Another voice: looking into the history of the Roma.

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.

Before coming to Europe, the image of gypsy people in a covered wagon was the stereotype I had in my head. In reality, a majority of the Roma have settled in the past several hundred years.

Before coming to Europe, the image of gypsy people in a covered wagon was the stereotype I had in my head. In reality, a majority of the Roma have settled in the past several hundred years.

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!

This map shows the dates when the Roma people were first mentioned by area. Photo published by the Council of Europe.

This map shows the dates when the Roma people were first mentioned by area. They generally migrated from modern day Turkey in a north-west direction. Photo by the Council of Europe.

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.

This is a picture of a Roma camp taken by a member of the TOUCH project. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to visit one, but I intend to do so before I leave.

This is a picture of a Roma camp taken by a member of the TOUCH project. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to visit one, but I intend to do so before I leave.

Here are two Roma girls who live in a camp. Although they look dirty, it's important to ask if it is their choice, or due to unequal access to water, showers, and soap.

Here are two Roma girls who live in a camp. Although they look dirty, it’s important to ask if it is their choice, or due to unequal access to water, showers, and soap. Photo by the TOUCH Project

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.

This is a picture from Public School #14. Although it is not technically a Roma school, the children are almost 100% Roma.

This is a picture from Public School #14. Although it is not technically a Roma school, the children are almost 100% Roma.

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.

This is a picture of me teaching colors to children at the Roma school during a coloring assignment.

This is a picture of me teaching colors to children at the Roma school during a coloring assignment. All of the children were interested, thoughtful, and we had a great time together. Photo by Bill Smart.

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!

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9 comments

  1. Navigators · · Reply

    Hi this is Erica,Brittny,Camryn and Jake.We loved the video of the dance a lot, it looked like fun! How long did it take for them to keep up with rhythm of the music? Are there more Roma camps in other places?

    1. Yes! There are Roma camps scattered throughout Europe. They are mostly set outside cities. In Uzhgorod, I know of at least three camps although there may be more. Some of them are small, some of them are very large. I am not sure how long it takes them to learn that style of dance, but I know that they learn it from a very young age. Even six and seven year olds are very good!

  2. Navigators · · Reply

    Are there more Roma camps in other places now? Sorry this is still Erica’s group mad we forgot to ask specifically about camps now.

  3. Navigators · · Reply

    Hi Sydney! It is us: Sophia, Travis, Miguel, Daniel and Bobby. We like this post about the Romas or gypsies as we now call them. Discrimination is horrible but I guess it’s nothing new. Why are Roma’s called gypsies now? Thanks for the awesome blog! 🙂

    1. Even though discrimination has been happening for a long time, do you think there are ways to change it? It would take a lot of hard work! “Roma” and “gypsy” are both used today and have been used for a long time. I have heard that “gypsy” can sometimes be a slightly more negative term (although some disagree), and so I sometimes try to use that term more just in case.

  4. Navigators :v · · Reply

    Hello Sydney 😀 It’s Lisa, Taj, Angela, and T’Qwan here~ Is there a program or organization helping Romas? Why are they called gypsies? Thank you for the pictures and video. :3 It looks fun! Maybe you could show us YOU dancing :> We are looking onto finding a way to sponsor a child from the orphanage right now.

    1. Hah! I don’t think you want to see me dance! There are many organizations throughout Europe that try to help the Roma in different ways, including trying to change laws, or trying to help them get education, housing or employment. That is a great question- I am not sure where the term “gypsy” comes from… you should do some research and report back to me!

  5. Explorers · · Reply

    It’s Duy, Sang Elizabeth and Aunica again! We loved the dance, we have a little different types of dances, Duy brake dances, Elizabeth use to do ballet Sang can’t dance and Aunica belly dances. All though, Roma dances have a lot of foot work and must be really hard. Why are the Roma called Gypsy? Also, how long do you think it takes a to learn that type of dance? I don’t think Roma should be called mean things and be respect by everybody and not be discriminated. Respect others and respect yourself.

    1. Wow! You guys are really talented! Thanks for sharing. Many of the kids learn that style of dance from a very young age from their family. I have met 6 year olds who have already mastered the basics of this style, so I think it is very ingrained in their culture. I agree that the Roma should not be called things like that; it is definitely an example to learn from!

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