When I was a child and my grand-mother told me why it is important for me to study, she always said: “, if I had had the chance to study, I would have turned the whole world upside down.” My grand-mother went to school until the fourth grade. At 11, at the time of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, her younger sister died of hunger in her arms. They were this poor. If I am this lucky, to have grown up not in a Roma ghetto at the very edge of a remote village, but in one of Budapest’s many housing projects, it is because she taught my mother never to give up. My father is from a family of Jewish intellectuals so my ancestors from both sides are Holocaust survivors.
Without a mother country, without supporters, without financial means, they are consistently the absentees of post-war negotiations and the very first victims of economic and social crises. In Hungary in the past few years, Molotov cocktails were thrown into the houses of nine Roma families. The perpetrators waited for parents and children to come out to escape the fire and shot them dead. Hundreds of Hungarian nationalists were marching each and every week in black uniforms in Hungarian villages to intimidate our communities, hoping they would just leave. Disappear.
It is their untold suffering that drove me through the Hungarian education system, from which I have many sour memories full of humiliation and where I learned about the prejudices a great majority of my classmates and teachers have about Roma. But I finished high school. And when I decided to become a sociologist, my only motive was to understand the reasons behind the social disparities I had witnessed since childhood, through my grand-mother’s stories and through my own eyes. I wanted to learn about the social and psychological structures which make our societies the way they are. Why do my people, the Roma, have to bear the burden of Europe’s most serious stigma on their shoulders? How is it possible that I am the only one among my Roma childhood friends who succeeded in getting a university degree?
Poverty and lack of education put a stamp on the future of millions of Roma children. I often hear from non-Roma people: if they are that poor, why do they have so many children? Because in our culture, children mean everything. They are the bearers of our traditions, our future. They are always a cause for happiness, whatever the circumstances. This is the reason why we even survived in the face of many centuries of oppression, slavery and forced assimilation.
I learned as a child about the power of the media, about the huge number of people we are able to reach through them. At that time, I was the only child in Hungary who, despite her dark skin, was shown on television as part of a “mainstream” show. When I finished college, it was clear to me that I had to use my knowledge for something useful. With my small crew, and with support from civil society, we have been travelling the world for four years now to bear witness to what the Roma are still going through. But also to see and make people see the beauties of our traditions and the incredible resilience of our people in the face of situations nearly all Europeans have only seen on TV or in movies. To put a face and a name on each story, to give a voice to the voiceless. We travelled to more than 30 countries, mainly in Europe. Here is one story that keeps coming back to my mind.
Jagoda Dumitrascu is from Kosovo. She has been living in Italy for 15 years now. I met her in a legal camp on the outskirts of Rome in 2008. In just a few minutes, I was thrown by the toughness of this woman who told me she had just one goal: to collect about 1000 Euros for her son’s operation. She had to do it despite living in a tiny container with six other people in a closed camp guarded by Italian police and filled with CCTV cameras for the camp director to keep a constant eye on the “illegals” – refugees from the Balkan wars without refugee status - naturally. I always remember Jagoda Dumitrascu when I get tired or wary of working a lot.
A great many among the people we have been talking with throughout the past years and throughout Europe do not even officially exist. Just like the feeling we have in Hungary that our societies want us to just disappear. Only they are actually realizing it in a way, and thus denying Roma a future, the opportunity to get health care, to go to school , to have running water, to work legally, to vote and have a voice in society…I am so often completely shocked by these experiences. For them, the Balkan wars are far from over. As we travel throughout Europe, and even in the US, we always meet Roma from the Balkans who are still fleeing since all European governments are looking for them so they can send them back to a Kosovo that we have visited many times over the years and where those who did not even have the means to flee in 1999 still live next to toxic slagheaps of 100 million tons, between the fires of Albanian and Serb nationalisms, in a region where unemployment is above 50% even for the majority. It is there, to Kosovska Mitrovica, that we go back every year to find the children a bit bigger than the year before but with less hair, looking less and less healthy.
In all the refugee camps, villages, neighbourhoods or cities we have visited over the past four years, we found incredible, everyday people, who make admirable efforts to ensure a better future for their children in the face of terrifying living conditions and prospects for the future. They study, they work, they teach…But prejudices about Roma are so deeply embedded into our societies that people do not even want to hear these stories. Even if they hear them, we have a hard time making them believe these are not lies.
What we do is nothing more than finding ways for these stories to come to light. For people like Jagoda Dumitrascu to become visible as they really are and not as most journalists present her, as the child-bearing machine/thief/burden on society representation of Roma that has prevailed throughout the centuries and is still so powerful. Our culture is still unknown to most, rumours and prejudices about who we are abound and make up a wall through which we are trying to break through to show, one story by one story, that we are individuals, mothers, daughters, wives. My grand-mother believed that she could make it through and it is now for me to make sure everyone knows that others made it through, too.