Ma de pr'oda, savi hinmanuces morci, ale dikh, savo les hin jilo.
[Don't look at the skin of a man; look at his heart.]
In June 2000, I travelled by bus from Prague to Brussels. I was sitting behind three Slovak Romani families with children. During a short break, I started talking with what looked to be the head of the group, obviously an experienced traveller who had visited Great Britain, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland. He told me they were travelling to Luxembourg. The motive behind their journey was, as he put it, their "excitement and love for travelling, meeting new cultures and a deep interest in history and art."
The man and his family were from eastern Slovakia, where they had a nice house but no jobs. Listening to their discussion later on, I found out that they did not expect to stay in Luxembourg; they knew they would be sent back. They talked about their plans after coming back to Slovakia. The main plan was to take language courses in German and English, because if they spoke a foreign language, they could get a job in one of the European countries...
This was a lesson for me. As a Slovak married to an Englishman in Brussels, I have been personally affected by the visa policy introduced by Belgium against Slovak citizens on account of Romani emigration. The bureaucratic agony of obtaining the visa made me feel angry and powerless. Is this the free united Europe that I was dreaming of? Why can't I travel like a "normal, first-class" citizen? The answer was easy: because of the Roma! After my experience on the coach, I started to think about it more and realised that I myself had become susceptible to stereotypes and prejudices that are dangerously prevalent in all of my society.
Stereotypes exist in each society. They are shared by most of its members and transmitted from generation to generation not as a result of experience but of collective tradition, short-sighted thinking and generalisations. Stereotypes are used to exclude persons or groups considered to have different values and habits than "we" do. Of all nations or ethnic groups, the Roma continue to be the constant victims of negative stereotypes all over Europe, Slovakia included.
Slovakia has the highest proportion of Roma per capita in all of Europe (400,000 to 600,000 out of 5.3 million inhabitants). The Roma have been living in the region for several centuries. Under Communism, the Roma, designated as Cigáni (Gypsies), were not recognised as a national minority and were denied their language, culture and traditional professions. The overall aim of the state policy was total assimilation. Nevertheless, the Roma were able to keep their identity and solidarity, often stemming from the prejudice of others. They became a marginalized, isolated and non-communicative community that suffered from social and cultural exclusion.
Since 1989, the situation of the Roma in the society has changed in both positive and negative respects. The Roma have been recognised as a national minority; they have had the opportunity to organise their political and cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of social, political and economic freedom. They have established several political parties, cultural organisations, theatres and clubs and published a number of books, textbooks and periodicals in the Romani language. However, the transition of the country to a market economy has made the Roma an even more marginalized group than prior to 1989. Changing the structure of the economy has affected mostly unskilled and uneducated workers, primarily Roma.
As a result, the Roma suffer from high unemployment (four out of five do not have a job), slum-like living conditions, poor health and low education. The worst situation exists in the Romani settlements, which are isolated sections of about 600 villages where life expectancy is falling, illiteracy is rising and crime is rife.
Schooling is key
Education is key to the further development of the Romani community. Romani children start their education with significant social and linguistic disadvantages and usually end up in special schools for disadvantaged or disabled children. Recently, extra preparatory classes have been successfully opened in some regions to teach Romani children the Slovak language and basic skills. Without education and the realisation of individual responsibility, the situation of the Roma can hardly be improved. A number of projects focused on the training and education of Roma leaders, teachers, advisors, assistants and public administrators, supported mainly by EU programmes, have been successfully launched in Slovakia in recent years.
The Slovak experience demonstrates that the most effective way of tackling the problem is by starting at the local or regional level. The real work has to be done not in governmental offices but in the field—by involving Romani and non-Romani representatives, NGOs, the Church and local and regional authorities. There are a few successful examples of this approach in some Slovak regions.
The Roma neighbourhood Poštárka in Bardejov (eastern Slovakia) has changed miraculously thanks to "Father Peter"—a Salesian priest who began working with Romani youth ten years ago. In the past, it was a place far from civilisation; today, you can find a church, a cultural-sports centre, playgrounds and club rooms which all work against the common stereotypes showing Roma as those without any responsibility or values. The first year of the Salesian school has also brought good results. The children love going to school and have high life ambitions.
In order to integrate the Roma into the society and involve them in the decision-making process it is necessary to strengthen their self-awareness and identity. The majority of Roma perceive their identity as a handicap and often try to deny it. In the last census of 1991, only 1.5 per cent of the inhabitants of Slovakia declared a Romani nationality (the estimated number is seven to eleven per cent). Increasing the number of Roma participating in public life and decision-making has to start with building positive self-awareness and solidarity within the Romani minority.
One of the initiatives aimed at this problem is the project "Som Rom" (I am Roma), introduced by the Association of Roma Initiatives in Banská Bystrica District (KARI). The project is focused on the training of and discussions with Romani inhabitants to reinforce their identity and their knowledge of the law, human rights and minority rights. One part of the project involves a media campaign aimed at the 2001 census which will present positive examples of Romani life, traditions and values. A series of TV programmes, posters and leaflets intends to address not only the Romani population but also the non-Romani majority. The truth is that the "Roma problem" is also (perhaps mainly) the non-Roma problem.
Building borders, increasing hate
All Roma in Slovakia face anti-Roma sentiments, stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination and racism from the non-Romani majority. Despite occasional skinhead attacks, open racially-motivated violence is not the only or biggest
Paradoxically, growing anti-Roma sentiment in the country is also the result of "Western" policies against asylum-seekers. Building new borders, enforcing new rules and erecting a new Iron Curtain may help the Western countries keep out refugees, but it leads to an increase of hatred and violence against Roma in their home countries.
Most people can see only the result: visa restrictions from more and more European countries. They do not think about the real reasons behind Romani emigration; it is easier to call it ethno-tourism, ethno-business or economic tourism than to admit a hidden political-ethnic and social discrimination of the Romani people. Roma-emigration, visa restrictions, anti-Roma sentiment: the EU red card is a vicious circle.
Sooner or later, post-Communist countries will join the European Union, and the "Roma problem" will become Europe's problem, and its seriousness is alarming. Problems cannot be solved without far-reaching international assistance, the non-governmental community's experience and collaboration between various professionals, organisations and agencies. All of the current efforts to improve the situation of Romani communities can only minimalise the consequences of long-term discrimination. The results of the current projects and activities will be visible not tomorrow, not in a month or a year but among the future generations living in a united Europe.
Alexandra Wootliff-Bitušíková, 27 November 2000
photo courtesy of Oltiţa Stiuj, Monitorul de Braşov
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