International Day of the Roma

The Romani flag

I recently mentioned the pious words of the EU on the situation of its Roma population, contrasting it with some examples of the way local Roma are actually regarded.

So, everything’s OK today, on 8th. April – it’s the International Day of the Roma. Whoopee!

US statements

Madam Clinton released a gushing speech for the occasion: “I am delighted to send greetings to all Roma everywhere as you celebrate International Roma Day this April 8. In communities across Europe and around the world, Romani people have contributed in ways large and small to culture, music, and the arts.  This is also an occasion to commemorate the history of brave resistance against Nazi persecution.

“Protecting and promoting the rights of Romani people everywhere is a personal commitment of mine (my emphasis!). […] I call upon European leaders to redouble their efforts to ensure that Romani people are not discriminated against in access to education, healthcare, housing and employment opportunities,” she gushed [1].

Her minion, the US Ambassador to Bulgaria was equally eloquent: “Discrimination and prejudice are not limited to any one country or ethnic group. They are everywhere – even in my own country. I won’t argue that prejudice against the Roma in Bulgaria is the same as prejudice against African Americans. But I believe there are useful parallels we can draw, both in terms of our shared values as proud, multi-ethnic societies, and in the ways we both have sometimes fallen short of living up to those values.”

He continued, speaking specifically about Bulgaria: “… while silence may not be an official policy, it is often what we hear regarding the Roma. There is a lack of conversation in the halls of government about how to effectively integrate this large segment of the population. Worse, there is no one who speaks out against the nearly universal portrayal of Roma by the media in a negative light. This combination of silence from the top and negativity from the media is potent. It reinforces the negative attitudes that many Bulgarians grow up with instead of dispelling them. “

To be fair, he also suggested that: “We must also keep in mind that integration of the Roma will require the active participation of the Roma.  The vision and values statement of the Decade of Roma Inclusion stresses the importance of Roma participation when it states, “Nothing about us without us.”  If our shared goal is to facilitate Roma inclusion into main stream education, main stream labor markets, main stream life, shouldn’t we begin by including them into the processes which we hope will lead to solutions?”

Bulgarian official pronouncements

And what of Bulgarian public figures themselves – what have they had to say on this latest “token international day”?

The Bulgarian Prime Minister boasted that his government was providing “all-out support” for the integration of Roma [3]. He also pointed out that he expected the Roma to “break the vicious cycle of having someone else help them, and must exert their own efforts”.

His recently-appointed Minister for EU Funds, however, was even more blunt [4] about Bulgaria’s general attitude to its Roma population: speaking in the northeastern town of Montana, at a symposium grandly entitled ‘Experience, Mechanism and Tools for Full Roma Integration in Bulgaria and Europe’, he apparently said that:  “If you ask a random Bulgarian whether he or she wants taxpayers’ money to be spent on Roma integration, I am certain that 70% of the people would answer “no”. To a certain extent, they would much rather the integration to be financed by EU money”.

Personal experience vs. ‘Mechanism and Tools’

Some 14 years ago, the media NGO I worked for was involved in a partnership applying for EU funding to assist the Roma in the Balkans region. I was appalled at the technical Terms of Reference, i.e., the parameters of the funding proposal; they were unbelievably patronising (however well-intentioned). Integration really meant assimilation to mainstream European norms of life, conduct and overall morality. I was hugely pleased that our eventual submission failed to attract funding.

The real, daily attitude in Bulgaria

A friend of ours went to open up the family summer house for the first time that year. The mains electricity cable that served the little dwelling had been cut and removed over the winter. He told me, with a completely straight face, and no trace of irony, that the neighbours had reported to  him that “gypsies had stolen it”. Or, he added, “ it might have been Bulgarians”. I nodded – no point in opening a discussion.

The dilemma

I admit, unfortunately and inadequately, to not having any real answers to the undoubted questions posed by trying to co-exist on a level basis with the Roma population. Daily, I see common bad behaviour – by Bulgarians and Roma alike – in our neighbourhood. Equally, I have positive encounters with both.

What do we want, or expect, of the Roma people – that they give up their own traditions, culture, for our majority values? Are they, statistically, greater criminals than the rest of us (show me some valid statistics, please)? Why do they seem to reject, in large part, the idea of basic education (figures support this question)? Why do they seem not to appreciate a modicum of cleanliness in their very own (usually ghetto) environment?

Do “we” actually ask them what they would like to “improve” their own lives (if there’s anything we can positively offer)?  Or do we just want to smother them with our own sets of values; to incorporate them into our chosen way of life?

I don’t know. Nobody seems to know, in truth. But the present situation just can’t go on, with mutual suspicion, clichés and our exclusive claims to the high moral ground.

To be fair (again?) to the US Ambassador to Bulgaria: in his published speech, he did at least draw some recent historical lessons from the American treatment of various, discriminated sectors in their society (I was there when race riots occurred in Philadelphia – and I’m not that ancient!). But, meantime, how much unnecessary suffering was caused in in the USA “for the greater good”? How many times does history have to repeat itself?

He also made a hugely important point, I believe.

“Changing attitudes in order to allow for greater integration is not solely the job of the government, however. It is unfortunate, but true, that most prejudices are learned at home, even in homes where the parents don’t think of themselves as prejudiced.”

Well said (for once), Mr. Warlick!

Inclusive or patronising?

The city of Kazanluk decided to mark this International Day by inviting its Roma to take a free bath in the municipal facility.  It reminded me of the story told about Queen Victoria, who took a bath on 1st. August “whether she needed it or not”. This was reported by various national news sources, with one source including a short video clip of the event (with some dubious shots, given present internet delicacy) [6]. Not to mention the video title: “O bath! O delight! The Roma bath is a huge delight!”

Postscript

The International Day of the Roma was unilaterally declared in 1971, at a Roma gathering in London. I quote from the “Gypsy Advice” website:

“On April 8th 1971 London hosted the First World Romani Congress, which put the beginning of the coordinated efforts to internationally protect and promote Roma people’s rights. The aim is to unite the efforts of the international gypsy movement and turn international community’s attention to their problems: education, poverty, and segregation. The Roma anthem is called Gelem, Gelem. The flag consists of a background of dark blue and green, representing the heavens and earth, respectively. It also contains a red chakra, or spoked wheel, in the centre, representing the Indo-Aryan heritage of the Romani people.The International Roma Day is declared in 1992 by the UN and EU at the proposal of the International Organization Romano Union.” [5]

So, let’s end (literally) on a good note – with Zarko Jovanovic, the composer of the officially adopted Roma anthem, in a short vocal rendering (loads of variations on YouTube – just search for “gelem gelem” or ”jelem jelem”). By the way, please read the lyrics carefully… for a widely overlooked historical reference.

Meantime, I am sure our little lads from the neighbouring orphanage will call on us quite soon for water and biscuits, and to wish us well.

Source [1]: usembassy.gov

Source [2]: Bulgarian US embassy

Source [3]: SNA

Source [4]: SNA

Source [5]: Gypsy Advice

Source [6] BGNES

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