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”.
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.
Posted By Christina Hooson
Posted Jul 6th, 2009