Europe is a divided house when it comes to Gypsies (Romas). There are friendships between Romas and non-Romas, and there is serious distrust. According to the media, this is due to marginalization, discrimination, and it starts with their very name.
Apparently the term Gypsy carries a bad connotation as it derives from gyp (to swindle, cheat). I sympathize. No one wants to be referred to as The Thief. Except the European equivalents carry no such meaning. And that’s where the largest Roma population lives, in Europe — primarily East Europe. Although Romas are known to have traveled to Europe from India, many Europeans initially thought they came from Egypt, and that led to the name Gypsy.
As to marginalization, not sure the theory stands up to scrutiny. Europeans have suffered at the hands of many tyrannical powers. Having faced oppression, we don’t condone it.
Yet many Romanians, and other Europeans, go to great lengths to distance themselves from Romas.
In Romania, close to 6% of the population is made up of Romas. And here is what I know:
The majority of Romas live in their own camps — usually on the outskirts of town — have their own leaders/kings (yes, this is still the case today, it’s not a thing of the past), they don’t give a fig what anyone thinks of them, are vivacious people with a lot to say, and are usually very loud.
By and large, most Romas I know (or knew) are wedding musicians, or lautari. Yes, some have jobs, careers. Those numbers are still very small, at least in East Europe.
The main issue in Romania, is the disregard for societal rules. I’m not talking oppressive laws, but day-to-day neighborly stuff like keeping one’s property clean, no music blaring at all hours of the night, and most importantly not using someone else’s property as your own. Those rules are largely disregarded by many Romas.
Let me stress this: there are exceptions, but those are just that — exceptions, not general guides of conduct. This way of life is changing somewhat (there are institutions helping with education and integration), and it appears they’re making some progress.
We also have to remember that history hasn’t been kind to Romas (from Stalin to Hitler). They have a long and painful past as victims of prejudice at the hands of despots. Today, like anyone else, they should live without fear of prejudice. Say what you want and do as you please, the saying goes, as long as you don’t hurt those around.
That seem fair enough? As long as you don’t harm anyone.
For their part, Romas keep their distance from non-Romas as much as the other way around. They have their own Parliament representative, speak their own language (of Indo-European provenance). They speak the language of the country they’ve adopted as well, but many revert to their language quite regularly.
Some of their cultural practices are incomprehensible to many: marrying very young, living in large groups. The issue, however, is not cultural, but the mentality. One Roma I spoke to at length during my last visit, said: “We are taught to take what we need to survive by whatever means. If someone’s too stupid not see through your fast talk, then too bad for them.”
In order to truly help, the best way, I think, is to work on changing the problem, rather than screaming Discrimination! (young Roma education, full integration, jobs). In East Europe — and if anyone traveled there and knows what I’m referring to I’d love to hear from you — we might actually have to start by acknowledging there is a problem, all the while keeping in mind that everyone is entitled, as I mentioned above, to live free and without fear.
Photos: sinfully sensational.com; Gabor-gypsies, Wikimedia commons, CC; by: Milei.vencel; paginiromanesti.com