“The only thing Balkan people agree on is their hatred for the Roma.”
Senada Sali works for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an organization that uses advocacy and strategic litigation to combat discrimination against Roma people. Sali is a Roma woman and a practicing Muslim from Macedonia. Her community once specialized in horse-trading, but today Sali does legal work using her college degree.
The Roma are Central and Eastern Europe’s largest ethnic minority. They are also one of its most persecuted. Colloquially referred to as “gypsies” for their supposed Egyptian heritage, the Roma are a heterogeneous ethnic group without a single common language, religion, or cultural tradition.
“The Roma don’t really work in circuses or magic shows like the stereotype goes,” Sali said in an interview with The Politic. “Our community is very divided.”
Sali explained to me that although she is Roma and Muslim, many other Roma communities belong to different faiths. In addition to religious diversity, Sali said that the languages spoken by Roma communities also vary by region.
In Sali’s view, a history fraught with oppression is the only real explanation for modern Roma communities’ economic and social disadvantages.
Sali used the example of language to explain how Roma communities throughout the world have been persecuted. “In Spain, they don’t speak the Romani language,” she said. “The Romani language was banned there, and if you were heard speaking it, you would have your tongue cut off. The Roma there speak a language called Calo instead.”
Calo is a blend of Spanish, Portuguese and traditional Romani. It was originally used as a method of discreet communication between Iberian Roma people to avoid being punished by the Spanish authorities. The root of the language’s name is the Romani word kalo, which means “black” or “absorbing all light.”
“It is called ‘black’ because of its black history,” Sali said.
Many attribute this diversity to policies of forced assimilation in the societies where Roma people settled. Roma communities are vulnerable to discrimination because of their statelessness. Starting in the early 12th century, Roma people began migrating from the region that is now India into the Balkans. The first historically recorded meeting between Europeans and the Roma was documented by an Irish monk who referred to the Roma as “the descendants of Cain,” likely for their dark skin.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Roma were often serfs and slaves in feudal societies. In the 16th century, nomadic Roma communities were expelled from countries like Germany and France. In some other nations they were subject to ethnic cleansing. In an extreme example, Roma women living in Bohemia had their ears severed as a mark of their ethnic identity. Roma were still enslaved in Romania until the late 1800s.
Severe socioeconomic inequalities persist in societies where Roma live today.
“The racist narrative against the Roma necessarily ignores history,” Sali argued.
Many Roma settlements have high unemployment, unpaved roads, and unreliable access to health services and running water.
“The stereotype goes that we are impure, that we do not wash ourselves. But it is hard to wash yourself when you do not have running water,” Sali said. “And it is impossible to get a job if you do not wash yourself.”
The Roma’s struggles are a stark reminder of the continued human rights abuses that take place in Europe. Many suffer from housing discrimination, segregation, police brutality, inadequate access to education and health services, and racial stereotyping.
Instead of addressing these rights violations, many governments in Europe have a paternalistic approach to the Roma.
“One form of social control governments use is taking away Roma children,” Sali explained. “They say that Roma families cannot take care of them.”
In Central European countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, Roma children are often funneled into “special” schools. From the outset, many Roma children receive a low-quality education designed for children with learning disabilities. The ERRC has contested this systematic discrimination before the European Court of Human Rights, but to little avail.
Because international courts have few enforcement mechanisms, court rulings in favor of the Roma do not guarantee progress.
“If the political will is not there, then you have to sue,” Adam Weiss of the ERRC explained to me. “But even if you sue, change does not happen.”
Gwendolyn Albert is an American living in the Czech Republic and a prominent Roma rights advocate. One of her priorities is securing compensation for the Roma women in the country who were sterilized without their consent. Her efforts thus far have been unsuccessful.
“In my opinion it is because the anti-Romani sentiment is so high that things that may sound like justice are not seen that way,” explained Albert “Justice is seen like something extra.”
“We provide adult education for people who didn’t complete primary school,” said Fruzsina Soskuti, a volunteer at Bagazs. “Because that’s often a qualification required for work, or a driver’s license.”
One mother said that she values her daughter’s education and wants to set a positive example by finishing primary school herself.
“My parents had to work, and I had to stay home and take care of my siblings.” she explained. “I didn’t finish school.”
While at Bagazs, we had the chance to speak with two eighth-grade girls, Jaqueline (15) and Barbie (14), about the challenges confronting their community. One common issue is school discrimination.
Segregation is particularly rampant in Hungary, where school choice is considered a natural right. By law, parents can choose to send their children to schools that are removed from their immediate district.
Through a translator, Barbie told us how she has had to stand up for herself against unfair treatment from teachers. Despite many systemic issues with Hungarian education, however, Barbie’s best friend is a non-Roma.
An unidentified man (shown with his son) asked us, “Do minorities in the United States live like this?”
The Open Society Fund in Bucharest focuses on providing inclusive education for citizens in the country.
“These days, if you want to gain some political points, you can attack the Roma. You don’t help them,” reflected Stephen.
Stephen commented that school segregation relies on Roma people being labeled as disabled.“One-third of students diagnosed with mental disabilities in Czechia are Roma children. This is statistically improbable.”
Roma frequently experience housing discrimination. They face inflated rents and community segregation. This is a product of the lingering stereotype that the Roma are lazy and even dangerous.
“I know about [these stereotypes] because every Czech knows,” explained Martin (right). “People think the Roma are violent, they rob you, they will harm you, they take advantage of social welfare, and they don’t want to work,” he continued.
These stereotypes are fueled by the high rate of unemployment within the Roma community, largely due to discriminatory hiring practices.
Images contributed by Megan McQueen and Lisa Qian.