I entered the elaborately decorated meeting room a bit confused about my particular reason for being there. The World Bank conference agenda, presented to me the previous morning upon my arrival at the Hotel Astoria, said “Meeting of Roma Media Representatives.” As I had taken the place of a Romany journalist on the conference participant list, I was now registered as a part of the Romany Press, however non-Roma, or non-Press, I considered myself.
I crept through the unfamiliar faces in the crowd towards the refreshments table, seeking the cup of coffee that would undoubtedly calm my nerves. Grabbing a saucer and a flaky pastry, I turned around to the face of a smiling older woman, who began “Kimberly Birdsall, yes?” She introduced herself and her organization, and then continued, “So why are you here at this meeting, and not someone else from the Dzeno Association, such as Ivan, or Dana perhaps?”
My question exactly. I was definitely not the best representative of Dzeno for such an event, and I stuttered through a meaningless “I don´t know” type-answer. However, as this query was repeated to me by two new people in the next five minutes, some things became crystal clear to me. First, most everyone in the room knew each other, not abnormal in the relatively small Roma community, even across many countries. And second, they knew that they didn’t know me. And it was questionable if they wanted to. Slightly confused and definitely uncomfortable, I snuck up to my room to call my boss, Ivan Vesely. He was staying at the posh Hotel Intercontinental with the rest of the official conference participants. And, he was completely unaware that a meeting of Roma Media Reps was even occurring on this Sunday. Our language barrier, especially over the phone, takes extra time and a heap of patience. After convincing him that it was more important for him to come to this meeting than for me to come and meet some European officials that he was having coffee with, he agreed to hop in a cab for the Hotel Astoria.
Returning to the Green Room and the questioning eyes of the group, I took a seat next to a Swedish businessman, also a decided outcast. I know how to pick them out – misery definitely loves company. I assured myself that it was not as bad as the strange pit in my stomach made it seem. I am interested in learning as much about Roma as I can, and wanted to attend this media event whether or not I was supposed to be here. And, as the official conference did not start until tomorrow, this meeting was sure to be more stimulating than a day wasted lounging around the pool all day.
And then, the door opened. And just like that, the energy in the room changed. Mr. Ivan Vesely entered, bringing with him his magnetic personality and carefree charm. Loose flowing shirt, tousled dark hair and a sweeping smile that touched off the same elated emotion in every person who looked upon him. He pranced his way around the room, grasping the outreached hands of everyone, greeting them like the old friends they undoubtedly were. And somehow the space at the head of the table had been left open, and when Ivan filled it, it couldn´t have felt more normal, more right.
Ivan Vesely is a fighter. If I had one word to describe him, that would be it. Military son of a military man, their family has fought in war after war to preserve their nation. And now Ivan fights a different war, for a different nation, the Roma against the white majority who would keep them repressed. He would take on the world if he could, and works in every possible part of Roma development, culture, politics, education, and media. For 15 years he has been a leader in this battle, and although he sees changes, however small, he knows there is a long road ahead.
Ivan will sit me in his office for hours, telling me stories about his grandfather, about his experiences working in UNMIK, about his strategies for the future. He does this to educate me, a beginner, on the reality of the Roma situation. His reality. To teach me the legacy of communism, and that socialism can be a bad word if you happen to be a minority in society. To warn me of the European way of reneging on promises, of the racism and lethargy that stops real improvements in the Roma position. And I absorb every word, as his determination scalds me with an urge to help, to prove to him I am worthy and not just another disinterested white girl. I work to please him, and it pleases me to work for him.
Posted By Kimberly Birdsall
Posted Jul 9th, 2003