He’s led a transformation among Roma villagers: crime down, productivity up

László Bogdán doesn’t enjoy his fame much. “I feel like a monkey in a zoo,” he says with characteristic bluntness. “I’m like an exotic animal everyone wants to see.”

Journalists, politicians, and even foreign diplomats have been flocking to see Mr. Bogdán in Cserdi, a village in southern Hungary where he’s the mayor. He’s been spearheading a dramatic do-it-yourself transformation among the village’s 426 residents, most of whom belong to the ethnic Roma minority.

The “Cserdi miracle,” as it’s been dubbed, has made the mayor famous nationwide. He is a regular on television shows and gives speeches far and wide, which recently included remarks at the United Nations in New York.

These days Cserdi looks like other villages in Baranya County. Neat brick houses with flowering acacias out front are set among rolling fields of rapeseed and wheat. The village also boasts several sprawling greenhouses where villagers tend to bell peppers, potatoes, and more.

A decade ago, it was a different picture: tumbledown hovels and other signs of ruinous poverty. Many homes didn’t even have bathrooms.

But the worst was the crime. Cserdi was notorious for it, having one of Hungary’s highest crime rates. There were some 600 crimes a year: robberies, burglaries, drunken fistfights, cases of domestic abuse. Barely anyone worked.

“No one stopped here,” says Gizella Bogdán, a jovial grandmother who works in the greenhouses. (Bogdán is a common surname among Hungary’s Roma.) “People just drove through, and the village kids threw stones at cars.”

But when Mr. Bogdán began taking on the mantle of a traditional “voivode” (chief) of sorts more than a decade ago, he started setting a different tone. He’s worked to instill a sense of self-worth in the villagers while also countering common prejudices about the Roma. And he’s led by example, routinely getting down and dirty in the greenhouses to help with the duties.

Bogdán has his share of critics, owing to his coarse language and his tactics, which include sorting through people’s trash to see if they’ve spent their incomes wisely. But productivity and quality of life have shot up in the village, while crime has plummeted.

Bogdán shares the credit for those successes. “All I do is create expectations [for a better life],” he says. “People can do the rest themselves.”

Hunger and scarce shoes

Bogdán himself grew up in grinding poverty in Cserdi. He didn’t get a pair of shoes he could call his own until he was 13. He went hungry for days, often feeling faint.

Locals scavenged in carcass disposal pits for meat and stole from neighboring villages. “We might steal 300 chickens in one night. Why should I deny it?” Bogdán says. “But we felt ashamed when we ate them. When you live like that, you’re full of fear and shame. People hated us.”

But it wasn’t the sideways glances from ethnic Hungarians that troubled him. It was their…

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