“Romani are so very strong,” Papu told me once. “We carry the rest of the world on our shoulders without any complaint, yet they are always telling us we must do better!”
People have repeatedly asked me for more clarification regarding why I support the European Roma Institute (ERI) and thinking about it, I realized it comes down to one very simply idea:
Whenever I look at news articles, research, academic, or white papers about Romani in Europe a theme very quickly becomes apparent – simply put, the Gypsy Problem. Decades after World War II and the havoc of the Holocaust, we’re still addressed as something wrong; as a problem that needs fixed.
When I was six, my teachers said that the Gypsy kids in her class were a problem. We were disruptive, dirty, animals and we were moved into a different classroom, without fancy desks, books, or crayons . When I was ten, my grandparents were evicted from their house in the middle of winter. The landlord said that we were problematic for his other tenants.
So much time is spent looking at what is wrong with us – our lack of education, lack of literacy, lack of basic human rights – always what is missing, what is lacking. When people try to help us, they set up foundations and missions and programmes aimed at fixing these perceived deficits. We are seen as a people full of holes, a people lacking some kind of basic humanity.
Whenever Romani come along and try to speak up about how we feel, our lives, what we would like to see in the groups, programmes, and institutes that help us – we are consistently and continually denied a voice. Even here on my blog, I have been challenged vociferously on my opinions as a Romani woman. By default, my opinion falls short, is less, is … problematic.
I am tired of people only looking at what is wrong with us and not what is strong with us.
As far as I’ve seen, the ERI is different in this:
The “European Roma Institute” (ERI) is proposed as an independent organization with the mission of increasing the self-esteem of Roma and decreasing negative prejudice of the majority towards the Roma by means of arts, culture, history, and media. Romani people do not possess an international institutional framework for preserving and developing a positive self-image that can be set against negative stereotyping and prejudice. Drawing on the power of culture and the rich history of Romani contributions to European culture, ERI will fill this gap.
Romani history and culture doesn’t just include the tangible (and often stereotypical) – the language, dances, food, music, clothing, and so on – it is so much more than that. There are many writers and artists of Romani heritage who create works rooted in our culture and history, even if those works are not about our culture or history; there are Romani teachers, doctors, lawyers, police officers, and many others who bring our culture and history with them on their journeys. There are academics who not only teach, but also write about our lives, carrying us with them on their own paths through the world.
Romani have overcome many difficulties – slavery, forced assimilation and sterilization, attempted genocide, pogroms, and ghettoization. These things are not things that are wrong with Romani, but things that have made us strong.
My grandmother was born into poverty. She lived her life in a constant state of loss – of place, of people, of history. To the non-Romani world around her, she was a poor, dirty beggar woman with too many kids and not enough money. She was seen as a woman lacking language (she was illiterate); a woman lacking self-control (she had a lot of kids – some her own, some she raised for others); a woman lacking money (she had no job, she had no education); a woman lacking humanity (she was seen as an animal, a rat, a cockroach, a pest); and as a woman lacking morality.
To them, she was nothing.
To us, she was the very essence of matriarch – she always provided food, caring, support, and warmth. She gave us everything even when she went hungry or cold. She could speak five different languages (Romani, English, French, German, and Slovak) and debate complex issues with even the most stubborn men.
To us, she was everything.
It seems all I ever hear about Romani is that there’s something wrong with us.
I respectfully disagree.
We’re not wrong.