This weekend, I went to Budapest, Hungary to attend a seminar on issues surrounding the Roma, or Gypsy people. The ten other people there were from Germany, France, Romania, the Netherlands, Spain, Colombia, and Italy, all volunteering, working, or researching in Hungary, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Some were Roma, and some were non-Roma. It was amazing to talk about the Roma with people from so many diverse backgrounds!
Before I came to Europe, I barely knew who the Roma, or Gypsy people were. I had heard of Gypsies, and that always made me think of wagons with a round top, musicians, and traveling people. I didn’t know much more. I learned a lot this weekend about the history and struggles that the Roma have, and would love to share that with you today.
The Roma slowly migrated from India to Europe during the middle ages. Although they likely arrived earlier, the first record of the Roma people in Ukraine/Hungary is around 1428. Some traveled as musicians and performers, and others settled and worked as farmhands and craftsmen. They were not allowed to join the medieval guilds, but they did other things beyond the scope of the guilds in order to find work. They became craftsmen, musicians, and farmers.
Now, the Roma are spread around Europe and throughout the world. The largest minority on the continent, there are many distinct communities with their own dialects and traditions. Physically, some are very dark, but others can have blond hair and blue eyes. It is very hard to describe their culture specifically because there is so much diversity!
One thing that is common within the diversity of the Roma, is the patterns of discrimination, racism, and stereotyping that they experience. Throughout European history, Roma were not allowed to join medieval trade guilds or to settle in certain lands. Sometimes, even begging and working were outlawed. That doesn’t give them many options.
Today, it is not uncommon for non-Roma in Ukraine to call Roma dirty, poor, uneducated, and lazy because they don’t want to work. I noticed that the people who worked less with the Roma often had the harshest stereotypes. I was really shocked when I heard this for the first time, and it still makes me sad to hear it. One of the worst accumulations of the racism and stereotyping was in the Holocaust, when over 500,000 Roma from throughout Europe (including Ukraine) were killed in concentration camps.
In Ukraine, most Roma live in camps that are separate from the villages and cities. Sometimes, there is even a big wall that divides the 100% Roma camp from the 90% non-Roma village. These camps are by far the most impoverished parts of Ukraine. Many of the houses aren’t actually houses with addresses, but more like shacks built with whatever is available.
I said in an earlier post that I work in a segregated Roma school. Does that remind you of anything in US history? Even the first time I went there, I remembered the segregation of schools in the Southern United States, and how that was so connected to challenges of racism and inequality that the United States has struggled with for hundreds of years.
What do you think that this segregation does to the thoughts about Roma and non-Roma? I feel like it makes it easier to make stereotypes about the other people who are labeled as something different from ourselves. Without meaningful interactions and friendships, it’s hard for people to make their own understanding; instead, people rely on stories and generalizations to understand people who are different from them.
One thing that I have been trying to do in Ukraine is try to understand the different stories that people have to tell. I don’t want to come home with just one story. I live in one of the richest neighborhoods in Uzhgorod, but also spend time in orphanages. I teach children who are both Roma and non-Roma. I have spent time with disabled people, religious people, doctors and restaurant cooks. I have friends who are Roma (like Katya from last week!), and friends who are non-Roma.
And you know what’s awesome? They are all simply my friends.
My favorite part of my weekend in Budapest was going to an underground pub and watch a performance by a Romani band. At first, I stood in the back, but within a few minutes a Romani woman had grabbed my hand and pulled me into the middle of the dance floor. They were so excited to teach me about their culture! To conclude, I thought I would share a video of Hungarian-style Roma dance with you.
And fair warning- I am not as good as them!