“No, you are not Gypsy! You are a Romanianised Gypsy1!
“No, you are not Gypsy! You are a Romanianised Gypsy2! This was one of the most common categorisations my fellow Romanians bestowed upon me in my early years.
It meant I was a Gypsy who had gained Romanian attributes. “Gypsies” were, and unfortunately remain, a category of people wrested of the human dimension of their identity, stripped of any social attributions. It was bad to be a Gypsy in Romania in the 1980s: many times I carried the burden of being “discovered.” At that time, it was difficult for me to make and keep friends because soon I would discover that the children who liked me hated Gypsies. The time would always come when I had to decide whether or not to share my identity. I was always very scared of the reactions of my friends and their parents. When I was exposed to negative comments about Roma, I would decide not to share my identity. I did not hate them for this; I was just disappointed and upset that society could not accept me and Roma in general because of our ethnicity. I never imagined at that time that a movement would start to challenge stereotypes and fight racism against Roma.
When I was in fourth grade, one of my uncles was brutally killed by some other Roma. My family and I went to the funeral and I knew that my classmates saw me walking in the funeral procession. When I returned to school, everybody knew I was Romani. I watched for the reaction in their eyes and the way they spoke to me. I could feel the way they were looking at me and could sense the “Gypsy” comments on their lips but in the end they did not say anything; either because their parents advised them not to or because I was the best in my class and I was always helping colleagues with homework and schoolwork. To tell me I was Gypsy would contradict their stereotypes that Gypsies were only thieves, beggars, bad people, etc. As time passed, my ethnicity mattered less and less to my classmates and they were open with me as an individual. This experience helped my classmates look more deeply at what it means to be a Gypsy, confronting what they were told with what they experienced first hand. They become more conscious about their language: their comments about Roma were neutral or positive and more objective. If somebody outside the class spoke badly about me in any way, they would stand up to defend me.
During one of my summer vacations to visit relatives when I was in primary school, the police came to our house at a very early hour when everybody was still sleeping because the neighbours had complained about noise. The police took all the men and my mother to the police station, without allowing them to fully dress. They were returned after a few hours, having been interrogated and identified. My family did not make a big deal out of it: it was one of those things that happens to you (as a Romani person) that you do not do anything about. They seemed to be happy that nothing serious had happened. I often heard similar stories and worse in the 1980s: cases in which Roma were shot dead by police for theft and for which the police suffered no consequences.
The extent of abuse and violence against Roma grew, one might say proportionately, with the “freedom” appearing in society at large. This culminated in the 1990s following the collapse of Communism; a time when entire Romani communities were destroyed or burned to the ground by ethnic Romanians and Hungarians who also tried to kill Roma. One of my uncles lost his house in a pogrom and fled the country with his wife and child. My family had to take refuge in a neighbour’s apartment when a mob attacked Romani houses in our town. I was so scared and revolted! I felt that people had been nice to us earlier because they did not have a choice. The minute they seized power they showed their true colours, which meant killing people: my people. After the violence stopped, it took me a while to be close with some of my non-Romani friends again because I could not trust them or their parents.
In university I learned about the tools that I could use to fight discrimination. I was initially skeptical that Roma could be influential in developing policy but I soon got engaged in NGO work. In my first year of university, I started working to support the development of Romani language tools closely linked to what I was studying; by the time I finished university I moved on to focus on Roma policy development.
I observed a critical mass of Romani people fighting for recognition of Roma as an ethnic or national minority group. I learned that Roma were subjected to the same kind of discrimination, marginalisation and segregation all over Europe and that groups were advocating for the rights of millions of Roma throughout Europe. The more I learned about the situation of Romani people across Europe and got engaged with other young Romani people in human rights work, the more determined I was to make an important contribution to the advancement of the situation of Romani men and women and help improve the treatment of Roma.
In my professional career, I experienced the difficulties of influencing political decisions in favour of Roma. I have felt that Roma civil society lacks common priorities and strategies. There are only a limited number of Romani activists and NGOs working from a rights-based perspective: Romani Criss has been active since 1993 and has developed a network of human rights monitors active across Romania but their work has not been matched by other national Romani human rights organisations in Europe. The actions of Romani activists and organisations are often ad-hoc and poorly supported by other international organisations and institutions. Roma rights violations are widespread, while knowledge about human rights remains poor among Romani organisations and almost non-existent in Romani communities.
At the international level, rights-based responses have been articulated in the work of some international organisations and intergovernmental institutions. Some of these have worked more closely with Romani NGOs and individuals to elaborate policy demands, investing in building the capacity of Romani individuals to take up human rights and policy development work. For six years, I worked with the Open Society Institute and contributed to a process that empowers Romani individuals to help their local communities. While there I also developed my knowledge of the rights situation of Roma throughout Europe and contributed to the advancement of Roma rights at various political levels. Moving into the ERRC, I now have the opportunity to work more firmly from a rights perspective and address systemic rights violations through strategic litigation.
Although one organisation cannot litigate for 20 million Roma in Europe, strategic litigation – a legal challenge preceded, accompanied and followed by advocacy and research – can be a sustainable approach to facilitating access to civil and political, economic and social rights. I am more and more convinced that the lack of political will of governments can be countered only through a tough and straightforward rights approach: one which includes strategic litigation. Negotiation and campaigning for policy development will bring change if reluctant governments are compelled to take action. The ERRC is unique in that it combines these approaches. For Roma to be able to exercise their rights fully, we need more Romani organisations using the tools of litigation. While I am at the ERRC, I want to explore ways to make this happen and hope that future generations of Romani children will have better opportunities to define their own destinies and feel proud of who they are.
BIO: Isabela Mihalache is the Deputy Director of the European Roma Rights Centre after serving on the ERRC's Board of Directors. Previously, Ms Mihalache worked as the Senior Program Manager of the Open Society Institute's Roma Initiatives. In that role, she supported the elaboration and implementation of European and national policies for the integration of Roma, while leading and supporting regional and international mobilisation of Roma.
 This article has been originally published in the ERRC Roma Rights Publication, 2010: Implementation of Judgments, available at:
 I used the word “Gypsy” when referring to the way I was named, portrayed and perceived. In contrast, I used the word “Roma” when referring to myself and to Roma as a group of people in the way I and other Roma describe ourselves.