The Roma: An Ancient Culture Still Struggling for Respect

Today is International Roma Day.

Now, that may mean little (or nothing) to my Jamaican readers. But perhaps I can illustrate this with a childhood memory or two.

When I was young, I remember being at Waterloo Station in London. We were on the way to the south coast, I believe. I remember being fascinated by a big woman with skin like mahogany, wearing voluminous black clothing. She looked very old. I thought she might be some kind of magic person (I lived in a world of fairytales, at that age). I remember she was speaking a language I did not understand.

That was in the city. Near my grandmother’s house in the country, there was a lovely roadside spot with tall trees. I was always curious about the people who lived in caravans there (they even had the old-fashioned kind, with horses). They fascinated me. They looked different. Sometimes they just disappeared. Then they returned, perhaps a few weeks later. They lit fires. In the orderly, rather dull middle-class world in which I lived, their regular appearances were extraordinary, exciting and mysterious. I invented lots of romantic stories about them.

These are the kind of "gypsy caravans" I remember seeing as a child. In England, Roma people are often called "travelers" - a term many Roma dislike.  (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
These are the kind of “gypsy caravans” I remember seeing as a child. In England, Roma people are often called “travelers” – a term many Roma dislike. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

But I was told not to go near any of these people. They were regarded with fear and suspicion. They were “gypsies.” They were different. They were thieves and criminals. They were dirty. They had too many children. They had their own religion and a language we did not understand.

Many Romani people live in great poverty and are subject to mass evictions and tremendous harassment by right-wing groups in several countries. This photo is of a Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, taken by Boja Vasic.
Many Romani people live in great poverty and are subject to mass evictions and tremendous harassment by right-wing groups in several countries. This photo is of a Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, taken by Boja Vasic.

Yes, the “gypsies” were truly living outside of society; they were ostracized and they were discriminated against. They were not allowed into the local shop, and “respectable” people would never allow them inside their homes. This was the attitude decades ago; but many Roma (as they are officially named) are still fighting discrimination and living in poverty. According to Amnesty International, “Numbering between 10 and 12 million people, the Roma are one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minorities.” They live in 38 countries. The majority live in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain and Russia, according to the European Union (EU).

French police inspect an illegal Roma camp in Aix-en-Provence to control and check the identity of its residents on August 19, 2010. France sent dozens of Roma home on flights to Bucharest on Thursday in the first mass repatriation since President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a crackdown on crime and immigration with the dismantling of some 300 illegal camps that has been condemned by rights groups. Some 60 Roma left on a chartered plane from Lyon and about a dozen boarded a flight from Paris, the first wave of transfers in a campaign to send 700 people living in squalid camps across France back to Romania and Bulgaria by the end of the month.  REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson  (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS)
French police inspect an illegal Roma camp in Aix-en-Provence to control and check the identity of its residents on August 19, 2010. France has deported hundreds of Roma people since President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a crackdown on crime and immigration with the dismantling of some 300 illegal camps that was condemned by rights groups. The eviction of Roma communities has continued in France since 2010; last year hundreds were evicted from a camp in Lille. (REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson)
There are over 300,000 Roma people in Bulgaria. (Photo: BGNES)
There are over 300,000 Roma people in Bulgaria. (Photo: BGNES)

International Roma Day was officially declared in 1990 in Serock, Poland, the site of the fourth World Romani Congress of the International Romani Union (IRU).On April 8th 1971, the first World Romani Congress was held in Oprington, near London. The day highlights the plight of many marginalized Romani communities – but also celebrates their rich culture and traditions.

Roma families like the Baloghs have left Hungary in droves in the hope of finding freedom from persecution in Canada. Claudia Balogh, middle, hugs a relative, as her husband Miklos, left, looks on in their home in Budapest on Oct. 22, 2012. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images for CBC)
Roma families like the Baloghs have left Hungary in droves in the hope of finding freedom from persecution in Canada. Claudia Balogh, middle, hugs a relative, as her husband Miklos, left, looks on. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images for CBC)
International Roma Day.
International Roma Day.

So who are the Roma?

They are an ancient people. According to academic studies, the Roma originally came from India. The roots of the Romani language are there; and recent genetic studies also show they moved from north-west India around 1,500 years ago, eventually settling in the Balkans in the 12th century. In several countries, they became slaves or serfs of one sort or another during medieval times. From the 19th century onwards, large groups of Roma migrated to North and even to South America. Nazi Germany systematically persecuted the Roma; along with Jews, homosexuals, black people and those with disabilities, they were sent to concentration camps. Up to 1.5 million Romas are estimated to have been killed during this period. They did not fare well under Communist regimes either, however, with forced sterilization a common practice.

Romani children in Romania.
Romani children in Romania.
Roma carry their possessions through the village of Gyongyospata, eastern Hungary, in 2011 after a far-right vigilante group set up a training camp near their homes. (Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press)
Roma carry their possessions through the village of Gyongyospata, eastern Hungary, in 2011 after a far-right vigilante group set up a training camp near their homes. (Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press)

Although originally Hindu, and adhering to some Hindu family practices to this day, most Roma today are Muslims or Christians. It’s all quite mixed up though, depending on the country they live in. Romani people are very musical and greatly influenced many forms of European music over the centuries; they are famous for their wedding music, too. The Spanish flamenco musical form is actually Roma music.

Roman Catholic Roma and Sinti people (Sinti are related to the Roma) play during a pilgrimage in Germany.
Roman Catholic Roma and Sinti people (Sinti are related to the Roma) play during a pilgrimage in Germany.
Christian gypsies during the pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries de la Mer, France. Many Romani communities today are Muslims. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
Christian gypsies during the pilgrimage at Saintes-Maries de la Mer, France. Many Romani communities today are Muslims. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement for International Roma Day, today (at least one million Roma live in the United States). Here it is:

Today of all days, all the American people are particularly thinking of the Roma around the world. We celebrate the rich Romani culture and contributions to our societies in Europe, the United States, and beyond. We also renew our commitment to remove the obstacles that keep millions of Roma on the margins of society and prevent them from realizing their full potential.

We each have a responsibility to speak out against hateful anti-Roma rhetoric and all forms of violence, wherever they occur. We must help provide Romani communities the opportunities they need to build a better future for their families.

The United States will continue to work with our European and international partners to promote tolerance, dignity, and equal treatment for all Roma.

A Romani woman walks on a street in France.
A Romani woman walks on a street in France.

Modern-day Roma continue to fight for the rights of their people. Magda Matache, who heads an NGO that defends the rights of Roma, observes: “I think the role of activists, but also of society, is to find the means to help those who lost hope and fell below the level of human dignity, in order to regain equality, so that, one day, we, the Roma, shall all feel and understand that expressing and giving continuity to our identity makes us honorable.” 

These comments, of course, could apply to many marginalized minority groups. A healthy democracy is not about the will of the majority; it is about how we protect our minorities and support diversity.

The Roma are a proud people whose often tragic past has been one of struggle for respect and dignity. Let’s hope for a better future for them.

Magda Matache, the Executive Director of Romani CRISS, an NGO that defends the rights of the Roma, notes: "I think the role of activists, but also of society, is to find the means to help those who lost hope and fell below the level of human dignity, in order to regain equality, so that, one day, we, the Roma, shall all feel and understand that expressing and giving continuity to our identity makes us honourable."
Magda Matache, Executive Director of Romani CRISS, an NGO that defends and promotes the rights of the Roma as full European Union citizens.

 


13 thoughts on “The Roma: An Ancient Culture Still Struggling for Respect

  1. I vaguely recall, from the hazy, sun-drenched images of my earliest memories, meeting a Roma girl my age (4? 5?) when my parents had stopped off somewhere on our way home. This was in Ireland at the end of the 1970’s.
    We played a bit and got along in that wordless way of children and, after a while, she took me to meet her family. They lived in one of those curved caravans you have a picture of above. I was thrilled (a little shy) and awed at such a singular home and way of life. After a while I excused myself, worried that I’d be in trouble with my parents for wandering off without telling them, but I never forgot the experience. It was in sharp contrast to the slightly sinister, grubby-faced gypsy children knocking on the car windows and asking for money in car-parks, that I was more accustomed to.

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    1. Yes, I was truly fascinated by the Roma as a girl, and found them romantic, I suppose. All the grown-ups around me were disapproving and kept me away from them, but that of course made them even more interesting (I was a rebel even at a young age I think!) Because they have such low status (if any at all) in society today, they have acquired a sort of “outlaw” status, which is so sad. And reduced to begging, as you mentioned…

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  2. thank you for all of this history, the time it took you to find photos (and give credits, thankyou again!) and share this story with us.    not all of the photos came through this slow connections, but enough did to show those beautiful faces and the equally-beautiful souls that radiated through.

    the roma.  may they cling to their heritage and stand proudly as others embrace them for their rightful place on our planet.

    z

    ________________________________

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    1. You are so welcome! I know you have slow Internet but am happy you were able to see some of the photos. I tried to select them carefully and always try to give credits. I know you believe in that and it is important. I really hope that one day the Roma will be embraced as members of the human family.

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    1. Thanks Catherine! I realize looking back that the Roma have been persecuted for hundreds of years in different ways, and it still continues today. The rise of these right-wing groups in Europe is frightening.

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