Every day on my way to work I passed by them. They were sleepingon the cold floor in a corner of the train station: a mother; a father; and twoyoung children in between them. They were still there when I finished work.While I was on my way to a warm apartment, a hot meal and a nice hot shower,these parents would spend another night with their children on a freezingfloor. There had been quite some solidarity lately with asylum-seekers who wereforced to sleep on the streets. Most of them had found a roof above their headsfor the harsh winter nights. But not this family; they could not ask for asylumand a bed to sleep in because they already are European citizens. They areRoma, often called Gypsies or nomads, and are associated with negativestereotypes such as theft, domestic violence, and being slum-dwellers.

My first experience with the Roma was about five years ago when Iwas living in Valencia, Spain. To go to the beach from my place, I had to walkthrough a dodgy-looking neighborhood that seemed rather to be located in a poorEastern European country than in a developed country such as Spain. There weremany dogs and half-naked children on the streets. The women were often yellingand the men looked at me in a threatening way. I wanted to get out of there asfast as possible. During my time in Spain, many people warned me of the gitanos, who werepickpockets and would threaten me with knives. They never did, however, and Ibecame intrigued by this European minority that seems to be excluded from“European integration,” lagging behind while their fellow countrymen aregradually joining European middle class.

It is widely known that many Jews died in the Nazi concentrationcamps, but less known is that also about half a million Roma were gassed.Unlike the Jews, the Roma continue to face serious threats and discriminationespecially in Eastern Europe but also in Western Europe. In 2008, young Italianmen set Roma camps in Milan, Naples and Sicily on fire with Molotov cocktails.In June 2009, 65 Roma living in Belfast were forced to return to Romania afterracist attacks on their houses. These are just the stories that have made it tothe news.

The only stories I read or hear about the Roma portray them aseither criminals or helpless victims. Why does no one wonder who these peopleare and why they are one of the most hated peoples in Europe?

 

“They prefer to be called Roma. That is how they refer tothemselves. There is not even a word in Romani, their language,  for gypsy or nomad. These names weremade up by others,” Biser Alekov of the European Roma Grassroots OrganizationsNetwork sighs. “Actually, only a very small minority of Roma are still nomads.Most Roma have settled down.” 

The Roma have their origins in South Asia, from where theymigrated to mainly Central and Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. Theydeveloped a nomadic lifestyle as a means of survival, earning money throughseasonal agricultural work, repairing items, clairvoyance and door-to-doorselling. At the moment, they are the largest ethnic minority in the EuropeanUnion, with about 10 to 12 million members. There is no exact number availablebecause many of them live and work illegally in other European countries.

The Roma have never had an easy time in the countries that becametheir homes. During the Nazi years, many of them were gassed in theconcentration camps and in the communist era, Roma women were forcefullysterilized. But the worst was yet to come. At least during the communist years,the Roma were sometimes given land or social support. After the fall ofcommunism, unemployment and poverty prevailed in the Roma communities. “Youcan’t imagine what poverty engulfed the Roma in my village. After 1991, Irented the village pub and was the only employed Roma. Nobody else had a job.The people began wandering around, looking for work in the towns,” Akif, a Romacurrently living in Brussels, remembers. Many Roma decided to try their luck inWestern Europe.

Since the Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU,the economic situation of many of their citizens is gradually improving. TheRoma on the other hand continue to face discrimination in education, housing,employment, healthcare and other public services.

Although it has been ruled illegal in many Eastern Europeancountries, the practices of segregating Roma children in schools or havingseparate classes for children with special needs simply because they are Roma hascontinued. In these “special” schools, they receive poorer education and havevery limited opportunities for employment or further education. In Slovakia forexample, 80 percent of children in special schools are Roma.

When a group of Croatian Roma decided to fight the practice ofsegregating Roma pupils, they managed to convince the European Court of HumanRights that this was indeed discrimination. Besides urging the Croatiangovernment to respect the principle of equality, the Court also awarded theseRoma pupils with $4,500 each. Yet, many members of the local Roma community didnot share the euphoria over this victory. They feared that the situation couldget worse for them after the court ruling.

Because of the high degree of poverty in Roma communities inEastern Europe, many live in deplorable conditions. Some feel they do not haveanother choice than to stay in illegal settlements. Once every so often, theauthorities forcibly evict the residents from their makeshift dwellings withoutoffering them adequate alternative accommodations. This of course drives themback on the streets and new illegal settlements arise faster than thebulldozers can destroy them.

It is extremely hard for Roma to get out of this vicious circlewithout a steady job. Saliha, a Roma woman from Bulgaria who came to work inBelgium explains: “Even with higher education, employers prefer Bulgarianapplicants without investigating your qualities. When they understand that youare a Roma, they stop to trust you.” Akif’s childhood dream was to become apolice officer. But when he applied after finishing secondary education, he wasnot hired, unlike his Bulgarian classmates. He was never given an explanationwhy. Tunde Buzetzky, facilitator for Decade of Roma Inclusion, confirms thatthere is strong discrimination on the labor market: “If your skin is darker,the available job is immediately gone!”

The lack of opportunities in the East convinced many Roma to moveto Western Europe. But with the growing numbers of Roma, anti-gypsyism grew inWestern Europe as well. In particular, Italy stands out for its anti-Romaattitude. In 2007, the government adopted increased “security” measures againstthe “nomad emergency.” Police was allowed to “collect data,” includingfingerprinting, exclusively nomads. Forced evictions without prior consultationor proposing adequate alternatives became more frequent. The strong anti-Romarhetoric from politicians and vilification in the media further increased thestigmatization of the Romani people, which resulted in various violent attackson Roma throughout 2008 and 2009. But in other EU countries anti-gypsyism isalso growing. Eurobarometer, a public opinion survey, has shown that nearly aquarter of all Europeans would feel uncomfortable living next to a Roma. InItaly this is half of the population.

Meanwhile, the European Union is trying hard to integrate Romaissues in its activities and many non-governmental organizations have taken onthe advocacy of the Roma. Unfortunately, all these efforts have not resulted insufficient progress. Grassroots Roma organizations strongly believe that themain reason why these policies have failed is that they were developed withoutthe participation of the Roma.

They might be right. The Bulgarian municipality of Sliven has thehighest percentage of Roma residents in the country and one of the biggest Romaghettos with 20,000 inhabitants. It works actively together with Roma NGOs,Roma experts, volunteers and informal leaders on education, housing, health andemployment issues. “This place used to be a terrible ghetto, now it’s good tolive there thanks to the inclusion of Roma in policy-making,” Alekov adds.

“Another important obstacle is the continued stereotyping. Romanipeople have been hearing for a long time that they are worthless. They havestarted to believe this themselves. Good role models are essential to motivatethem to fight for a better future for themselves and their children,” explainsBiser Alekov. He claims that it is only a small percentage of Roma that arethieves, prostitutes or beggars. “There are many Roma all over Europe that areleading or trying to lead a successful life just like other Europeans.Unfortunately many of them hide their Romani background because of the stigma.”

Alekov believes that if Europeans knew more about these Roma, theywould realize that they just want to have a decent job, live in their own houseand send their children to school, just like everyone else. His fellow Romaadvocate Buzetzky agrees that “although it would be incorrect to say that thereare no beggars or petty thieves among the Roma migrants in Western Europeancountries, most of the Roma migrants get legal jobs, send their children toschool and have a decent life. There are groups living in illegal camps underdreadful conditions. Indeed in these groups, some people may be engaged inpetty crimes.”

George Soros, whose foundation helps to improve the situation ofthe Romani people, writes in an article for The Guardian: “The keyto success is the education of a new generation of Roma who do not seek toassimilate into the general population, but deliberately retain their identityas Roma. Educated, successful Roma will shatter the prevailing negativestereotypes by their very existence.”

Fikret and Sevinch are such successful Roma. They moved to Ghent,Belgium, in 1998. Twelve years later, they own a house in a Flemishneighborhood, and have their own retail shop and construction company. Theyconsider themselves successful immigrants but stress that they had to work veryhard to get where they are today. “When we arrived, I started to work forTurkish women, to clean for them and to serve them. My husband began work onconstruction sites. After five years, we received Belgian passports, but we continuedto do the same job. However, we enrolled in language courses, because you cando nothing if you do not speak the language. Later I finished a business coursewhere I learned how to set up my own company, how to manage the retail shop,and what documents were needed. That helped me a lot,” says Fikret.  She explains that the main hurdles tolead a successful life for less fortunate Roma are that they do not speak thelanguage and that they do not know the local rules and regulations of thecountry they are staying in. They also often do not have the right documents tofind a legal job.

Mladen and Saliha came to Belgium from Bulgaria in 2007 to offertheir son a better education. They are both working as cleaners at the momentbut they have many goals and plans for the future. Mladen wants to open a smallrestaurant offering Bulgarian dishes and Saliha is looking for a job as a labassistant in the food or chemical industry. They do however still feel it isbetter to hide their Roma identity for some people out of fear of losing theirjobs.

They are not alone in this. Many of their fellow Roma keep theirethnic background a secret. They go through life as Bulgarians, Romanians,Slovakians or Kosovars. The family of Assen, who has been living in Belgium for18 years, has not yet explained to the grandchildren that they are not justBulgarians, but also Roma.

A Roma background should be something to be proud of. The cultureis very rich and goes back a long time. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions.Begging for instance is not part of the Roma culture.  Biser Alekov says that “it is a big business and the peoplebehind it are considered as criminals by the rest of the Roma community.”

 

It is also commonly believed that it is part of Roma culture toforce very young girls to marry older men. Historically, weddings didtraditionally occur at an early age, between 14 and 16 for girls, but this ischanging among most Roma. Biser Alekov even claims that it is discrimination ifauthorities do not take action against the criminal act of forcing minors tomarry adult men. He claims that in these cases, the argument of “it is part oftheir culture” reinforces the stigmatization and marginalization of the Roma.

In fact, the Romani wedding is full of remarkable culturaltraditions. If the parents have not formally agreed to a wedding, the boy“abducts” the girl for a couple of days. When they return, the wedding iscelebrated. For the finale of the wedding ceremony, the young couple retires totheir room to consummate the union while the guests wait for the result: theblood traces proving that the girl was a virgin. These bloody clothes weretraditionally hung on a high place, so everyone could see that the bride wasrespectable. Today in most cases, only a symbolic form of these traditions isstill practiced.

Family and community belonging are very important to the Roma. Yourarely see old people in retirement homes. Instead, they live with theirchildren and grandchildren. When someone dies, his family stays at his side forthree days and three nights.

Roma still do not have an easy life in Europe. They arestereotyped as beggars and thieves and are not given equal opportunitiesbecause they are “Gypsies.” Once they have succeeded in overcoming the obstacles,they feel forced to hide their true identity. However, there is no need to betoo pessimistic, as Assen says: “Many will find their way. They will have towork hard on non-prestigious jobs, but if the parents do this work today,tomorrow their children – who are studying and complete local schools – willhave more opportunities. That’s how it was with other migrants, and that willhappen with us too.”

I sometimes wonder what happened to that Roma family Isaw every day in the station. One day they were gone. Have they found their wayand has someone offered them a place to stay? Or did they return disappointedto their home country?

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