It was one of those bright, searing summer days. I stood with my Bibi below the treeline on a hill somewhere north of Vyšný Tvarožec, looking towards Poland. I was young, six or seven, and it was the last time I ever visited the places my family were from. “There used to be houses here,” she said, her eyes filling. “Most people wouldn’t call them that. They had no doors and no windows, but they kept out the rain.” She sat down suddenly, her legs unable to hold the weight of her overflowing heart. She self-consciously rubbed at her forearm, the tattoo hidden by her rough jumper, but we both knew it lay there. Even in the sticky summer heat she kept the crawling bruise-coloured numbers covered. “Half of your family went that way,” Bibi pointed to the north and waved her hand briefly, before letting it fall heavily to her side. “We, Babka and the others, we went that way, towards Germany. We didn’t know…” her voice trailed off, swallowed by remembered grief, a terror that hunted them through the mountains and forests as they fled. My family, nestled in and around the foothills of the Beskid mountains had escaped much of the turmoil leading up to the war, though most of the men had been fingerprinted, banned from the towns, and banned from “wandering” even at the beginning of the 1920’s. Once moving freely around Zborov, Bardejov, Cigeljka, and across into Poland, now they were corralled in settlements set back miles from the road and the nearest towns. “We didn’t really know what happened when war broke and Germany invaded Poland,” Bibi... read more


“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: Strength. 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... read more

The other side of me

This is a more personal post, a shorter, less known story. I never talk much about the Polish side of my family. Many… most of them died in the Holocaust. They were Siwak and Mirga. I… am Siwak and Mirga… and Zavačková. We changed our names when we came to the UK. We lost so much in the mountains, the Karpaty. Poland. Slovakia. Names that mean nothing to our families. We lived in the mountains, mountains that had been divided and torn apart by so many different political entities. The last time, they tore apart my family too. It’s hard for me to talk about because even though no one sat me down and spoke about it, I lost half of myself at that moment. I lost connections and roots and … being. Baba Edita rarely spoke Romani. She sang a song (Kałe Bała) and occasionally yelled “javen daj!” Papo was pretty much silent. Sometimes I’d call him Baba and he’d smile, mutter “papustyr!” and playfully bat at me, but mostly he sat silently in the half-light, smoking his pipe. I don’t know where we lived. I don’t know where my grandparents came from. I know that Maami married into a “Polish” family and that’s why my parents married too. I don’t know any stories, any footsteps. All I know is that my grandparents were alone and refused to be “Mirga”. And now I am alone and trying to put these jigsaw pieces together and I just have no understanding of the jagged edges and smooth curves of their lives. I know so much about the other members of... read more

Silence / čitiben

“Silence,” Maami said, “is the only thing that saved our lives.” She barely talked about her life during the war, their passage out of mainland Europe, or their arrival in the North of England. Sometimes, there were brief mentions, scuttering across our conversation like clouds across the sun. I learned phrases and stories about “hungry smoke” and “Lesovij – Forest men” were not just words. They were echoes of silence and terror. She did tell me once, barely breathing, unmoving, of the journey. How my family scattered like avginjalji seeds on the wind, some running unknowing into the jaws of the beast, some falling in rivers, and some running from dogs and ‘wolves in the woods’ for days and weeks and months. She told me of the Hlinkova garda, a brutal precursor to the Nazi regime, who beat our men, raped our women and cut their hair. She told me of ash falling from the sky like rain; the unfilled pits by the side of the road, bodies still warm. At times, she choked and could go no further until whisky, slipped between her lips like a knife loosened her tongue and her heart once more. My grandfather only ever said one thing, “njigda – never again.”  His family had turned and run right back into Poland, into the arms of Auschwitz. He stayed with my grandmother and her family. His new wife was pregnant and her mother was sick. He never saw any of his family again, except in his dreams. “Silence,” Maami said, “is the only thing that saved our lives.” I used to wonder why she never told me our history, why she never shared her... read more

Grief / briga

So hin učo oda svetos, hej, de te merel, jaj, mušinav. Hej, de te merel, jaj, mušinav, hej, de njič man Devla njič na dukhal The world is so high, hey, I have to die. Hey, I have to die. Hey, nothing hurts me, God, nothing ____ Sometimes, there in the dark Papu Frančišek would begin to sing. His words, wrapped in melancholy and cigarette smoke would rise and fall with the flicker of light from a candle or the fire. His words fluttering so gently to our ears that we could barely understand them. Soven čhave, soven, ča te chal ma mangen, joj, se tumari e phuri daj andr’odi kalji phuv džal. Sleep my children, sleep, just don’t ask for food, oh, ‘cause your grandmother is going into the black ground. _____ Some traumas are so terrible, so intense, that their force continues to reverberate through time and place, making it impossible to escape their terror, even generations later. Papu and Maami told of their suffering quietly, gently, rocking it in their empty hands; swallowing their tears in cups of whisky-laced tea. Denaš, mamo, dromeha, jaj, de bo me džav mre dromeha. Me nasig avljom me de khere, la da te murdardena. Run, mother, run along the road oh, ‘cause that’s the road I’m taking. I came home late, my mother was killed. _____ As a child I thought that our songs were just words. I didn’t realize that they were our history books; memories of our feet, our hands, our hearts. Each story was a story among many, words wrapped in hundreds of other words. We wore... read more

benginjali balvaj / Terrifying Wind

Today, as I walked in the sun on my lunch break, a cold gust of wind followed me, rustling the trees as I stepped by. I shuddered and stopped. Bibi Penella told me a story once, when I was seven, about a wind just like that. Once long, long ago, there was a young Rom who lived with his father, mother, and brothers and sisters. No one knew how many of them lived in the small and rickety house because every space was taken up with a small face or a set of legs. Even though they were very poor, the Rom was very proud – in fact, many said he was too proud. He would always tell the biggest stories and  sing the wildest and most outrageous songs. He claimed to have the most beautiful wife, the most children, and the most gold, but he would never share with his brothers and sisters. For example, one day after a boring day walking to the market and back, the Rom (his name was Pako, for obvious reasons) came panting up the road calling out for the head of the village. “Wise grandfather!” He cried. “I met the most terrible fate on my journey today. A two headed giant! But, now I have so much gold and even more courage!” Of course, all the children gasped and the women ushered them away, knowing that it was just another Pako story. No one but the smallest children believed him. So, when he came pale and shaking into the village some years later, no one turned from what they were doing, not... read more


“You Gypsies, you never stand up for yourselves. That’s the problem,” the gadžo professor nodded his head emphatically. We had been discussing the situation of Romani throughout Europe and the best way to improve conditions. “You don’t do anything to change the situation, you’re just so passive about everything!” Again, he nodded as if he alone knew all the answers. By this time, he had been talking non-stop for a good fifteen minutes and his raspy voice was grating my nerves into a pile of finely-shredded frustration. “I’m sorry, sir, but I have to disagree. Your reasoning is built on faulty logic. We are not passive because we don’t want to do anything, we are passive because of the continual racism, oppression, and discrimination we face on a daily basis. We feel like we CANNOT do anything! How can you find the strength to battle oppressive political systems when you can’t even find food? Water? Clothing? Not to mention the misrepresentation by academics such as yourself, as nothing more than pieces on a political chessboard!” I sputtered to a stop. His face was red, lips pursed angrily, mustache twitching. He glared at me for a moment and then he said it; “You don’t need to be so aggressive!” Maami always said that Gypsies were never of our own making. We were (and are) a social construct – a story, a meta-narrative. This narrative is rooted in the idea of citizenship as universal and equal, and as previously nomadic people, we are considered non-citizens, unequal and different. This universal citizenship narrative renders non-existent historical and contemporary realities of individuals who have not experienced citizenship in equitable and just... read more

My words, my stories / mre lava, mre paramiča

Academia loves a good story. A quick JSTOR search yields papers, such as “Roast Chicken and Other Gypsy Stories”, “Gypsies Drown in Shallow Water”,  “A Gypsy, a Butterfly, and a Gadje”,  or “The Gypsies’ Fiddle and Other Gypsy Stories”.  Linguists pore over our words like sweet sap dripping from a fresh, new pine. They analyze and deconstruct our paragraphs, sentences, and even single words. They tell us the meaning of our own narratives, burning holes in our past with their colonial gaze. “A long, long, long time ago,” Papu said, his rasping voice carried by the smoke of the fire, “a strong, honourable Rom lived with his wife and seven children…” Stories like this would be spoken time and again. Small details changing, like the seasons passing by, depending on the situations our family found itself in. Some of them weren’t even told for the allegory, but simply for the telling itself. I’ve seen similar stories torn apart in academic papers and presentations, as if each word contains some mystical answer to the Romani problem.  My family’s most valuable stories are not contained in books, academic papers, or magazine articles. They are not spoken about on this blog. Those stories, those words, have never even been spoken. If you sat with Maami Babka, Baba Edita, or any of my Bibis on the low stools against the front of the house in the afternoon sun, you’d hear a thousand stories. You’d hear how the wolves stole the witch’s baby. You’d hear how Gulo tricked the devil and saved his violin and his family, too. You’d hear how smoke from a thousand fires swallowed the... read more

Dakero Djives

Mother’s Day was never a day for us, at least not at first. We didn’t celebrate – my father didn’t write cards from his children as babies; we didn’t scamper up to the bed on Sunday morning, bruised and bent flower heads clasped in our sweaty little hands. It was just another day, like any other day. So many days were like that – Valentines Day, Halloween, Father’s Day, even birthdays. We did celebrate the coming of May (though not Ederlezi as some of our Balkan Romani friends did) and the coming of the Autumn, when we settled in for the winter, as well as Christmas and New Year (and a smattering of Saint’s Days, Name Days, and other holidays). My bari familija, and possibly many others, in many ways celebrated mothers every day. It seems counter-intuitive that such a patriarchal culture would be so invested in its women. My grandmother, Baba Edita told me that outsiders thought that Romani women were oppressed by our men; forced into marriages and motherhood without so much as a “may I?”… My family were somewhat traditional. My grandparents and parents had arranged marriages; they upheld clothing rules (women especially – no short sleeves, long skirts, under skirts, headscarf when in the presence of men, cooking, or when among non-Romani. At age eleven girls and boys became separated, undertaking the work they’d come to do as adults – for girls, that meant cooking, cleaning, looking after younger family members and the elders, running errands (collecting wood, bottles to return for cash, buying or picking food), and doing washing. At age twelve, many were ‘betrothed’ or... read more

Bodies of Resistance

“this game seems to be a curse, and I’m always the princess, and each day a poor woman, somebody is playing with me and this game is no longer a game … somebody is playing with me and day after day is throwing me down into the lions pit” – Luminița Mihai Cioabă “Talking isn’t doing,” Maami said to me as we sat outside in the sun topping and tailing beans. A group of old men sat across the way, muttering together, heads bowed. “They’s always talking,” she nodded as if I knew exactly what she meant, “and talking doesn’t get you anything.” In my childhood, women didn’t have voices, not the same as men did. We told stories in the late afternoon sun or over steaming pots in the kitchen. We sang or spoke in mixed company only when expressly asked to do so. Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be. Maami Babka was never very good at holding her tongue, though. I think, maybe, that’s where I learned this from. I remember her trying to explain the word “ratinel”  –  to resist – and her journey from the ‘hungry smoke’. My grandmother committed small acts of resistance every day. It took me years to realize it, but when I finally did, it was so liberating. Maami never followed the rules – she never asked, “may I speak now?” and she never was silent on issues she felt mattered in our families and community. She was a matriarch – and a vocal one. Some of her ability came from being one of a handful of... read more


Yesterday, it poured with rain. My heart was heavy and it was a fitting sound. As a child, my grandmother told me that the rain was cleansing and washed all the dirt out of our lives; yesterday I hoped that was true. There were many things Maami didn’t tell me though – like how susceptible Romani women are to miscarriage and how I would come to experience it in my life. According to a 2007 study in the UK, “significantly more Gypsies and Travellers experienced one or more miscarriages: 43 (29%) Gypsy and Traveller women compared with 18 (16%) of the comparison group” [Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England – Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2007 Mar; 61(3): 198–204]. Two days after I found out I was pregnant, I dreamed I miscarried. Six weeks later I bled for the first time. I knew at that moment what had happened, but held out hope for the next six as the doctors tried to help me. But, they couldn’t. In Romani families, women don’t talk about these things. Menstruation, uterine bleeding, miscarriage, and still birth are all seen as unclean, polluting, negative issues. Even the process of giving birth to a healthy, happy baby is considered dirty. I found out by accident that Maami had four miscarriages and lost 5 of her 8 children (including my father’s twin brother) in infancy. My mother, aunt, Baba, and other female relatives all suffered multiple miscarriages, still births, and lost children. Not all of this is due to our history and experience of cultural trauma, alcoholism, and abject poverty. According to a 2011 Guardian article, “Romani... read more

Bodies of Knowledge

Since I posted “Political Bodies” there has been a lively debate over my viewpoint and the viewpoint of other Romani. As I mentioned, I am not a well-known activist or academic with a proven track record of anything. I’m just a little Romani woman who has struggled hard to be in this place of knowledge and learning. My grandmother always told me that women’s voices are like the rain – most people try to hide from them, even though they are necessary to our survival. I firmly believe, in the case of the ERI, Romani women’s voices are extremely important. Much of the argument against the ERI that I have encountered seems to be that it wants to ‘aggressively’ challenge current, established practices within academia – specifically within the area of “Romani Studies”. The counter to this is an argument that academia is not a patriarchal, colonial, exclusive space, but that it embraces Romani with open arms and we should work within the current framework instead of demanding change. However, in my (limited) experience, academia NEEDS to be aggressively challenged, especially in regards to the discipline and inclusion of Romani Studies curricula. My own area, Romani Literature, is sadly neglected, to the point that there is no scholarship or representation of Romani literature as a viable, interesting, and worthwhile area of study. Our great authors, many of them women, are left in the dark corners of academia under piles of ‘established’ literary canons and empty cultural studies. It seems people are so busy studying us as an object (our living situations, our languages, our social organization), they treat us more like interesting... read more

Political Bodies

I’m not a well-known Romani figure and I’m not particularly well-educated, but with news this month of a new Romani initiative – the European Roma Institute – I’ve come to understand something: I am not just Romani (Roma, Roma Gypsy, Gypsy); I am an embodiment of all that needs fixed within Europe; I am a political statement. It has also become clear, from the commentary surrounding this news, that I – as a self-identified Romani – have no right to any say at all and certainly no ability to have any input in what needs done to fix my situation. Only when Romani step into the political spotlight do non-Romani swarm forward to protect their own interests – i.e: the intertwined domains of education and politics. In fact, the most vocal opposition I’ve read thus far has come on one hand from academia and on the other from ex-European Parliamentary members. If I am educated, vocal, and visible, I am a self-identified Romani, as though my ethnicity is suddenly some kind of choice. (However, if I am poor, uneducated, and living in a ghetto my ethnicity is not questioned. It is handed to me, in words not of my choosing). My grandmother was a Gypsy all her life. She was a stereotype – poor and illiterate. She was handed her ethnicity as she ran for her life from the S.S. Einsatzgruppen, it was not a choice she made. She told me once that non-Roma kept us from education and jobs because they were scared that they had misjudged us and that they would have to admit we weren’t like rats, but instead... read more

Trauma and Telling / povreda the vakeriben

Maami Babka never spoke about the traumas that haunted her dreams, except in abstracts and fairy tales about the hungry smoke, the time of the dogs, the ashes in the wind. Words like “Holocaust” and “genocide” were not present in her lexicon – whether by choice or by omission in our family’s cultural narrative. Bibi Lemija, too, referred to things in the abstract – never addressing her pain head on. Her husband’s death was only ever mentioned in a few words as “the day he went lonely down the road.” She never spoke about the War, her experiences in death camps, or her escape and subsequent survival. She only ever said, “it was a long way to walk.” Academics have long argued that cultural trauma “must be classified by the collective as a master narrative, one which constructs the core of its collective identity.” Not only that, but “for an event to be considered a cultural trauma, the memory of the event must be culturally and publicly represented as obliterating, damaging, and as a threat, both to the existence of the culture with which the individual identifies and to one’s own identity and self.” [Lazar & Litvak-Hirsch, 2009] For Romani, the trauma of the Holocaust has long been denied. Our perceived silence does not mean that it is not at the core of our identity, it simply means that in the perspective of colonialist academic studies, Romani orality has been dismissed as inconsequential. For my family, our trauma was unspeakable; our trauma was so complete and unending that we had no words adequate to its magnitude. When surviving members of my family... read more

O Lajošis baro partizanos / Lajos, the Big Partisan

O Lajošis sas ciknoro. Sas baro mariben u phenďa kija peste: „Džava kijo partizana, chudava puška, murdarava paru Ňemcen u avava pale khere.“ Ke amende sas bare veša, odoj pes ľikerenas o partizana. Ta oda Lajošis gejľa ke lende. Avľa odoj paš o partizana u phenen le Lajošiske: „E puška bareder sar tu. Džanes so, pašineha le trine gurumňen.“ Ta jekh kurko pašinlas le gurumňen. Jekhvareste leske sas phares pal e Marča u iľa pes te džal khere. Avľa kija Ondava, chudňa te chudel mačhen, bo sas bares bokhalo u mucinďa o paňi andre Onadava. Akurat khatar e odi Ondava džanas o Ňemci le grajenca, kamle grajen te pijel paňi, no našťi, bo paňi sas mutno u o graja kamen žužo paňi. O Ňemci gejle le grajenca avreder, odoj len dochudne o Rusi le partizanenca, zaile le Ňemcen. Ačhiľa agor le baro maribnaske. Le Lajošis dine medajla the irinde leske paperis, hoj sas partizanos. Sar pes ašarelas le Romenge, ta o Roma lestar asanas. O Podža sas slugadžis paše le Slobodaskeri armáda, ta leske phenelas: „Dža, garuv pes andro kher, bo e puška sas bareder sar tu.“ O Lajošis lestar daralas. Jekhvar les kamľa the te čhivel andre chaňig, sar pes ašarelas, hoj sas baro partizanos.... read more

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