child in a Romani Muslim family. Both of my parents belong to a Romani subgroup Dzambazi (Џамбази) – who traditionally deal with horse-trading. My parents marriage was not a love match. They had an arranged marriage right after their first date. My mother was a victim of constant domestic abuse, violence carried out before the eyes of her two small children.

When I read the judgment of my parent’s divorce, I was fascinated by the power of the judge to save lives and grant freedom to people using something called “the law”. I knew that this was the super-power that I would like to possess when I grew up. Therefore, before moving to Hungary I completed my Bachelors degree in Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law “Iustinian Primus” – Skopje. 

Many people would think that, based on my looks and intelligence, I was never discriminated against or bullied because of my Roma ethnicity. The reality is that, no matter how smart, educated, and talented we are, each of us still faces stereotypes and discrimination on a daily basis. In my personal case, I even experienced multiple levels of discrimination for being a Romani Muslim woman.

I initially moved to Budapest for educational purposes. In 2015 I was awarded a scholarship for a Master degree at the Central European University (CEU). In June, last year I completed my first master at the Department of International Relations and European Studies (with distinctions) and in October 2016 I was admitted for a second master in Constitutional Law.

After finishing my masters at CEU I started working as a legal trainee at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) for a year. Because of my extensive language skills (Macedonian, Romanes, English, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish), during a single year I worked in a record number of countries and cases.

Recently, I was promoted and hired as an official lawyer at the ERRC. Currently, the main focus of my work is litigation of cases related to discrimination against Roma mainly from the Western Balkan region. This includes cases of violation of the reproductive rights of Romani women, violations of the rights of Roma children placed in correctional centers, segregation of Roma children in schools, police brutality towards Roma, racial profiling at borders, forced evictions, and various other topics.

Apart from my legal skills and knowledge, my personal life experience provides me with additional motivation and context when doing my work. This experience enables me to establish a strong connection with cases and litigants I work with.

This is the first time in almost a decade in ERRC, for a Romani person to hold the position of lawyer, which might seem surprising for a “Roma Rights” organisation. I am very glad I broke this “glass ceiling” and I hope this is a trend that will continue in the future, not only at the ERRC but also at other institutions and organizations. 

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