Most people I’ve told about this internship get what I mean when I say I’m working with Roma – in the West (at least in PC circles) “Roma” is firmly taking over as the correct term for the derogatory “gypsy,” even if the image of who these people are hasn’t necessarily updated with the name. When I get to “Ashkali” and “Egyptian” though, I’ve usually lost whoever I’m talking to. What’s an Ashkali, and why am I concerned about Egyptians in Kosovo?
The response to “Who are these people?” depends on who you ask – and I definitely don’t have a solid answer. But the story of these groups’ existence in Kosovo is one of divergence, convergence, and political machinations and persecution that’s quite confusing to outsiders, if not to those who are living it. It’s been extremely interesting to learn about these identities, picking up bits here and there. I’ll be adding to this as I learn more, but here’s my basic version, two weeks in:
The Roma: Roma in Kosovo are members of a people who migrated from India to Europe over a thousand years ago, and have been in Kosovo for at least 700 years. They speak the Romani language, usually in addition to either Serbian or Albanian – although more often Serb. Because of their perceived support of the Serbs, they were the victims of a violent backlash when Albanians returned to Kosovo at the end of the 1999 conflict (even though they also faced persecution by the Serbs in some areas as well). There are different subgroups among Kosovo Roma, but they all identify as Roma or Gypsy. They live in different enclaves around the country – in Prizren, Gračanica, Mitrovica, Gjilan, and others. Since the end of the war, there are very few in Pristina.
The Ashkali: Non-Roma became aware of this group as distinct from Roma during the 1999 war, when Ashkalis declared themselves separate from the often Serbian-speaking Roma to avoid persecution from the majority Albanians. (Of course, there’s no clear line of loyalty here – some Ashkalis supported the Serbs as well.) Ashkalis trace their origins from Iran, saying that when they arrived in the Balkans in the 4th century they picked up the language of the Illyrians living there, which is why they speak Albanian as their first language today. They live primarily in the center of Kosovo and in the east.
The Egyptians: They emerged as a self-declared group in fits and starts from the 1970s through the 90s, claiming Egyptian heritage that separates them from Roma and Ashkalis. Albanian is the first language for most. Their enclaves are mainly in the west of Kosovo.
Before 1999, there were 150,000 – 200,000 members of these three groups in Kosovo – a sizeable percentage of Kosovo’s population of around two million. The overwhelming majority fled for their lives during the conflict, and few have returned (even fewer voluntarily) since. Now there are between 35,000 and 40,000 members of these communities in Kosovo; I haven’t found a reliable figure for each group.
Together, they are “among the most marginalized groups in Kosovo” (this is their constant label – more on this later). As a group, they face exclusion in almost every sphere of life in Kosovo – most live in poverty, 98-100% are officially unemployed, they lack access to basic services like healthcare, education, and resources to claim their rights.
Because they face similar issues of exclusion and supposedly have similar heritage, the three communities have been grouped together by the international community and the government under a convenient acronym – RAE – so that aid programs are sure to address the needs of all three groups. You rarely see a program just addressed at Roma; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ashkali or Egyptians mentioned without at least one of the other groups. So while they’re nominally considered separate, the international community is signaling that these are all basically the same people, with the same problems, same needs.
What’s the real story?
The members of these communities who I’ve talked to have very different opinions on where the lines separating these identities should be drawn.
Some have told me that the division between the three groups is falsely accentuated. A trio of Roma journalists working for a national Romani-language radio program I spoke with each told me that the differences weren’t substantial. “We are all gypises,” one of them, Daut Qulangjiu, said with a smile. His colleague, Avdi Misini, told me that the labels of Ashkali and Egyptian were inventions of Milosevic, who in the 1980s and 90s wanted to divide the Roma for political reasons. (Apparently, the total number of Roma (including Ashkali and Egyptians) in Yugoslavian Kosovo outnumbered the Serbs in the region. So, rather than accept that Serbs were a minority among the minorities, Milosevic created/played up an emerging division in the Roma to put the Serbs in the dominant minority position.) This timeframe coincides with Egyptian and Ashkali appearance as accepted minorities, but the Egyptians, at least, had petitioned to become a recognized ethnic group earlier.
He went on to say that self-identified Ashkali and Egyptians have their history wrong. This is in line with those who say that Ashkalis are Roma who simply “lost” the Romani language and so speak Albanian, and that the legend of any Egyptian origins is just a legend – that that group is made up of Albanized Roma as well.
Both Misini and Qulangjiu emphasized that the three groups intermarry because none labels the other two as “gadje” (“other”), and that they’re so mixed that they’re functionally one community – a Rom may have Ashkali cousins and an Egyptian wife, and even within the same family people might self identify differently – an Egyptian might have one Ashkali brother and a Roma sister. The message I got from this: it’s important to maintain solidarity among these three groups – emphasizing the differences just makes them weaker and easier to manipulate. A very legitimate point considering the basically nonexistent position of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo politics!
An Ashkali NGO director (whose name I didn’t get permission to use) had very different feelings. He prickled at the labeling of the three groups the “RAE community.” According to him, it’s rightfully the “Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communitIES.” He told me that his niece, also an NGO worker and an Ashkali, refuses to participate in interviews about the “RAE” people, insisting that her identity as Ashkali be recognized separately. He said that the idea that all three came to Europe from India is ignorant – an easy way to categorize Balkan people with darker skin. Generalizing them into RAE denies them of their heritage and their right to have their identity recognized and respected.
I’ve started to pick up on a resentment about this melding of three peoples into one group from other representatives of these communities as well. Some have mentioned that it’s now impossible to get funding for projects that only address the needs of one of these communities, that it’s implied to be discriminatory to not include all. It sounds like it’s worthwhile to ask, Could this attempt by international organizations to be inclusive be sowing resentment between the three groups? In treating these groups as one, are we missing the complexity that each group may be facing different challenges that need different solutions?
My initial take on it
My stance is that self-identification matters. I know that the international community loves convenient acronyms, but labels should be used with care. Maybe it’s time to reexamine why this one came about, and how it’s affecting these communities.
One last thought on the question of who the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians of Kosovo are. We can say that what defines them is partly blood, partly culture, heritage, maybe language, and self-identification.
What are things that don’t define the Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian people? Poverty, lack of education, silence, powerlessness. It may sound ridiculously obvious, but I think that this is an important point to make. It’s easy to accept the common picture many have of Roma across Europe, reinforced by countless reports on the terrible situations they face – to picture people who are illiterate, desperately poor, probably unkempt and living in squalid conditions, powerless, foreign to every country. Google images for “Kosovo Roma” and see what you find: how often are we challenged to think of Roma (and, now that we’re aware, Ashkali and Egyptians) that don’t meet these stereotypes? These might be the conditions of many Roma – but they don’t constitute a definition.
I’ve spent the last two weeks meeting Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians who defy these common perceptions – among them Shpresa and Diana of RROGRAEK and all the young Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian students who came to RROGRAEK’s last training. These individuals, and their work, should challenge the majority to include Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians as more than a static stereotype and a permanent “other” in its picture of Kosovo’s present and future.
Next post: moving on from identity to the current situation of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo.
Also, for a vivid peek at Roma culture in Kosovo, check out the excellent Balkanproject.org – it has dozens of fantastic interviews with Roma from around Kosovo, often with audio and video recordings, plus a large collection of articles on different facets of Roma life and culture up to 2004.
Posted By Samantha Hammer
Posted Jun 12th, 2011