EDITORIAL - A Clear Compass for a Forgotten People (longread)
‘At REYN, we aim to break through the negative cycle’
In the late nineties of the previous century, finally social workers – both Roma and non-Roma - managed to raise awareness to improve and cultivate the inclusion of Roma and Traveller families and communities. The European Union finally recognized its responsibility to be the driving force behind the betterment of a people who have been part of our community for centuries on end. It was an important step in the fulfilment of our undying attempt to make Human Rights count for all Europeans. The International Step by Step Association, was one of the leading organizations.
Since these first careful steps, much has happened and for some the situation has improved. The work often emphasizes on children, the most vulnerable – in order to improve their outlook in life. But when one has been given the mandate to move into destructed areas, more damage is likely to be found. So it is only fair to say that the situation of Roma families and their children improves mainly in areas where liberal, inclusive measures are being taken throughout. The living conditions for the entire population improve, and the cultivation of inclusion helps bring the Roma and Traveller groups closer to the inner circle of a community.
Levels of Emancipation
Within these communities the level of emancipation the families are improving moderately but consistently. Many obstacles need still to be overcome. That what has been created in the minds of people, will not come undone easily. It takes courage, it takes an endless effort to continue the fight against prejudice, negative feelings and discriminative actions, both active and passive. But here we stand, positive and empowered. Every milestone is one to celebrate, proof that we are on the right track – that it can be done.
In other places, in a great deal of places, progress is not so apparent. Pervasive Segregation is a term well in place here. Where life conditions and democratic emancipation in general are questionable, conditions for Roma and Traveller families are genuinely deplorable. The very basics do not even exist: running water, sanitary provision. Very often, it is close to impossible to make people care about what they think is not ‘their’ problem. It is difficult to understand that European and international values, which are the primary right for all people, suddenly become less pressing or less applicable when it does not concern one’s own circle.
But the pulling rope never lies with one end quietly in the dirt. On the other end are the Roma and Travellers themselves. Voices commonly unheard, though definitely not muted. Their potential is acknowledged amongst themselves: they know what they are capable of doing and gaining, for their own betterment, for the society that they live in – when in the right position. But minorities living on the outskirts of a society of a dominant majority will none the less tell a sobering narrative. Being brought op in an unwelcoming area, an aggressive community even, has nurtured a group of people not only damaged by the horrors of their past, but tainted and weary also by their own experiences.
REYN sprung from ISSA and its partner organizations. It is short for Romani Early Years Network and dedicated solely to the emancipation of family life and a child prospects as a part of that family. The work done with Roma and Traveller communities, is sometimes like handling a double-edged knife; it takes good caution. REYN reminds all involved of their role in an inclusive society, the intellectual, lawful, but surely also the economic rationale behind bettering the living conditions of all, Roma and Travellers included.
Subsequent to all circumstances and experiences, REYN combats prejudice and double standards at one end, and damaged faith at the other end. REYN took up the middle of the cord and stopped the pulling. Instead, it now functions as the middle ground. The meddling force that both parties can trust and rely upon.
Breaking the negative Circle
Emancipation means sharing the means to self-reliance, to self-sufficiency. Not just gracefully giving people the proverbial fish on the dinner table, but giving them a fishing rod and teaching them how to use it. This approach in itself is sometimes a confusing path in itself, for philanthropic values taught us to share the bread and fish. But such sentiments, however intended kindly, also creates a co-dependent people. And by nature, by nurture, the Roma and Traveller families flourish best when empowered to do their own share – with the community, for the community. And they have every right to do so.
At REYN, huge efforts are being made to start this process of learning together, cultivating inclusion and introducing the minority to the majority properly. Children aren’t tainted and prejudiced, but curious. The colorful lives and traditions of Romani children are being looked upon by their contemporaries with great interest and most importantly; with deep enjoyment! The Early Years are therefore of the utmost importance to champion inclusion and for breaking the circle of negativity that has been so damaging in the past.
Improving Quality of Life and Learning
REYN advocates for the betterment of all people – especially the tiny ones – and advocates passionately with and for the Roma and Traveller people to be included in such improvements. With and for. An important distinction to all involved! We make sure policies are being designed with them in the room, part of plan and process, for they are the ones who will advocate new policies amongst their ranks and take ownership of the following steps. And in addition, we do not only share knowledge on quality improvement in Early Year systems, we teach them how to do it themselves.
We are closing in on the twentieth anniversary of ISSA's careful first steps to help Romani gain a better future, and neigh on the sixth anniversary of the REYN initiative. It has become a growing network of enthusiast, passionate advocates and practical teachers from within and outside the Roma and Traveller communities. The many small victories justify the path ahead. The struggles have made us wiser, more consistent. And as we are steadily breaking through this negative cycle, learning every step of the way, a clear and shiny compass is emerging from all of it. It is pointing away from thoughtless behaviors and forgetful minds, leading towards fully engaged equity and inclusion. And though we still have a long way to travel, we are without a doubt in the right company to do so.
The past doesn’t lie, but important happenings are sometimes forgotten or diminished. As a continent with clear messages of inclusion, and a post war history of fighting the front line for the betterment of its people, one people surely fell off Europe’s map. It is hard to figure out why, since when it comes to exclusion – or simply forgetting people – one rarely asks themselves why. So let’s start just by doing that. Why do we suddenly feel less interested or less compelled when it concerns the fate or betterment of the lives of Roma and Traveller* people?
Some may have no remembrance or historical grasp of the history of Roma and Traveller people at all. Although often when one starts mentioning clichés, such as caravans, or contemporary programs such as My big fat Gypsy Wedding – images of Roma and Travellers will arise. Images will arise, very likely along with some displaced sentiments we no longer know from where they came. We just know that they do. Some of them are romantic, others downright expired and untrue.
The estimates about the size of the Romani population in Europe range between eight to twelve million people, enough to fill a country. As a reference; Iceland has 350.000 inhabitants, Norway 5,5 million. And Greece – as of 2016 has 10,2 million Greeks within its borders. Roma are far from being the smallest ethnic group in Europe. Their numbers vast, their faces however strictly hidden away from public and the celebrations of European culture and life.
You will remember that Roma and Travellers used to be a travelling lot. Forcefully or not, freedom became their life philosophy, the very fiber of their being. Originating from northern India, as of the eight century, small populations gradually wavered across Europe. Often riding from one work opportunity to another, or settling in the outskirts of a larger city. Roma populations were made up mostly of small groups and also, a tight knit family.
In Eastern Europe, where larger populations with Roma family lived, they were forced into slavery, taken into ownership by rich families, monasteries, landowners and governments, withstanding all evils we know are accompanied by such horrification and dehumanization. The enslavement of Roma started in the 14th century and lasted far into the 19th century. After that, as we can imagine, the families took flight to other European nations in order to escape the enduring practices of evil behaviors towards them.
New hurdles where soon to be found however, because in the early 20th century – shortly after WW I – Traveller groups throughout Europe were forbidden by law to travel within country borders. Their ever moving presence apparently caused destress to locals, whom often believed them to be criminals, or who simply disapproved of their unbound way of living. But such was often said of people who didn’t match the native, preferred image. None the less, many of them stayed put – forced by the prohibition to travel – and settled down. Subsequently, the majority received an official status in the nation they resided, including the vote.
Diaspora & Annihilation
As European sentiments and the political narratives drastically impoverished in the 1930’s, Roma life in general became as complicated as for all others who didn’t fit the national picture. Stigma’s and evil tell tales were part of the greater nationalist propaganda machine that raged upon European soil, putting Roma and Travellers in the same marked box as homosexuals, Jews, people with mental or physical disabilities; being lower forms of life.
Consequently, throughout the WWII, huge populations of Roma’s were hunted down and murdered in destruction camps or elsewhere. And on Crimea – amongst other nations – the entire Roma and Traveller population were exterminated. In total, an estimated 600.000 people became victim of genocide, a devastating quarter to a fifth of the entire Roma population.
Post War Years
Situations improved a little after the war. The devastation to the population in general required able hands to work the mines, fields and factories and surviving Roma and Travellers were quickly doing their share during the reconstruction years. The scars of the wars cut deep however. Due to the Roma not having a government of origin to advocate for the passing of justice of WWII crimes performed against them, to secure apologies and claim compensation, their situation after the war in the long run became different in comparison to that of the Israeli. And it still shows.
The post year wars can also be marked by a pressured attempts to assimilate Roma families and their culture into the country of residence. And while some have and embraced a new culture and language. Some have fought for the survival of their language, culture and habits. In several nations living under Soviet regulations, involuntary sterilization programs were being rolled out, lasting as far as 1989/1990 when the whole system came down.
72 years have now passed since the war. For Roma and Traveller people however, only small voices have raised to help ease the hurt and damaged caused. Also, the shockwaves of nazi-propaganda and both seclusion-activism and passivism are ever apparent. Peace may have come to Europe, but people still show damaging behavior towards others. Passing on prejudice and impoverished manners onwards to others, from generation to generation. Without ever putting these manners to question, without ever wondering for what purpose such behavior was designed and cultivated.
Written by Jolanda Clement
With gratitude to Stanislav Daniel, program manager of REYN at ISSA – the International Step by Step Association – and to its associates and program partners throughout Europe, such as the Open Society Foundation. REYN is also sponsored by the European Commission.
*Throughout this article, both ‘Roma’ as well as ‘Roma and Travellers’ are being used, depending on the structure and readability of the text. In every case however, when referred to either one of those, while respecting diversity we intend all people being part of Roma, Sinti, Traveller groups and other settled or nomadic groups typically ascribed Romani ethnicity living in and bordering the European hemisphere.