It’s all Greek to me

Oct 22, 2013 by

With the recent case of alleged child abduction by a Roma couple in Greece, it has become even more [painfully] obvious that European political agendas have no space for “integration” of the Roma.

In Slovakia [my home country], in the town of Košice, sits Lunik IX – one of the world’s largest (and most abjectly poor) Romani ghettos. Families there live in dangerously dilapidated houses filled with toxic mold; with crumbling walls, lead paint, and no heat or electricity; diseases flourish, spread by rats and toxic waste.

Water is available a few hours a day and is organized by Slovakian police

Water is available a few hours a day and is organized by Slovakian police – Photo © Michael Biach

The Greek child, “Maria” as case workers have called her, was found, according to Smile of the Child spokesman Panagiotis Pardalis, “amid bad living conditions, poor hygiene.” It strikes me as ironic that police and charity workers are using the living conditions at the Farsala camp as proof that Maria was abducted. Conditions in most Roma camps consist of “bad living conditions, poor hygiene”. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights, within Europe as a whole, one in three Roma are unemployed and 90% live below the poverty line. Even harsher figures are provided by the European Romani Rights Centre (ERRC) who stated in a 2010 report that, “of approximately 265,000 Roma living in Greece, a large proportion live in 52 improvised and dangerous tent encampments while most others reside in poorly constructed dwellings lacking access to basic services such as electricity, water, and waste removal” (ERRC submission to UN UPR on Greece, p.3). Not only that but, “ill-treatment of Roma by police is widespread throughout Greece” (p.4).

Yet, the case of little “Maria” is being heralded as a substantiation of “child stealing lying Gypsy” stereotypes. There has been no question of why [armed] police repeatedly raided Romani camps and why Maria was removed simply for being blonde. There are many blonde-haired, blue-eyed Roma out there, none of whom are marched away by the police because they are “strikingly different” or as Fox News reporter Greg Palkot stated, “look nothing like [their] Gypsy parents”.

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A blonde-haired, blue-eyed Romani girl listens as she sits in the Lunik IX Kindergarten.

Our populations are diasporas; despite being thrown under the label “Gypsy”, we are not one solid homogenous group. We have fractured and rolled away in different directions, like marbles tumbling out of a jar. We didn’t all leave India at the same time and we didn’t all suffer the same fates on our long journeys. Some groups (but not all) were enslaved in Wallachia and Moldavia (present-day Romania), though nearly all groups were targeted during WWII. War and historical practices of forced assimilation throughout Europe (marriages with non-Romani, rape, and forced sterilization) have all left their mark on our genetic code. Nevertheless, it is possible to ascertain – to a limited degree – whether an individual has a connection to the Roma through genetic testing.

However, according to Kaladjieva, Gresham, and Calafell (2001), “Post-war genetic research has been preoccupied with the Indian origins of the Roma, pursuing the “Indian connection” even in studies meant to focus on severe genetic disorders. Many publications display judgmental and paternalistic attitudes, that would be considered unacceptable if used with regard to other populations” (Genetic studies of the Roma (Gypsies): a review).

Despite the ability to test for Romani DNA, “Maria” was only tested to see if she was related to the people she was found with. It seems as though the Greek authorities have already made up their mind, as have the rest of the world:

“A Greek appeal for help in identifying the girl has triggered a global outpouring of sympathy and tips — over 8,000 calls so far” (Fox News website). Regardless of whether the Romani couple took Maria in to their care or something more insidious, it is clear to see that this global outpouring of sympathy is only because “Maria” is white. In fact, some news reports go as far as calling her a “blonde angel” and alleging that she is from Scandinavia (another hideous stereotype).

Romani children live in such terrible conditions throughout the world. Lunik IX is simply the largest and most visible of these abjectly poor settlements. The Greek encampment of Farsala is likely just as bad, but there is no “outpouring” of concern for the Romani children living there – only the blonde-haired, blue-eyed white child. In fact, a 2010 study from the University of Toronto-Scarborough found that the human brain fires differently when showing empathy to people outside of one’s own race, something that has been utilized in Colonial policy all over the world.

This research, conducted by social neuroscientists at U of T Scarborough, explored the sensitivity of the “mirror-neuron-system” to race and ethnicity. The researchers had study participants view a series of videos while hooked up to electroencephalogram (EEG) machines. The participants – all white – watched simple videos in which men of different races picked up a glass and took a sip of water. They watched white, black, South Asian and East Asian men perform the task.

Typically, when people observe others perform a simple task, their motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the task themselves. However, the UofT research team, led by PhD student Jennifer Gutsell and Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Inzlicht, found that participants’ motor cortex was significantly less likely to fire when they watched the visible minority men perform the simple task. In some cases when participants watched the non-white men performing the task, their brains actually registered as little activity as when they watched a blank screen. “The so-called mirror-neuron-system is thought to be an important building block for empathy by allowing people to ‘mirror’ other people’s actions and emotions; our research indicates that this basic building block is less reactive to people who belong to a different race than you,” says Inzlicht.

Non-white people are so often dehumanized by media and politics alike. This is especially true for the Roma, who are left as animals, deserving to live on the edges of humanity. People are immune to our suffering. This story, of little Maria, illustrates this in quite a distressing way. But, what does this say about our current tenuous position in Europe and what effect will the prosecution of this Romani couple have throughout Greece and the rest of the world?

Already I have witnessed a rise in white-power, neo-Nazi hate-mongering with articles such as this one claiming that, “Social workers believe that the gypsies planned to use her to beg on the streets, until she was old enough to work as a whore, which would make sense, as this is what they generally do with their own daughters”. Not only that, but “This story, heart-breaking as it is, does well to highlight the absolute ridiculousness of having parasitical nonwhites living in our countries.  They do not care how generous we are with them, they will continue to do any diabolical thing they can think up, including harming our children”.

Far-right parties such as Golden Dawn and Jobbik have been on the rise, with attempted pogroms in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and renewed calls for forced evictions of all Roma (especially in France, Italy, and Greece). Relaxed laws governing freedom of travel throughout Europe – particularly from Romania and Bulgaria – have met with harsh opposition from countries such as the UK, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands who claim that Roma from these countries will pour forth simply to abuse the social system and draw social benefits “without a genuine entitlement”.

The media furor about this case has drawn world-wide attention and provided ammunition to far right, neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist and other anti-immigrant and racist groups. However, guilt on the part of the Romani parents has NOTbeen established. Despite that fact, another blonde-haired Romani child was removed from her parents on Monday, in Dublin, Ireland. “Police had been told by a member of the public that a six or seven-year-old girl was living with a large Roma family and looked nothing like any of her siblings. They saw a number of children, including the seven-year-old girl who has blonde hair and blue eyes. The parents told police the child was their daughter, but officers were not satisfied with the explanation nor with the documents that were produced” (BBC News).

I am DEFINITELY with the ERRC, who urge:

We ask the media to act responsibly in reporting the situation, especially as the full facts of the original case have still not been established. The ERRC is aware of at least one report from Serbia where skinheads tried to take away a two-year old boy from his parents because he was “not as dark as his parents”. Irresponsible reporting could have severe, negative consequences for Roma families across Europe” (ERRC, via ROMEA)

2 Comments

  1. Mrozek

    You are brilliant!

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