The Roma: a gypsy by any other name?

September 24, 2010

It was unusual. A bald statement by a BBC journalist.
Normally, I do not turn on the telly until late evening to catch up on national and world events. Today I did turn it on morningside. Flicking about, I chose the Beeb World News. A reporter had just started babbling on about the Roma (a.k.a. gypsies)  in France. La Republique Francaise, it seems, is not keen on having the Roma set up camp across the country, willy-nilly. A project initiated by Sarkozy, the French President, to have them expelled has met with a mixture of relief and scepticism. Viviane Redding, the European Commissioner for European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship called this plan akin to the extermination of gypsies by the Nazis. Hyperbole? Sarkozy was miffed and suggested that perhaps Luxembourg should take all the gypies coming to France (Redding is a Letzburger). This was a naughty thing to say given that Letzburgers are a minority in their own country (about 40% of the population is first and second-generation Portuguese). This tit-for-tat will continue, no doubt. Anyway, back to the Beeb reporter.
The correspondent was reporting on a project to get the Roma temporarily housed until they get their feet on the ground. As a man of large build states in today’s Swedish-language Finnish national newspaper, neither of these countries offer the Roma anything. Nothing. The Beeb report shows us cleaned up children having a lark in a well-ordered encampment, somewhere in France, in which families can actually feel secure. It shows us people who are genuinely keen on getting on with life: schooling their children, finding jobs, becoming independent and well-functioning families. The reporter tried the balanced view – as we all expect of the Beeb. His statement: “Even the critics acknowledge that wherever the Roma land, crime follows them.” Caught my ear. Of course, the cameraman caught a Roma woman sucking away at a rather large cigarette while another was hoarsely tongue-lashing the camera that not all Roma are thieves. Certainly not.
In today’s Hufvudstadsbladet (the national paper I mention above) carries a full page article – from the Roma frontlines somewhere Romania – who returned from France two hundred Euros richer, thanks to Sarkozy. Yes, it is admitted that the new houses they are building (but not to code standards) are the result of pro-active begging in far off corners of Europe, but the Bulgarian and Romania governments do nothing for them so they are obliged to move on to greener pastures, beg in these far fields and return with the goods to build their not-to-code houses.  It was better in communist times, one man pipes up to the camera. I only know this because I understand the odd phrase in Romanian.
Their next target is Spain. This, one gypsy man claims, is the Golden City of Cortes. Collecting scrap metal is lucrative and with a bit of begging to supplement income, the hawk-eyed gypsy can aim for a Beamer in the driveway and by golly there it is. OK, you might think that admitting to such crass and inappropriate desires is tantamount to showing you do indeed deserve all the scorn that can by heaped on your head. Not so. I want a Beamer too. In the neighbours yard so that I can scornfully girn everytime I walk past. Hah, I would tell no one in particular, what a crass little man who thinks that fine well-tuned mound of German steel will get him through the eye of the needle. Fat chance. Fat wide tyres. Nice rims. Don’t like the colour though.
Gypsies, Roma, tinkers, travellers or whatever name you put to them are a Europe-wide problem. I would stick my neck out and suggest that regardless of which ‘mainstream’ European you ask, they pucker their lips in a similar fashion when discussing gypsies. This could suggest that their mistrust of this rootless people is a common heritage. Why is this so? Why, after 500 years, do we have a minority of people who have yet to integrate? Why are these people stigmatized in such a way as to make their flight from their own ghettos almost impossible? Who or what is to blame for their plight?
I have read a lot on this issue and cannot for the life of me understand what it is that keeps this community shackled to misery. I have travelled in their communities, met them in their ‘own grounds’ and tried to understand them. But therein lies the problem. I do not understand them – even when we speak the same language.
Integrating Roma is difficult. Finnish gypsies are a good example of a minority which, should be easy to integrate as they do not physically stand out from the host community that is if they were to don a pair of jeans like every Tom, Dick and Jari. But they do stick out. They make a point of wearing garments which set them aside from the the man-on-the-street. Is the question then not of integration but of separateness? Do they want to be different? Is it possible that after 500 years we have yet to learn the lesson that gypsies do not want to be integrated but indeed want to remain separate. I do not know. What I do know is that I do not like to see gypsies using their children as pawns in their begging sprees. I do not like to be accosted by young gypsy women with shining baubles hanging off their fists trying desperately to cadge a Euro or two for jewellery of suspicious pedigree.
We cannot sit back and justify our passivity by uttering the meek mantra: This is the way they want to live. No doubt some do. Surely most do not. It is all well and good to look the other way when a (usually) woman comes at you with an outstretched begging hand. It is another when a child is press-ganged into this demeaning activity and you have to turn away in cold remorse. Even though my faith exhorts me to respect respect all human beings as my brothers and sisters, I do find it difficult at times. Is it appropriate to respect humans beings who are so morally ambivalent as to use their children in nefarious activities? Should we allow families to raise children to become beggars (and er, thieves) and continue this as though it was a valued and valuable cultural tradition? Should mothers and fathers be permitted to teach their children the skills of crafty conniving, the very same that have kept them enslaved in misery, poverty and hopelessness for many hundreds of years? Is it indeed not a neighbour’s to help? Is it not our duty to state clearly what is right and wrong? Is it not our duty to demand respect for everyone including for our very own selves?

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