Romanian President Traian Basescu’s discrimination against the Gypsy community has provided me with some context to reflect on my experience with the Gypsy community. As a student living in Romania, I had the unique and ultimately world-shaping experience of visiting the largest Gypsy community in all of Europe, right on the outskirts of the student city of Cluj.
In the Spring of 2012, my class and I took a day long “research expedition” into the community. With a population of about 1,500 people, the community was not used to strangers walking through their one road town. A group of about 10 of us, my classmates and I were the recipients of awkward stares, whispers, and the occasional doorway gawkers who slammed their doors shut as we passed. Our Ethnic Politics teacher described to us how they are a culturally antiquated society, and how members often resorts to scavenging and makeshift novelty items they can make by hand, selling them at local markets.
I had at that time been living in Romania for a few months now, and had been accustomed to the occasional social condemnation of Gypsies running around the town. With their pagan style wardrobes and headscarves, the women would often tout around 6, 7 children, from market place to market place, screaming and yelling at them in a Gypsy language unknown to the Romanian population at large. Other times you would see them as a street vendors, selling an assortment of jewelry, or necklaces, sometimes homemade- sometimes stolen.
Now I found myself at ground zero for the Gypsy community, and the Gypsys didn’t seem too pleased to see us.
Our intrusion into their understated conditions of living bore example of how discrimination across the region is institutionalized, morphing into the site we beheld as we traveled deeper into the underbelly of Pata-Rat.
Pata-Rat sits on the dump-site of Cluj/Kolozsvár, where plastic bottles, half eaten food, and debris litter the ground in this 18 hectare garbage site. The landfill which is home to many of the Gypsy’s found selling tinker toys at the local market, is a dangerous living condition for the community’s children, who more often than not have no shoes to guard their feet from sharp and unsanitary debris. The houses, made out of tin and assorted metals thrown out by Cluj’s residents, resembled shanty towns you would see on those late night TV infomercials begging for your donations to help feed starving children somewhere in Africa.
But I wasn’t in Africa- I was in Romania, a member of the European Union and one of the largest countries n Eastern Europe.
As we continued our journey through the city, my class and I were introduced to members of a Netherlands NGO which was administering elementary education for the children of Pata-Rat. The class of no more than 30 children were being taught how to speak English, how to calculate mathematics, and read and write in an effort to provide them a way out of the traditionally uneducated Gypsy community. The room, no larger than a 20×30 space, had a few desks squished together, and a bare cement floor. The children, whom were gathered around a Tom & Jerry cartoon playing on a laptop propped up by 3 milk crates, were the only residents who seemed happy to see us.
Jumping from their seats, the Netherlands NGO told the students that we were visitors from all over the world- a student from Nigeria, a student from Turkey, a student from France, and even a student from America (I was that student). They gathered around us, speaking in a language the Romanians couldn’t help us interpret. They tried getting us to play hide and seek with them, running around and laughing, only to have the NGO director tell them play time was over and that they had to get back to their studies.
Seeing the plight of this community brought home to me the reality of those living in such squalid conditions, and Traian Basescu’s comments dig deeper than the surface of discrimination against this community. It reflects a common misunderstanding and the perpetual oppression of a people who seem to be the round peg fitting into the square hole of industrialized society.
Basescu’s comment that “very few of them (Roma) want to work,” and “traditionally many of them live off stealing,” in many ways underpins the sentiments of many Europeans who scapegoat the Gypsy community for various societal issues.
So the next time you meet a European, ask them what they think of Gypsies, and you will most likely hear a negative response. Ask them why you think they are the way they are, they will still give you a negative response. But instead of asking them what they think, ask them if they have ever seen first hand what the Gypsy community has to deal, and the realities of their day to day struggle just to survive.
Commentary by John Amaruso