Roma: Eternal Strangers in Europe

7 January 2016

Written by Friederike Sandow.

A few weeks ago I was sitting outside my friends house late at night, having a drink with friends and local Turks – second generation migrants to Berlin. We were sitting right in the heart of Neukölln – where the city never tends to sleep – on Karl-Marx-Straße, formerly known as “little Istanbul”, right parallel to “little Lebanon”, the Sonnenallee. It is an eclectic part of Berlin, where many cultures come together, in the first, second or third generation, who are all trying to make a living far away from their country of origin. As I was just about to leave and start my walk home, one of the Turks gave me a well-intentioned advice that I have yet to forget: “The Arabs and Turks here are fine, but avoid the side streets where all the gypsies are – I cannot vouch for them.” I turned around and looked at him, astounded, but he just shrugged and said: “I just don‘t like them. They are trouble.” It struck me as odd that he singled out Roma as the only people I have to be afraid of in Neukölln’s night jungle, but it turns out, it is not odd at all – it has been, and still is, the norm in all of Europe.

ROMA and Europe

No matter where in Europe, Roma are always in the minority. They are constantly being marginalised, are highly disadvantaged and discriminated. According to Robert Kushon, the Chair of Board of the Directors of the European Roma Rights Centre, Roma are amongst the poorest, least educated and unhealthiest European citizens, over 90% live in poverty. In Serbia, Macedonia and the Czech Republic Roma children are still being segregated in schools for children with disabilities, even though the European Court of Human Rights clearly ruled this practice as illegal. Let‘s face it – we all know about the stereotypes and clichés that seem to stick so well. The rumours of Roma not wanting to work, being nomadic people, – so-called “gypsies”. Though it is nowadays considered political correct to say “Roma”, also this generic term does not encompass all of the Roma cultures that have been in Europe for over 700 years now. The idea of Roma living a nomadic life has no basis in fact – statistics show that only 5% of Roma are always travelling, never settling. The other 95% of the estimated 9 – 12 million Roma in Europe are, in fact, “settlers”. They are just more prone to migrate than other minorities, as they face more hostility and discrimination than any other minority in Central and Southeastern Europe. Hence what we are looking at – also in Neukölln – is a purely structural migration – not an ethnic one, as so often wrongfully believed.

We are currently writing the year 2015 – which marks the end of the “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, which has been declared in 2005 by nine European countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovakia) and in accordance and financial support of the World Bank, UNDP and the European Commission, amongst others. In the last ten years the Decade of Roma Inclusion had the ambitious goal to fight for the rights of Roma, eliminate the intolerance towards them and enable them to escape living below the poverty line. A very prominent project that has been established in the course of the Decade of Roma Inclusion was the “Roma Education Fund” – the only transregional operating organisation that promotes education of Roma, in which Roma themselves are in charge. Founder George Soros had the dream to some day be able to close the gap in educational outcomes between Roma and Non-Roma and to enhance the desegregation of the educational systems. By facilitating access to school material, fighting biases and teaching tolerance as well as improving the general quality of education, the REF has – and still is – doing a much needed substantial work in Europe. The REF is fighting a slow battle against a deeply rooted antipathy which is not only ungrounded, but the driving factor behind the poverty and discrimination of Roma – a classic vicious circle.

The REF gives out scholarships for students and PhD candidates and has a reimbursable grant program in place, that helps other NGOs and local governments access EU funds for their cause — there are currently 52 active REF grants all over Central and Southeast Europe. Furthermore they promote a “Communication and Cross Country Learning Program” to promote exchange of knowledge on educational reforms and they have established a “Policy Development and Capacity Building Program”, which creates possibilities of exchange and dialogue between governments and the society on Roma issues.

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Photo: Jake Stimpson (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-2.0
Young Roma in Bucharest. Full of hopes and dreams.

One of the people working for the REF in their office in Bucharest is Mihaela – a Roma herself, who fought hard to get the education and life that she wanted – too hard – as she told me: “It simply must not be so difficult to get the same chances as everyone else. I want other generations to have it easier than me.” Upon turning 18, with a good school degree in hand, Mihaela took upon a tiring commute from her village where she, her father and brother lived, to Bucharest, which was over a hundred kilometres away. Every morning and every evening. For years and years. Her mother had just died right before she started university. She did a degree in business and finance, thinking it was the right thing to do, something that was expected of her – “but then I realised – this is not what I want to do. My heart is not in it. I need to help children to have it easier than me. And that’s when I started volunteering” – and working for the REF, a organisation she strongly believes in. “It makes me happy to see that my struggle has been so worthwhile and that I am now in a position to help eager and talented young teens, who otherwise would have had no reasonable chance to fulfil their dreams.”

And indeed, there are a lot of success stories to be found which were made possible by the REF. 16-year-old Selika from Macedonia was able to buy school supplies and books and got tutor help outside of school thanks to the REF. Despite being only 16 years old, she knows already how the world is run – and how much luck is involved: “My favourite hobby is reading because I can escape into a fantasy world in books. Eventually, I would like to volunteer at an organisation which helps people, especially kids, achieve their goals and dreams.” She states that for her future, she wishes “to become a voice for the Roma and advocate that we are not who people think we are. Roma are human beings too and don’t deserve to be called Gypsies.” Another programme by the REF is an early childhood development programme, called “a good start” – where the REF provides the possibility for poor and excluded children to get an early start within quality education centres. That way for example little Alexandru, who is raised by his grandmother because his mother is abroad in France to support the family, was able to attend kindergarten – and though he was all tears when he started his first school year, a few months later he already could not get enough of it. Right now he has his heart set on becoming a cook – but then again he is only five. Thanks to an early and “good start” due to the REF, the dream of becoming whatever he wants is neither a futile struggle nor a tiny hope any longer, but very well within his reach.

Looking back now as the “Decade of the Roma Inclusion” comes to an end this year, the work of the Roma Education Fund cannot stop here, as a period of ten years is not enough to close the gap after centuries of discrimination and prosecution. The REF has started to raise an overall awareness and motivated a national and European commitment, but the impact on the daily lives of the Roma majority so far is barely noticeable. Much has been achieved, but the statistics and the streets of Neukölln paint a picture that is still many shades too dark, and which should not have a place in the Europe of today.

Roma Education Fund official website

Photo courtesy of Roma Education Fund

As part of its role as a partner in the European project EVS4ALL, over the coming issues Europe & Me will profile some of the other organisations participating in it. This article is the second in this series.