“When I was young, I had a dream to be educated,” my co-leader B. said. “I wanted to rise above my situation and succeed, but then my mom married me off when I was 15 and all my dreams were crushed.”
We were sitting in a tight circle in the Little Darda Church, pressing near the woodstove for warmth as each Roma woman took a turn to share part of her story, dreams she had as a young child that eventually collided into the hard reality of life. Although the mood had started out with joy and laughter, faces quickly grew sad and haunted by the remembering. Each story unique, each story heartbreaking, and each needing to be told and heard and acknowledged.
The Roma continue to be a strong news thread in European media. In Brussels, the Council of the EU adopted new recommendations in an attempt to facilitate more member state compliance with the weakly implemented 2011 Roma integration standards. The Bulgarian Roma Civil Society’s enacted a civil protest against the Bulgarian Ministers in front of the Council building, and more documented cases of illegal expulsions and ethnic profiling continue to surface in the news.
The raised awareness and attention is important, of course, except that often there is a meta-narrative of identity into which the 10-12 million European Roma are shoved—on the one hand portrayed as “beggars, thieves, and musicians,” and on the other hand, “discriminated against, socially isolated, and marginalized.” Of course, many communities are shockingly disadvantaged in terms of education, jobs, health care, and housing, and many could share personal stories of discrimination. And yet, when the Roma are pushed into a static identity and then ‘solutions,’ like puzzle pieces, are forced into spaces that may or may not match the shape, our approach becomes purely mechanical.
Over the last 2 years, I have been in and out of over 15 Roma communities in six countries, and I have come to understand that each community differs in terms of religious orientation, language, ethos, and even how they self-identify.
“Sometimes my people do not identify as Roma so as to not put themselves at a social disadvantage, and sometimes they identity as Roma precisely to gain some economic advantage,” one Roma pastor told me.**
“I am Roma,” one man stated with pride and confidence.
“Those people over there are Roma, we are Ashkali Egyptian,” one pastor pointed.
“I am Roma, but that woman is a Gypsy,” one lady confided to me.
Each of these voices emerged from a different community, and yet each would be pigeon-holed into one identity meta-narrative by outsiders. But every person’s story ripples over into creating a unique narrative stream for each community. Many are heartbreaking, some are shocking, and many exhibit astonishing resilience, creativity, and survival skills.
Listening to the stories helps bring the abstract meta-narrative into shared aspects of the human experience: suffering, joy, hardship, families, the loss of dreams.
“Dreams, what kind of dreams?” the old grandmother said. “Life is just hard, there are no dreams.” I sat silently, listening to the women in the Little Darda Church, feeling as if I were on some kind of sacred ground, knowing that even these few stories would change my personal approach and understanding of the community.
The surrounding community, whether they be Croat, Serbian, Bosnian, Romanian, Montenegrin, must themselves begin to listen to the Roma community—which is often located either outside the city or ghettoized within—in order to understand how the Roma understand themselves.**
Robert Rustem, Executive Secretary of the European Roma and Travellers Forum, points to Nelson Mandela as an inspiring model for the Roma situation and believes that someone possessing that kind of visionary leadership will rise up among the Roma. But President Obama articulated the problem with us humans in his speech to honor Mandela: “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality…And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”
Nelson Mandela embraced the idea of understanding the other as a key to reconciliation and working together. Still, his life was no picnic; and that should serve as a humbling reality check for those who have fantasies of the glorious fanfare of trumpets heralding idealistic visions and noble aspirations.
But if the relationship between Roma communities and the majority culture is not reshaped, the dominant meta-narrative will continue to reign—and the same story will continue in its well-marked tracks. And how to reshape the relationship without listening to the individual stories?
“Roma women are the women who are not able to dream, ” B. said, trying to explain the situation to us. “Everything is so hard and so broken so that every day just becomes a question of how to survive that day. What is the point of dreaming when you cannot realize your dreams?”
If listening to the stories is key to reshaping relationships, how are the stories themselves reshaped to offer hope, purpose, and a way forward?
Stay tuned for further thoughts on this question…
*These are actual quotes from some of my interviews.
**One creative initiative in Ireland is trying to do this by sharing Roma stories.