A family of seven, five of which are children, living in a 15 square meters in a run-down building in a mid-sized Serbian town of Krusevac, without elementary conditions for life, such as washing, dressing and even garbage service. This is the sad reality of (too) many Roma people in the Balkans, whose villages are covered by garbage which is their source of income. There they dig for paper, plastic, glass and scrap metal, selling these to recycling companies for a meagre sum of some 6 to 15 eurocents per kilogram, depending on the material. What is more, in their yards we can find herds of animals and birds such as cocks, hens, pigs, cats and dogs. Families usually have many children, and state support in a relatively poor country like Serbia is, we have been told, around 100 euros every trimester per child.
There are more than ten million Roma worldwide. They are mainly concentrated in the Balkans and the EU’s newer Member States, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. The Roma or Romani people are better known in the English-speaking world by their earlier ethnonyms “Gypsies”, which is nowadays considered to be politically incorrect; according to many Roma and scholars who studied them, the word has been tainted by its use as a racial slur and a pejorative term connoting illegality and irregularity. The Romani were originally nomadic people from India, from where they emigrated to Europe in many waves from 11th century onwards, settling the Balkans and Eastern Europe first, and only later and in fewer numbers reaching Western Europe and especially Northern Europe. The term Gypsies became attributed to them as the Europeans wrongly believed them to be from Egypt. Current ethnonym Roma(ni) should not be mistaken with either (ancient or current) Romans as citizens of Rome, nor with Romanians as citizens of Romania. In Roma language, Roma means “a man”, and hence the term Romani simply means “the people”.
Philanthropist George Soros has said that even in this era not a single group has suffered more than Roma. Second World War was the time of great suffering for the Roma people. German National Socialist regime razed the Roma on the same grounds of racial inferiority and purification of national body as the Jews. Some 150,000 to 500,000 Gypsies died in concentration camps or were shot, and only those who escaped or managed to hide survived.The truly astonishing thing is that their living conditions in the new member states have actually deteriorated since they became the EU citizens. At the same time, the attitude towards Roma of the majority of the population everywhere in Europe has also worsened. However, a very large section of people and organizations have taken their consciences the defense and protection of providing better opportunities for the Roma. Opportunities are offered in terms of education and decent place to live their life.
Roma traditional way of live proved to be a great challenge in achieving these goals.Namely, with some exceptions, the vast majority of the Roma still do not want their children to receive an education or go to school but prefer instead that their offspring learn to work early on in the streets. With regard to the living conditions of the Roma population,some of those moved to social houses built for them were found to sell their windows and other commodities provided for them, claiming that they just do not need these. They do not leave the impression that they value much comfort. Sometimes there is frail limit between benevolence (and the desire to help) and naivety. The Roma history goes far back into the past and their traditions and values are difficult to change.
For the people accustomed to Western life, this is often very hard to understand.We are trapped in the opinion that our accepted values are the only one that are rightand worth following, and that the other values should not be recognized and are wrong. That is why we tend to framed every culture within and measuring it according to the Western standards. It is thus necessary to make greater efforts to understanding and became familiar with the Roma people, in order to developing approaches that would be more appropriate for them and bring them true emancipation tailored to their needs, traditions and cultural habits.
Author: Eleri Rattasepp, Estonia