As a Canadian, when I used to think of gypsies (or more properly, Roma) I thought of colourful dresses, energetic music, and wood covered wagons. When I first heard Central Europeans speak about the Roma at college in the States, I was horrified, they seemed so racist. After being in Slovakia, I began to understand complications of the situation of the Roma in Central Europe.
The Roma (or Romani, or Romany) originate from India and spread throughout Europe during the medieval ages. As nomadic people, they had various skills, like metalwork and carpentry, that they used to gain employment while camped on the outskirts of a town. The nomadic lifestyle was not so compatible with modern country borders, however. During Communism in Slovakia they were provided with housing and other needs, however, women were also subjected to coerced sterilization and the men lost the skills they traditionally had used for finding employment.
Roma are different from Slovaks in more ways than just skin colour. As groups, their behaviour is completely different; imagine packs of Italians in Germany. In public, Slovaks are reserved and somewhat cold (although not in private with friends). Gypsies, on the other hand, will have yelling matches in the town square. Roma have their own completely different language. They also have many children; some Slovaks are inclined to think it is a way to get more money from the government, but I’m inclined to wonder if it has to do with their traditional emphasis on and value of children and the tight knit extended family.
The Romany people have faced discrimination in various degrees throughout Europe since their arrival, and were a target of the Nazi regime. In Slovakia, at any time before 1989, I would attribute discrimination to simple racism. Since then, however, the problem is a little more complicated.
Since the fall of Communism, the Roma have lived in increasing poverty, or I should say, the gap between the financial situation of Slovaks and Roma has increased. When you look at pictures or videos, the living quarters of many Roma are basically slums. Some live dispersed in towns and cities, others live in gypsy only settlements.
What makes it difficult for many Slovaks to help them is that the Roma aren’t always, shall we say, prudent with the offering. Housing is built for them; they sell the windows. Outhouses are built to improve sanitary conditions; they dismantle the wood for other uses. Firewood is provided so the nearby protected trees remain unscathed; they sell the wood and cut down trees in the protected area anyway. Not exactly charity encouraging behaviour.
(This is where the topic of how to help people comes up, of giving somebody rice vs. teaching how to grow rice themselves. There is apparently a successful project where a mayor supplied the land and training for Roma to build their own houses. You are much less likely to dismantle a house you made yourself. However, that is another discussion for another time.)
Many Slovaks attribute Roma poverty to laziness and entitlement, i.e. they had what they needed handed on a plate during Communism and expect the continuation of that. “Look,” they say, “I”m not racist. If I meet a gypsy who works and takes care of himself, I respect him.”
I think, however, they underestimate how difficult it can be to dig oneself out of the cycle of growing up in a certain environment. Lack of education (most Romani kids drop out of school) and lack of skill limit job opportunities. It can be difficult even to break out of the mold and take an opportunity that is actually present.
But that’s the American dream, isn’t it? To rise with hard work and determination, no matter what one’s roots are. And that’s why I love Dive Maky.
Dive Maky, wild poppies, is an organization that supports the development of gifted Romani children in the areas of the arts (music, dance, theatre, visual arts), sports, and academics. Each child receives a scholarship for a year that pays for schooling, necessary instruments/equipment, tutelage in the chosen discipline, and other required expenses.
Dive Maky provides the opportunity, but the child/young adult has to work at developing his talent and continue his education, and this may include moving far from home to go to a highschool with a specific focus. Most of the children, one worker told me, are grateful for the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and work hard to improve. Without Dive Maky, they would be stuck in that cycle of no education, no skill, no job.
While providing opportunities for individual people is improves each life, the goal is also for those children to improve the communities they came from. From their website: “Our ambition is to raise an educated Romany population that in the future will have the prerequisites and the motivation to resolve issues of their community.”
A couple weekends ago I was invited to Basavel na plazi, organized by Dive Maky, that showcased the talents of some of their recipients. Set on the banks of the Danube, children and young adults acted, sang, played instruments, and danced. The music was a.m.a.z.i.n.g.
For these children, these activities are their ticket out of poverty and a way to break the barriers between Slovaks and Roma.
Usually they organize a larger festival for thousands of people, Cigansky Basavel, but couldn’t raise the funds this year. I hope next year it is possible, because I would love to see more!
I highly encourage visiting their website and considering making a donation. You can directly sponsor a child for a year, or make smaller donations that contribute to summer camps and other activities.
I’ve considered doing a series on the Romany people…anybody interested?