(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog; the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"You make friends with a gypsy, you make enemies with everyone else."

That's a quote from Johnny Depp who plays a gypsy in the movie, Chocolate, and it seems to describe the reactions that I get from Eastern Europeans to my four postings about my experiences with the Roma in Romania.  Each time I've received negative comments, each from different sources, all from within Romania.  "Gypsy-lover" was the most offensive to me, having grown up in the South during the Civil Rights movement; it was too close to the offensive phrase for a white civil rights supporter.  The others: "You're lucky you don't have to live next to one," and a comment quoting a Byzantine saint who said that the Gypsies are dirty and despicable people, not to be trusted.  At least, the reactions to my comments were more benign than what Madonna got for her comments on Roma discrimination during her Bucharest concert (She also confused her location, 'Hello, Budapest!' which got her off to a bad start with the crowd).
From BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11027288

My latest response comment says that my blog is about Gypsies, not about Romania, and it gives the wrong impression about Romania. I have an admittedly skewed perspective on Romanian life and culture:  My project here in Romania is to learn about  non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and about Romanian social problems. Many Romanian NGOs that I meet work with disadvantaged Roma, the poorest  of the poor.  A common reaction I get, even from Romanian NGO staff, is that I really shouldn't look at the social problems, only at the folklore or food or the music (but not Gypsy music, how could anyone enjoy that!?) or the pretty mountains...

And I can appreciate that Romanians want to put "the best foot forward" about their country.  They are proud of their country and they have a beautiful land and culture to share with others.  But the economic and social disparities between the elites and the "have-nots" are distracting, whether they are economically disadvantaged Roma, or poor ethnic Hungarians, Szekely, or other Romanians.  And right now, economic prosperity is in short supply, and tensions around "Us/Them" in general is on the rise all over Eastern Europe.  Romanians need social policies that "raise the tide for all boats," not just the powerful.

From BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11027288
Prof. T.A. Acton, Professor Emeritus of Romani Studies at Greenwich Univeristy, said that the Roma are disliked across Europe, and disliked most where they are most prevalent.  And having traveled in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Czech Republic, Spain, all countries with a significant Romani population, I'd have to agree.

One thing that I've learned from my time in Romania is that it's not that simple: the issues and tensions with the Roma are complicated and are rooted in a history that's much longer than anything we have in America.  And I've learned that it's not just Romania's problem: the Roma have a difficult situation in Bulgaria, Serbia, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands [follow the  links to news reports about the Roma in each country.]
An example of how complicated the issues are:  UNESCO reports that across Europe Roma children lack access to education; but many Roma see education as a threat to their traditional way of life, according to a USAID report.  And given the exclusion of Romani history, culture, and language from the classroom, no wonder they see school as a threat.  The US Embassy recently provided a grant for educational materials for Roma elementary schools.
Second example of the complicated issue: My host department of Asistenţă Socială held a conference on the recent forced evictions of a Roma community in Cluj just four blocks from our building that highlighted for me how complicated the issues of social inclusion and property rights are. People have a right to live, and the city has a right to public property not being appropriated for private use.  Then, according to news reports last week, that property has recently been approved to become an Orthodox educational center teaching, ironically, social work.

Part of my job as a Fulbright scholar is intercultural exchange, learning about Romania and teaching about America.  We can each learn about the other, as Robert Frost's poem, (Sorry English majors, this is translated to American English from his Scottish dialect) says,
Oh, what a gift is given us
To see ourselves as others see us.
It would from many a blunder free us
and foolish notion.
We can each learn to see and to solve our own problems based on the other's experience, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The American experience of civil rights, as tumultuous and disruptive as that period was for us, can be instructive for Romanians who want to learn from our example.  Martin Luther King's dream, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" is an admirable goal for Romanians, too.

Nancy and I had dinner with a prominent Romanian government official who related that, as a child, her grandmother a hired a Roma clan to make bricks for an addition to her farmhouse.  They moved on the property, and for the summer, she played with the Roma children, sat by their campfire at night to hear music.  She said they were hardworking, worked from dawn until sundown, took good care of their children, and treated her and her family with respect. She concluded, "Not all Roma are like the stereotypes; some are, but others are decent people."  It gave me hope to hear a Romanian leader judging the Roma on the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to know that you are actually reading the comments to your posts and care to take the message into consideration.Yet,you still,don"t seem to get the point.In Romania we (Romanians)have a saying..."stai stramb si judeca drept",which means that if you manage to look at things from a different(not straight) angle you might see the right meaning of things.In Romania Gypsies are not judged based on their skin colour(as happened in USA with the blacks),but rather based on their behavior.I have neighbours and former schoolmates of Gypsy ancestry,and they have no problem stating their ethnicity up front(census included)since they enjoy the respect of the community.The only difference between them and the other Gypsies is that they understand to live into XXI century and obey the general rules of the society they live in.The others choose to live outside society and refuse to integrate.Nobody is blaming the USA and the American people for not accepting and accommodating the culture and behavior of drug traffickers,street gangs,and those who choose to live outside society,basically as outlaws.Again,...why should standards be any different in Romania than in the USA?....After eight long years lived in the USA (being aware what I am talking about)should I be entitled to campaign internationally against the bias and discrimination promoted by the American people through their government against the Hispanics forced by these prejudiced attitudes to earn a living through drug trafficking and whatever other illegal activity?????...See?..Reflecting on things actually helps!!