Basin Electric employee helps bring clean water for the Roma

What would you do if you had two weeks of vacation time to spend? Many people dream of time at the beach, visiting family, or maybe even hiking through the mountains. But Mike Martin, maintenance electrician at Headquarters, wanted to spend it improving the lives of underprivileged people in Macedonia.

Martin is involved in an organization called The Global Community Health Evangelism Network (CHE). CHE serves poor communities around the world by lifting them out of cycles of poverty and disease. They are working to reach 1 million villages around the world. 

“One thing I appreciate about CHE is that they care about the total health of a person: education, life skills, health, family counseling, and entrepreneurship,” Martin says.

Martin first got involved with CHE after his friend went on a mission trip to Hungary. After hearing about the impact his friend was able to make, Martin decided it was time to get involved, too. The next village CHE had scheduled to visit was in Macedonia, but there were a few delays along the way.

“The trip was supposed to happen two years ago but got postponed,” says Martin. “Finally on our fourth attempt to get over there, six of us made it to Macedonia in mid-May.”

Arriving in Prilep, Macedonia, it’s easy to see the charm of this 66,000-person city. Thirty miles north of the Grecian border, it has rolling hills, vineyards, and amazing food. But once you step outside the city border, you see a very different view.

More than 1,000 years ago, 13 million nomads came out of India and scattered in small communities across Europe. Among them is a small village of 700 people that settled just outside of Prilep, called the Roma people.

“It’s a strange mix looking at people in Prilep and then seeing the Roma people,” says Martin. “It’s modern living in the city and then people living like 1,000 years ago in the village – and they’re right next to each other.”

The Roma people don’t own the land, and the cleanliness of the village and quality of the infrastructure is very poor.

“A lot of the homes look like a kid’s tree fort,” says Martin. “At one point, a man with a wife and six kids wanted to add a bathroom to his house, so we saw him nail sticks together, throw carpet over it, and there was his bathroom.”

Two bathrooms side-by-side in the Roma village.

Even though the Roma people have been settled outside Prilep for 50-70 years, there’s no running water or septic beyond the city, and electricity is limited. “The city gives them a single power line and they just run it to their individual homes that way,” says Martin.

Lack of clean water was one of the primary issues in the village. Before Martin’s team arrived, the whole village would go up a hill and use a buried garden hose that ran 24/7.

Martin (right) stands by the hose that was previously the sole water source for all 700 people in the village.

“One of the reasons we went over there is for the health of the Roma people. There’s a lack of education so they don’t get that they shouldn’t pile garbage and dirty diapers over their water supply,” says Martin. “By age 30, many in the village have lost their teeth; probably because of high levels of arsenic in the drinking water.”

Martin’s team focused on drilling a well and installing a water tank for the Roma people to drink from. They had older well-drilling equipment to work with, including a converted military truck from World War 2, but had the benefit of working with many construction workers who have experience with block building.

A converted Word War II military truck was used to drill the well.

The team drilled down 156 feet through granite and rock, and Martin says “there’s very good water once you get down that far.” Martin also ran power to the well site. He said the team couldn’t put the well head out because they were afraid someone would steal it, so they will eventually construct a building around the well head for security.

Martin says that while they were pouring the cement pad, he learned that the workers didn’t know how to use a level; they usually just “eyeball it.”

“The pad was poured on a hill so it’s hard to tell what’s level,” he says. “The last thing we wanted was for the pad to be wavy and have the water tank be at an angle and risk collapsing.”

Martin (left) in front of the new water tank and freshly poured cement pad.

Another thing his team focused on while in Macedonia was teaching the Roma people skills to prevent illness.

“We taught them really baseline stuff. Wash your hands, don’t play with garbage and then eat your food, how to dress a wound. Really basic, but it’s stuff they never learned, and a lot of them just don’t care or think it’s important,” says Martin.

Martin stressed that education is the key to changing the conditions of the village, not just money. Some Roma don’t view education as important, but also human trafficking is prevalent and parents fear their children will be kidnapped if they go to school. So rather than learning in school, they learn from the older generations.

“Also they don’t pay taxes and are despised by the people in Prilep because they consider the Roma a nuisance,” he says.

After his work in Macedonia came to an end, Martin came back to the United States more thankful for what he has. But upon reflecting, he saw a lot of positives in the Roma culture that we could benefit from in America, such as slowing down, having long meals together, focusing less on devices, and having quality family time.

“They have less in terms of material possessions but they have stronger relationships. Here we feel disconnected from others. But their families are closer, and they rely on each other more. There’s more togetherness,” he says.

He also pointed out that they eat a lot of vegetables (and very little fast food), are very artistic, know at least two languages, and are very generous, even with the little they have.

Martin (third from left) enjoying fresh food in Prilep.

 Martin says he could easily make another trip to Macedonia, but next time he’d like to take his two teenage sons. He says, “They need to get out a little bit.”

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