Thursday, January 20, 2011




Unraveling the Gypsy Myth

Across Europe and the United States a minority remains segregated from mainstream society. The 21st century has brought little improvements to the Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies, who have been fighting discrimination and deeply ingrained stereotypes for centuries.

Story by Nina Strochlic

Illustrations by Sarah Abadi

She wears jeans rather than a flowing ankle-length skirt. Her ears and teeth are devoid of gold adornment. She prefers living in a house to roaming the countryside in a cloth-covered caravan.

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.

In 1955, when Ahern was seven years old, New York authorities raided her family’s community in Brooklyn and removed every school-aged Roma child. Ahern and her brother were taken away from their parents because their traditional homeschooling was considered truancy and child abuse by the state. They were moved to a nearby orphanage. The community crumbled – her parents moved out in an attempt to get custody, but it wasn’t until thirty years later that Ahern found them.

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.

Today, Ahern actively works in Roma rights with a start-up mobile museum near Seattle, but initially, the forced assimilation was a success. Forbidden to speak Romany, the Roma dialect she was raised in, and barred from seeing her family, she lost all ties to her Roma heritage. Ahern lived in orphanages, foster homes, and juvenile institutions for the rest of her childhood.

“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.

Ahern was forty years old when she was reunited with her mother for the first time while crossing a Denver street. As she reached the corner, she turned and so did the woman she had just passed. They walked back into the intersection and the woman called her by her Gypsy name – a traditional name that no one but a mother and child can know. The stranger invited her out for a cup of coffee. Her father and grandmother had since died, but Ahern was reunited with what was left of the family it had taken her thirty years to find.

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.

In response to hundreds of years of attempts at dismantling their culture, most Roma communities remain insular and isolated. Since many outsiders aren’t immersed in, or even aware of, Roma societies, there are ideal conditions for breeding stereotypes. Mainstream media, like the comic strip called “Those Thieving Gypsy Bastards,” does little to dispel beliefs of Roma as thieves and vagabonds, while popular movies, including Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” portray Roma women as scantily clad and promiscuous. In reality, conservative Roma men and women don’t show their legs in public, and discussions of sexuality are strictly forbidden. These misconceptions plague twelve million Roma in Europe and one million in the United States.

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.

While the prejudice may be more deep-seated across the Atlantic, Roma in the United States survive as an invisible group, faced with combating similar stereotypes and ignorance that pin them as uneducated criminals. Today, with the melting pot of ethnicities in the United States, American Roma are much less distinguishable than their European counterparts who are singled out by their dark skin and Indian features.

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.

Raeesi can clearly remember the only time she was taught about her heritage in school – when an elementary school teacher read a Shel Silverstein poem titled “The Gypsies are Coming.” The poem includes the line, “The Gypsies are coming . . . to buy little children and lock them up tight.” Raeesi was stunned. Her family didn’t steal children, she thought.

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.

The first time Raeesi felt anti-Roma prejudice first-hand was in a Tulsa drug store. She was shopping for makeup with one of the other girls when she noticed the shop employee trailing them through each aisle. Shocked, Raeesi confronted the woman, asking why they were being followed.

“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.”

With Roma constantly portrayed as swindlers and thieves, communities are often targeted in criminal investigations. In 2006, Los Angeles Times published a story exposing a group of 800 detectives hailing from across the United States called the National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI). According to the article, the investigators collaborate on monitoring and targeting Roma communities. Executive Director Jon Grow denies allegations that Gypsies are singled out. “No group has an exclusive right to commit any certain type of crime, but some crimes are more prevalent within certain groups,” he says. “Some crimes we look at Gypsies do, but we don’t classify anything as Gypsy crimes.”

Confrontations are more prevalent when she divulges her heritage or in places with an obvious Roma presence, Raeesi says. When she tried to apply for a minority scholarship, she was told she couldn’t because the Roma weren’t a real ethnic group. She fought back and was later granted the award. Recently, a fellow graduate student told Raeesi that she wasn’t like the Gypsies in her native Romania who are all dirty and uneducated. Later, a student presenting on Gypsy music in one of her classes blatantly stated that all Roma are primitive and without a real culture.

Raeesi is currently working with Voice of Roma, a social justice group, to launch a school for Roma children in California. In the Roma communities of the United States, many parents chose to keep their children out of school as a measure to preserve their culture from outside influences. Since Roma history and traditions are virtually absent from lessons and textbooks, conservative Roma families feel mainstream education has no relevance, Raeesi says.

She has been discussing plans for a new school with the communities and is hopeful that parents will feel more comfortable when they know which subjects are taught and who the teachers are. “There was an indication that people are starting to realize the value of education and what it can give you because traditional ways of making a living are getting more difficult,” Raeesi says.

The Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, but also the poorest, with a poverty rate about ten times higher and a life expectance ten to fifteen years shorter than the average European citizen. Despite living in Europe for almost a thousand years, Roma are still seen as outsiders and prejudice remains deeply ingrained across the continent. What distinguishes their situation is that compared to those living around them, Roma communities have seen little improvement in social conditions through the centuries.

Segregation tactics prevail across Europe. Roma populations are pushed further into the fringes while suffering constant discrimination, police brutality, and poverty. Since Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, thousands of Roma fleeing from persecution or searching for work and decent living conditions continue to travel from Eastern Europe to Italy, Germany, and France. The large number of immigrants has embittered many citizens of these countries who have been taught to fear the Roma.

New migrants form ramshackle communities outside large cities where social services are barely existent and outsiders routinely and indiscriminately abuse residents. Government authorities perceive crime and unemployment in Roma camps as irremediable ethnic problems and use them to justify the separation rather than amend it. Cities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have walled-off sections of towns to segregate Roma occupants.

To combat this influx of Roma, governments across Europe instated mass deportations. Thousands have been kicked out of Germany, Italy, and France in the past two years under policies that equate eliminating Roma to eliminating crime. In July 2010, an internal police document explicitly singled out Roma communities in France as the focus of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s crackdown on illegal workers. Sarkozy ordered 300 Roma camps to be dismantled and their residents sent back to their homelands, claiming the deportations as a measure to decrease illegal activity.

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.

Covert anti-Roma activities have been occurring for years under government auspices across Europe. Popular stereotypes have extremely negative implications for Roma communities, who are often targeted under discriminatory legislation.

Roma typically have large families because their culture puts a strong emphasis on children. During the communist period in Czechoslovakia, Gypsies were considered inferior and it was state policy to sterilize the women in an attempt to curb their population. Illiterate Roma women being treated in hospitals for other medical issues were told to sign papers guaranteeing better care, only to wake up and discover they had been sterilized. As recently as 2008, doctors trying to independently curb what many consider “the Gypsy problem” continued to sterilize unknowing Czech Roma women, according to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC).

Roma often live in substandard conditions. This house is in the only Roma-majority municipality of Macedonia. PHOTOS COURTESY Carol Silverman

Gaping disparities in education have kept European Roma communities in the grasp of inescapable poverty for decades. Many children enter the school system without fluency in the national language, since they were raised in their Romany dialect. An enormous percentage get placed in classes for the learning disabled and kept there for the rest of their education. In some regions of the Czech Republic, 50 percent of Roma children are put into schools for students with learning disabilities. In neighboring Slovakia, Roma children constitute 85 percent of the students in classes for the mentally disabled in mainstream schools, even though they only make up 10 percent of the country’s population. In October, the United Nations reported that 50 percent of Roma children in Europe do not finish elementary school.

Professor Carol Silverman, head of the University of Oregon’s Anthropology Department, is a small woman with cropped hair. She has been working and living with Roma communities across Europe and the United States for the past thirty years.

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.

In the camps, Roma are not only abused by outside citizens, but are often victims of police profiling and receive unusually harsh sentencing. According to Dr. Silverman, there have been multiple cases of Roma taken into police custody and never returning.

“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.

Growing up, Criss strived to educate her daughter on her Roma heritage, but neither was prepared for their first return to Romania in 2007. Criss had been warned of possible discrimination against her daughter, but was shocked by the widespread hatred also apparent in Italy and Croatia. She recalls hearing cruel comments toward Monditza, watched people spit at her feet, was forced to move to different tables in restaurants, pushed off benches in the airports, and thrown out of upper-class eateries. Monditza says she was baffled until one Romanian woman told her she was easily identifiable by her facial features and recommended she tell others she was Indian to avoid discrimination.

“It’s hard to watch when a child has to lie about who and what they are to survive,” Criss says.

Although they don’t have a centralized political leadership, European Roma have formed a handful of human rights organizations over the past decades. The largest of these is the ERRC, the Hungary-based watchdog group monitoring and assisting with Roma issues across the continent.

Catherine Twigg, the ERRC’s communications officer, says they have been investigating legalities of the situation in France. By singling out Roma as an ethnic group in the expulsions, the group believes Sarkozy’s government should face legal retribution. “From the evidence gathered so far, [the expulsions] seem to violate national and European law, as well as international human rights obligations,” Twigg says.

According to Twigg, conditions of the Roma aren’t being improved because politicians are more likely to blame them for naturally being lazy, prone to criminality, and uninterested in school, than to recognize the obstacles and lack of opportunities the group faces. Public figures and media outlets follow the same path – constantly portraying Roma as swindlers and thieves. When these stereotypes are seen as natural to the Roma as an ethnic group, problems and substandard conditions are ignored or written off. Today, the theory that crime, poverty, and unemployment are natural to the Roma leads to serious marginalization by political powers in Europe.

For decades, the media has largely ignored thousands of Roma deported from France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries. This time, international focus is on France as Sarkozy legitimizes already pervasive stereotypes by putting the Roma at the center of his hard-on-crime platform.

“It’s getting the press now in France because it’s part of Sarkozy’s political campaign, and actually getting a lot of support . . . whereas in Germany, just ordinary Roma were [taken] from small communities, put on planes, and sent back to Kosovo,” Dr. Silverman says of the deportation coverage.

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.

After vowing to deport illegal residents in July 2010, French authorities began fingerprinting all Roma, including children, to ensure they couldn’t return. Two years earlier, Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy declared a state of emergency to enact the same eviction tactic, backing down only after sharp criticism from the European Union. That year, a former mayor of Rome claimed the Roma are responsible for 75 percent of the city’s crime.

Social progress for the Roma is slow but powerful. From school assimilation efforts in the Czech Republic to the media focus on deportations in France, every victory counts. In order for social and economic improvement to begin, stereotypes about the underrepresented group need to be unraveled. “We aren’t just traveling in wagons and reading palms—some people do that, but you can’t just pigeonhole everybody,” Raeesi says. “Just like you wouldn’t say that all Jewish or Muslim people are the same. We are not all the same either.”

Only once negative connotations no longer pervade their name in mainstream society will the Roma be able to build themselves out of poverty and live as equals. With many European and American Roma afraid to admit to their ethnicity, the first steps are the most personal. Raeesi still remembers the first time she heard her mom tell someone she was Roma. “I think she sees that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” Raeesi says. “It doesn’t have to be something you’re ashamed of.”


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the press, Morgan! Another great article!

Morgan said...

Thanks for your kind words and support. It's always good to hear from you.