Biljana*, an Arli Roma (a member of the Roma ethnic group who speaks the Arli dialect) believer, has written a story for Roma children in Croatia, such as those she works among in the Northeast village of Darda.
“This is significant!” an OM Eurasia Support Team (OM EAST) worker said. “To have an author who understands what the children, particularly the young girls, are going through now.”
When Biljana was 14 years old, her mother forced her to leave Serbia and marry a Roma man in Croatia, where she has now lived for 21 years.
“It was hard,” Biljana reflected. “I didn’t want to get married. I tried to seek help but I was told: ‘it is just the Roma culture.’”
The young bride lived with her husband, Djeno*, and his large extended family who lived a chaotic lifestyle. After less than two months Biljana ran back to Serbia, not knowing she was pregnant.
Biljana’s family rejected her so she lived with a couple in their home instead. However, the husband soon turned his attention to Biljana, causing his wife to move out. Biljana fled after giving birth because he had started to beat the child that was not his own.
At the age of 15, Biljana stood alone on the street in the cold and rain with her one month-old son. Crying and struggling to breathe, she called out to God.
“As a child I had learned a song with the words: ‘I have a phone that reaches up to heaven. When I have a problem I can call Jesus,’” Biljana explained.
In that moment a local Serbian woman opened her door to offer food, dry clothes for the baby, and shelter until the rain stopped.
Biljana returned to her husband in Croatia to raise their child together. Angry that another man had named their son, Djeno started to beat Biljana and sent her out on the streets to beg.
But God had not finished answering Biljana’s prayer for help.
Biljana came to faith in Jesus when the local pastor’s wife befriended her on the street and invited her to their church service. There, she found an acceptance she had never experienced anywhere else.
The pastor spoke of Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and love.
“My mother didn’t love me; my father didn’t love me; my husband didn’t love me,” Biljana shared. “But then I heard a verse in the Bible that somebody loved me, and not only loved me, but even died for me.”
It’s this same message of hope that Biljana loves to share with Roma children today.
Through the change in his wife’s life and unexpected generous acts of practical help they received from the congregation, Djeno also came to faith.
“When he accepted Christ, everything changed,” Biljana said. “He stopped beating me. He stopped saying bad things and we started to pray together.”
For over two years they prayed every night for God to send someone to work among the Roma in Croatia. Then one day, a Bible verse convinced and challenged the couple that God was sending them. Around the same time, OM EAST partners also started reaching out to Roma villages in Croatia, later supporting Biljana and Djeno in their ministry.
Now, Djeno is the pastor of a small church in Darda, predominantly attended by Bayash Roma, where Biljana and their four children all serve.
“In the beginning I was asking God: ‘Why did I have to go through all these situations in my life?’” Biljana shared. “But today I know why; the people I am now working with are going through all these situations.”
All of the women she knows are beaten by their husbands. All the girls are getting married very young. All the children are growing up without parents who will protect them.
“It’s not something that I read about in a book,” Biljana stated. “It’s what I went through; I actually thank God for that.”
Now God has given her a mother’s heart and a burden for the Roma.
Drawing from real life situations, Biljana’s fictional book, The Cat and the Custard, points its readers to Jesus and addresses some of the social issues and misconceptions prevalent in Roma villages. It tells the story of a little girl called Ana who realised her need of Christ’s forgiveness and discovers a new way to live.
OM EAST and their partners, the Roma Bible Union, will publish the storybook in Croatian this year with plans to publish it in additional languages to reach more Roma children in Europe.
“It’s a hard job,” Biljana acknowledged about reaching her own people. “But God is working!”
“For me the biggest joy is seeing how some of the neglected little girls who used to run after us in the village are now helping us to work among the children in the church,” Biljana said. “I’m really thankful to God for them.”
As more Roma boys and girls receive the message of the Gospel, may they put their faith in Jesus and be able to say, just like Biljana did after both she and Djeno chose to follow Jesus:
“That’s when my story really began!”
Please pray that children and families reading ‘The Cat and the Custard’ will be able to see their own lives reflected in the story and, like the little girl in the story, discover Christ’s forgiveness, love and new life. Please pray for wisdom as Djeno and Biljana serve the congregation in Darda, and as Biljana continues writing for the Roma.
*Full name not included for security reasons