Zavidovici (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) - Five years ago a bar owner refused to serve him but today Redzo Seferovic is the first Roma elected to head a municipal council in Bosnia.
The October vote is an "historic event", said Predrag Prastalo, head of the Bosnian branch of the European Movement non-governmental organisation which tries to promote EU values.
But the way ahead is long and the first session that Seferovic presided over in Zavidovici in central Bosnia was proof of that.
Lacking experience and ignorant of protocol, he had to be guided to open or close debates, prompting sarcasm and jibes.
"I am asking you to help me. I am doing this for the first time, there will be mistakes," Seferovic, who is in his fifties, told the council.
Some deputies posted videos of the session online to ridicule him.
"That hurt me," Seferovic told AFP. "But I have learned to face such challenges in life."
Human Rights Watch said in its 2016 annual report that "Roma remain the most vulnerable group in the country, facing widespread discrimination in employment, education, and political representation."
- 'No drinks for Roma' -
Seferovic has had his share of insults like other Roma throughout the Balkans, including some 50,000 to 75,000 in Bosnia out of a total population of 3.5 million.
In 2011 a waiter refused to serve him and his three cousins.
He "explained me that the owner had said 'No drinks for Roma'," Seferovic remembered.
Rejected by two courts, his complaint is now before a third, he said.
Seferovic is an atypical Roma -- he is a professional fireman while 95 percent of his fellow Roma in Bosnia are unemployed, according to a 2015 study of the Sarajevo-based Atlantic Initiative non-governmental organisation.
His three sons are jobless. Seferovic said he was the only Roma in Zavidovici to have a job.
In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Bosnia for its discriminatory constitution that reserves the tripartite presidency only for Croats, Muslims and Serbs and has not yet been modified.
In Zavidovici the discrimination is obvious.
Poverty is endemic in this industrial town of some 36,000 residents where the unemployment rate has hit 67 percent, according to mayor Hasim Mujanovic.
The town's 750 Roma are the poorest of the poor and live separately in three districts.
In the area where Seferovic lives, children in rags play in the middle of iron scrapyard among small dilapidated houses, some made of wood.
"Around 75 percent of Roma in Zavidovici have no social security and only 28 children go to school, compared to 127 in 2011," Seferovic said, saying the plummeting numbers were because the Roma had got increasingly poorer and could not afford to buy school books and educational material.
The HRW warned that due to lack of a free and universal birth registration system, many Roma do no figure on the national public registry that records births, deaths, and marriages.
"This impedes their access to public services, including healthcare."
- Education is priority -
"I always tell my Roma that education should be the foundation," Seferovic said, adding that he has always wanted "to be someone."
He became a firefighter after completing military service in the Yugoslav army in 1988. During Bosnia's 1990s inter-ethnic war, Seferovic fought alongside Muslims.
Seferovic said that it was in the Yugoslav army that he had learned how to tie a tie.
"I knew that one day I would need it," Seferovic said at his fire station while changing into civilian clothes and tightening his tie.
Seferovic's neighbour Saban Bajric recently returned to Zavidovici after spending three years in Germany with his wife and three children.
He told AFP that his asylum request was rejected "like to the majority of some 30 families from the neighbourhood."
"Redzo is a good man. We gave him a chance by voting for him. We would like that he gives us a job," said Bajric.
Another neighbour, Meho Jusic, said the Roma lived on the fringes of society.
"But he alone cannot help us. I'm 60 years old, I do not work nor can I can retire. I cannot cure myself as I do not have social security," Jusic said.
"My grand-daughter does not have it either. Her parents do not work. "How to send her to school without revenues?" he said.