Christina Hooson

Christina Hooson (Dženo Association): Christina completed her BA in European Studies in London. At the time of her fellowship, Christina was studying for her Masters in International Affairs and Governance at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. She first came across the issue of Roma Rights during her Bachelor studies in the context of the democratisation process in Eastern Europe.

Roma from Rome?

06 Jul

It seems as though I may have been a little hasty in taking the first plunge into the depths of everything Roma: I was asked yesterday whether Roma were originally from Rome. All I managed in reply was a suppressed snigger. With hindsight such a response was unfair; the comment wasn’t so much naïve as just exemplifying how little most of us know about the Roma. I’d applied for the Dzeno Fellowship precisely because any Roma facts I could recall were vastly outnumbered by presumptions emanating from the few encounters I’d had with gold toothed Roma insistent upon washing my car windscreen. The Roma-Rome question reminded me of this and highlighted the need for a short excursion into the past before embarking upon the contemporary tale of discrimination and exclusion. What follows isn’t a definitive guide (there’s always wiki!) but just some Roma essentials…

If the Roma aren’t from Rome, then where?

Interestingly the word ‘gypsy’ itself (used synonymously for Roma and regarded by many as derogatory) has its origins in misunderstanding: It derives from ‘Egyptian’ as in the Middle Ages Roma were believed to have come to Europe from Egypt. In fact, linguistic and genetic evidence indicates they originated from the Indian subcontinent, emigrating from India towards the northwest no earlier than the 11th century. By the 14th century Roma reached the Balkans and Bohemia and by the 15th, they arrived in Germany, France, Italy and Spain and Portugal. Today, Roma and Sinti make up the largest minority in Europe with some 10 to 12 million members. Those of eastern European descent are called “Roma” and those of central European origin are referred to as “Sinti”.

Estimated Roma Population in Europe (World Bank 2006)

And they travel around a lot, right?

In the minds of many, Roma and Sinti are still associated with homeless “nomads”. Yet for many centuries – particularly in Europe – they have been integrated in and are citizens of their respective countries of nationality. Most European Governments recognise Roma and Sinti as national minorities who, in addition to the national culture of the majority, also cultivate their own cultural identity, including their traditional language, Romany.

So the discrimination the Dzeno Association aims at addressing is something new?     

On the contrary: Since their arrival in Europe, hostility and xenophobia have culminated in Roma being subject to slavery, ethnic cleansing, children abduction and forced labour. The more recent past has bore witness to the systematic attempt at genocide of the Roma by the Nazis during World War II and the assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom under Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Despite democratisation and Europeanisation in Central and Eastern Europe, Roma today face discrimination in the form of exclusion from employment, housing, education and health care and have been the victims of numerous violent racially motivated attacks. The recent electoral successes of right extremist parties across Europe make their plight even more of a pressing issue.

The Congress of London of the International Romani Union in 1971 defined the flag of the Roma people like a red wheel, taking again all the Indian symbolic system of the wheel, centered on two-tone bottom: blue higher half, symbolizing the Sky, infinite father of Humanity, and green lower half, symbolizing the Earth, mother of Humanity.

Posted By Christina Hooson

Posted Jul 6th, 2009


  • Stacy Kosko

    July 7, 2009


    So glad you wrote this. It’s easy to forget how little the average person (and especially the average American) knows about Roma… how little I once knew (…and, in many respects, how little I still know…)!

    Often in the Q&A after I present a development policy paper on one topic or another (using a Roma case study), the questions I find myself answering are about the Roma and not about my policy discussion. In many ways, this isn’t a bad thing. As long as part of the “problem” is ignorance about the issue, these are good questions.

    An important place to start. Thanks for this.

    • Christina Hooson

      July 8, 2009


      Thanks for the comments Stacy. It’s strange being in a city where the resentment towards a community is more visible than the community itself. I was a little worried about writing an intro on Roma – worried of falling into to the trap of doing exactly that which needs to change…excessive stereotyping. But I’m glad of the reassurance.

      Hope things are going well in Bucharest and thank you for following.
      Ivan sends his love.

  • iain

    July 29, 2009


    Lots of thought and expertise behind this comment by Stacy, who helped to introduce AP to Dzeno and has gone deeper and deeper into these issues since returning. Stacy, glad that you’re using Christina’s blogs to keep up to speed with your old friends!

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