I'm sure with everything going on in the USA with the border crisis that all my readers will assume this article is about South and Central American immigration through the Mexican border.
Since I am currently in Romania, I actually wanted to discuss a contemporary issue taking place here. (Again, apologies for missing any comments at the bottom; I cannot view these on my phone as I travel).
It began in a small town outside Curtea de Arges, Romania. So far on this Eastern European adventure I had not seen any panhandling - a common sight in any town or city in the USA. So I was surprised when a young girl in a long exotic-type skirt put her hand out to me as I was leaving a small grocery. A little boy was with her also. I noted with some surprise that their skin and hair were dark, and they were dressed quite differently than any Romanians (who are predominantly white and modern) I had seen so far. A few days later I saw them again with their mother, who was also wearing a long floral skirt.
That day I ran into a Romanian man inside a church (this would soon prove to be ironic) and he wanted to practice his English. Me being the obnoxious type of traveler I am, I immediately jumped on the chance to interview him as to contemporary issues in his country.
He launched into a rant about the Roma Gypsies and how much he despised them. Somewhat taken aback, I asked him to please explain.
"They are from India, originally. They come here, they refuse to assimilate, they beg and steal. They are dirty and criminals. And now that our borders are open with the EU, they travel to other countries in Europe and they say they are Romanian and it makes us look very bad. They are not Romanian!"
I stared at him, amazed. "This is a contemporary issue? I know it is historically, but you mean to say this is a problem today?"
"Yes, today." He wrinkles his nose in disgust and adds, "They are dark skinned, and wear long skirts. Very dark skin."
I stare at his own dark complexion doubtfully, (he is quite tan and has black hair to boot) and ask him what can be done.
"Eh, God help us," he says with a shrug.
I nod in agreement. "Yes, God help us."
We part ways and I think back to the young girl I saw begging and it hits me that the persecution of the Roma Gypsies is not a historical matter as I had previously thought. I immediately returned to my guest house to plug into the WiFi and research this matter further.
Indeed, I discover that it is all true, and worse.
The Roma Gypsies wandered here between the 6th and 11th centuries out of what is now modern day India and Pakistan. They are called "Roma" or "Romani," and it is very true that Romanians resent the association.
Historically the Gypsies have been quite persecuted. I remember visiting Dacau, Nazi Germany's first concentration camp. Gypsies were some of the first to be rounded up. I remember looking at a memorial, and learning about how the maker of the memorial did not want Gypsies to be included on the list of the ethnic groups targeted for extermination. The memorial was made in the 1970's. This should have been my first clue that such prejudice towards them still exists today.
Photo: Dacau concentration camp memorial, Germany
Thinking of the word "Gypsy," I always thought of it as having a connotation to "Nomad," or "Wanderer." Indeed, I have dressed up as a Gypsy for Halloween before, and have taken compliments from friends for my "Gypsy attitude." But if we look closer, we can also identify the root of the word "Gyp," which is a synonym for "rip-off;" an observation that I have always been aware of to some discomfort. Furthermore, I belong to a world-wide travel Facebook group, GLT (Girls love travel), and in the admin requirements to join the group we are reminded that we are forbidden to use the word "Gypsy," as it is a racial slur. So on some level I suppose I have always been aware of this... I just did not consider that it is still a very current issue.
Roma culture is fascinating. Indeed, they pride themselves on being stateless. They do not claim a Homeland, nor do they want one. They do not recognize the international borders drawn by those who desperately try to portion themselves away from different groups of humankind. Even their concepts of personal ownership are quite fuzzy. Indeed, they live a more authentic existence; wandering at the mercy of the Earth rather than hoarding riches and lands. They are predominantly Christian, and follow the true message of Christ in embracing poverty, and not worrying about tomorrow.
Yet they are, and have been, persecuted beyond belief.
A wandering group of immigrating Roma - Compliments of Wikipedia
In contemporary Romania, a Romani Gypsy child is automatically dumped into "special needs" classes. After around the third grade, it is not uncommon for them to be denied further education. It is exceedingly common for those seeking employment to suffer extreme discrimination in the hiring process, and wage discrimination if they are hired. They are frequently denied housing as well, all based on their race. Indeed, many Roma pretend to be from Spain and pretend they are unable to speak Romanian at all.
When Romania joined the European Union in 2007, the borders opened and then began a crisis of fear - what if the wandering Roma wander into other EU countries and make Romanians look bad? In 2014 the government began a systematic physical eviction of Roma communities and neighborhoods, largely by bulldozing entire neighborhoods and encampments with zero notice, leaving whole families on the street. Some have occupied a house, with documents for some twenty years, yet now they have nowhere. And it is perfectly legal.
This seems so counter productive, and a vicious cycle... If Roma are trying to assimilate better by establishing themselves with housing and seeking employment and education, but they are denied these things, then what are their choices, just to survive? Surely not begging and stealing...
The vicious cycle continues, by extreme nationalism that, as an American, seems all too familiar. Romania has an anti-gay rhetoric, a frightening right-wing group called 'Noua Dreapta,' and plenty of anti-Semitism with a smattering of Holocaust denial on their television broadcasting. Their persecution of the Roma people is simply an afterthought in their infectious racist attitudes.
As Americans, what can we learn from this? If you remove the word "Roma" and substitute with any other ethnic group we look down on in the US, is it interchangeable with our own viewpoint at home? Is this the attitude and mind-set we want to take part in? How far will hatred and fear get us before we recognize that we are only perpetuating the cycle and not solving anything?
Plenty to think about.
If you have twenty minutes to kill, you may enjoy this video on the subject:
Video on Roma evictions, Romania