|PHOTO CAROL SILVERMAN|
Unraveling the Gypsy Myth
Story by Nina Strochlic
Illustrations by Sarah Abadi
At a glance, Morgan Ahern looks nothing like what many would associate with being a Gypsy. Small with a toothy grin, she doesn’t resemble either the mysterious bejeweled Gypsies of Hollywood or the thieving ragged Gypsies of current stereotypes. Yet, Ahern is a proud member of the ethnic group often called Gypsies, though many identify with the less-loaded term, Roma.
The history of the Roma is traced like all those constantly marked as outsiders: measured in discrimination, expulsion, and genocide. Entering a Church-controlled Europe from the Punjab region of India in the middle ages, the Roma were seen as heretics for practicing fortune telling and palmistry. They were believed to be Egyptian and called “Gypsies” for short. Europeans didn’t trust the dark-skinned outsiders and Roma communities adapted to a mobile lifestyle to avoid persecution.
“It was a system that thought the only way to fit in or exist in a culture was to give up anything that made you different,” she says in a thick New York accent. Authorities of New York State claim it was never targeting the Roma, but Ahern doesn’t believe it, saying that non-Roma kids who also weren’t in school in their neighborhood were left alone.
In 1554, being a Gypsy was punishable by death in England. At the same time the Swiss were hunting Roma men, women, and children for sport. A century later, fifteen countries had laws aimed at destroying or deporting Roma communities. The Nazis murdered an estimated half million of Europe’s Roma population during World War II. And as recently as 2010, anti-Roma sentiment erupted in France, as thousands were uprooted and deported to Romania and Bulgaria.
Roma are known as celebrated musicians even in countries actively repressing them. Despite being scattered across Europe and the United States, the Roma’s traditional music, customs, and language have woven tightly formed communities. Subgroups defined by region, traditionalism, language, and occupation make up the complicated cultural puzzle that few gaje, the Romany word for non-Roma, understand. The Kalderash, the largest group in America, specializes in fortune telling and car repair, while other Roma communities are blacksmiths or laborers.
Kristin Raeesi is a master’s student studying communications and language preservation at the University of Wyoming. Growing up, her mother warned her and her sister to say they were Hungarian because people wouldn’t like them if they knew they were Roma.
She followed her mother’s advice when starting new jobs and schools, preferring to tell people she was Greek or Lebanese. Then, during a rebellious streak at age twenty-two, she decided to move in with a traditional group of Roma in Oklahoma. This Roma community was known in town and the women were identifiable by their traditional long skirts.
“Get out of here . . . I know who you are and where you guys live,” the woman screamed. “I’m going to tell the manager that you were trying to steal something.”
Under European Union law, countries are allowed to expel immigrants under certain circumstances, but not for ethnic reasons. The EU Justice Commission threatened legal repercussions against France, until deciding to drop investigations in mid-October after the French government agreed to their treaties. Human rights groups like Amnesty International were outraged over what they saw as vindication for France.
Roma often live in substandard conditions. This house is in the only Roma-majority municipality of Macedonia. PHOTOS COURTESY Carol Silverman
According to Dr. Silverman, when Roma children do enroll in public schools, non-Roma families pull their children out. Soon the school is majority Roma and problems of substandard education persist, though recent efforts in the Czech Republic and Hungary are being made to effectively desegregate schools.
“In the end, the good districts accept [Roma] and those very same kids learn people are people—dark skinned, light skinned, whatever language you speak, whatever culture you have—people are people,” Dr. Silverman says.
In 2008, a survey in Italy found that 81 percent of Italians consider all Roma unlikeable or barely likeable. The same year, hundreds of Roma were forced to flee as young Italian protesters threw Molotov cocktails and burned settlements near Naples.
“Are there police trainings? Are there Roma in textbooks [to teach] about their contribution to European history and culture?” Dr. Silverman asks. “No – the conditions that produce prejudice have hardly changed.”
In largely homogenous societies in Eastern Europe, prejudice against Roma citizens is based on physical appearance. When Monditza Fournier was four years old, she was adopted from an orphanage in Romania and moved to the United States. “In the orphanage she was beaten, not fed, and never held due to being Roma,” her mother, Criss, says. Today Monditza is a senior at the University of Washington.
“It’s hard to watch when a child has to lie about who and what they are to survive,” Criss says.
In the midst of the civil war in 1999, as many as 100,000 Roma fled from Kosovo and dispersed throughout Europe. Recently, the German government decided to send 10,000 Roma refugees back to Kosovo, where instability and minority-focused crime still prevail.