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The Roma's Long Road to Equality

From Self-Segregation to Institutionalized Racism, Why Bulgaria's "Gypsies" Have Struggled to Integrate

(Image credit: Flickr user Dominic Rivard)

To the ill-informed, the word "gypsy" evokes images of tarot cards and nomads wandering on horses through grasslands. But the Roma people (as they're properly called) have a complex culture that, even today, struggles to earn respect in Eastern Europe -particularly in Bulgaria. For more than a century, the Roma have sought basic human rights and equalities, but have gained little ground. Fortunately, change is on the horizon. With Bulgaria's recent admission into the European Union, the Roma finally find themselves on a hopeful path.

ROMA AROUND THE WORLD

To understand the Roma, it's best to start with the basics. Long ago, Europeans saw the Roma's dark skin and assumed they'd come from Egypt -hence the name "gypsy". In reality, the word is a misnomer. The Roma actually come from the Indian subcontinent, and they slowly migrated toward Europe early in the second millennia CE. Today's pockets of Roma are scattered all over the world. Not only do they constitute the the largest ethnic minority in Europe, they also rank as the fastest-growing ethnic group in many countries around the world.



Because the Roma have such a wide diaspora, it's difficult to define their culture and traditions in any certain terms. They do have their own language, called Romani (closely related to Punjabi and other Indian languages), though countless dialects exist. Influenced by whatever society surrounds it, each Roma community is different from the next.

One common value, however, is the importance of the extended family. Beyond simply "sticking together," most enclaves practice long-held Romani social behaviors based on purity laws, called marime. For instance, many Roma feel virginity is essential in unmarried girls. Furthermore, parts of the human body (particularly genitalia) are considered impure, so clothing must always be worn to cover the lower half of the body -and these clothes must even be washed separately. As a result, tradition Romani woman are easy to identify, based on the long skirts they wear to cover their lower halves and the head scarfs they use to cover their hair. Notoriously suspect to outsiders, many Roma also fear their children could be made impure by outside influences.



All in all, the Roma provide an interesting cultural case study because, while they're extremely good at settling into a nation, they struggle to assimilate into a society.  The Roma are isolationists -a community with a rich past but without any real sense of a homeland. The result has been a kind of ongoing identity crisis for them. And in Bulgaria, it's made them particularly vulnerable to hardship.

THE GREAT DIVIDE

Today, Bulgaria has one of the highest concentrations of Roma in the world. Official government tallies place the Romani population at approximately 370,000, although other researchers say that figure is closer to 750,000.

Whatever the exact number, there is a very defined -and very unpleasant- cultural, social, and economic divide between the Roma and the rest of Bulgarian society. As in most of Eastern Europe, the Roma in Bulgaria tend to live in ghettos and rundown squatter communities, well-separated from the majority population. With unemployment estimates as high as 80 percent, the Roma are blamed for one out of every four crimes. Only 12 percent seek higher education, while 18 percent are fully illiterate. In addition, they have limited access to insurance and other social benefits. And while there is one elected political party devoted to addressing Romani problems and concerns, it wields very little power. Even more distressing, however, is the Bulgarian educational system, which has been tremendously unfair to its Roma students.

(Image credit: Flickr user Ferran Jordà)

The inequality in the Bulgarian school system goes back to the fall of Communism in 1989, when Roma children were given two options- attend a "gypsy school," populated exclusively by Roma, or attend a school for children with mental handicaps. Both were problematic, as the first served to further segregate the Roma from other Bulgarians, while the second herded smart, healthy Romani children into special-needs facilities. The schools were eventually desegregated in 2003, but that hasn't completely remedied the problem. There are still 15-year-old Roma kids attending the first grade, and many who can't speak or write anything that isn't in Romani.

TWO SIDES TO THE COIN

To be fair, not all of the blame for Bulgaria's "Roma problem" should fall on racism or discrimination. The Roma protect their culture fiercely, and that sometimes deters them from learning the Bulgarian language or from getting mainstream jobs. Consequently, many Roma can be found begging on the streets, which leaves most Bulgarians feeling pestered. All of this has led to a national sense of resentment toward the Roma, which can be detected from the language. "You gypped me" is a common pejorative phrase there, just as "gypsy's work" is slang for a job not well done. And no matter what, Bulgarians probably won't stop referring to the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bag as "gypsies."

Simeon Blagoev, Roma Affairs expert at Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture (and a Rom himself), explained the situation to the World Press Review in these words: "Historically, the Roma have failed to integrate well into the society, but now they must choose between assimilation and misery."

UNION-IZED

Fortunately, the European Union (EU) seems to be providing light at the end of this bleak tunnel. For the pas few years, Bulgaria has vied earnestly for membership into the EU -mostly for the economic lift, but also for worldwide inclusion and respect. Before it could gain full membership, however, the country was forced to deal with its human rights "inconsistencies," such as school segregation. So in 1999, the Bulgarian government drafted the "Framework Programme for Full Integration of the Roma in Bulgarian Society," which finally acknowledged the need for the Roma to have the same rights and freedoms as all Bulgarians.


(YouTube link)

On January 1, 2007, Bulgaria became the 26th member of the European Union. And in its brief time of influence, the EU seems to have advanced the cause of Roma equality. It's encouraged Roma representation at all levels of government, and has shown approval for the formation of over 350 Roma associations (both governmental and non-governmental). The hope is that, eventually, all this effort will lead to more jobs and economic opportunities for Bulgaria's most impoverished ethnic community. Any way you look at it, it's a long road ahead. But the good news for all Roma is that the path is being paved.

________________________________

The article above, written by Eric Furman, appeared in the September - October 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!


I think if the Roma stopped pestering people, they would be treated much better. The Roma in France, for example, don't just sit there and beg - they actively cling on to you and, depending on the region you're in, they'll have different methods to try to get your attention or money. If anyone's interested, I can list some - they're pretty interesting, but really annoying...there's a lot of tentative grabbing involved too, which gives a sense of danger, though they're not violent as far as I know (or at least try not to be).

I've always wanted to talk to one, at least with gestures, but it's practically impossible. They either don't expect people to be nice to them, or they don't really care about getting to know everyone else and just want to take their money. Keep in mind, this is only an impression I get... impressions involve generalizing, but I don't expect everyone to be like that. If they want integration, though, that impression on people needs to be changed.
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There is a lot of mutual hostility between the Roma and whatever communities they show up in. There has to be some reform from within the Roma communities to let go of the idea of the 'gadjo' - the outsider who is impure and a fair target for all sorts of misbehavior. Societies with Roma communities need to soften up and reach out so that the Roma have reason to let go of their stereotypes of the gadjo. It will probably be a while, given that the Roma were heavily targeted along with the Jews in the Holocaust, and were treated brutally by Franco and others for so long.

Django Reinhardt was a Roma, and a master guitar player. I am a huge fan of him and the Manouche/Gypsy Jazz tradition he started. These days there are a lot of fans of Manouche Jazz that go to traditional Roma pilgrimage sites to hang out and play along with the Roma, and trade chops. This has actually been a net positive. Things like this could help to start building bridges, even if it's only a small step.
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Idil: I had the same kind of experience in Tbilisi in Eastern Europe. That's a ways from France, and it's interesting how they acted almost exactly the same.

The gypsies would hang out on the main shopping street in Tbilisi and at bus stations, making it very difficult to avoid them.

The gypsy kids, ages 3 to 20 years, would block me and my wife so we'd have to stop walking. They'd grab on to us, swear at us, follow us, and generally be a huge pain. They didn't have any clever ways of getting out attention, though.
They have a reputation for stealing as well. I believe it. They are the main reason I never enjoyed walking around that city.

It's impressive that the EU is trying for better treatment for them. Sure, why not give them a chance? But after being harassed so many times, I'm finding it difficult to be compassionate.
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I am from Bulgaria. I am not a racist nor do I have anything against the Roma people but I do have some negative things to say about this article. The writer, Mr. Furman makes it seem like the Roma people have no human rights in my country, which is as far from the truth as possible.

While it is true that during the communist regime there were segregation issues and denying that fact would be a prime example of hypocrisy, things weren't as bad as, for instance, the fate of African-Americans in the US of A couple of decades ago.

Now things are different. Roma people have the same rights as any Bulgarian. They can send their children to any school public school they want (or private, if they can afford it, which a few can). Yet many choose not to. Instead a majority make their children work, or in many cases teach them how to steal. Some even cut the thumbs of their children so they make more efficient pickpockets.

I seriously detest the implications Mr. Furman presents - that the Roma people are wrongly accused for one out of every for crimes committed. They are blamed for one fourth of the crimes because they do commit them. It has been proven by sociological studies that regions with larger Roma communities have higher rates of crime.

I can speak on this topic from personal experience. Twice people have tried to steal from me on public transportation vehicles. Twice the perpetrators were Roma. The second time, since I was more vigilant, I was able to catch the hand of the woman in my pocket. She began screaming that I was molesting her until the vehicle came to a stop and she was able to run away. I have seen other people being mugged several times. Always by Roma.

Me and my family have a small cottage in the town were my grandfather was born. Over the course of 15 years the house has been robbed 3 times. All the robbings were committed by - you guessed it - Roma.

In that same village, two or three houses away from ours a Roma family sold their house to a foreigner (I believe he was from France). The man who bought the house renovated it and when winter came he left for his country. The family who sold him the house came and stole everything from the house. The neighbors reported them to the police but there wasn't enough evidence. Two months later the same family came back AND TOOK THE HOUSE APART BRICK BY BRICK AND STOLE THE WHOLE BUILDING. THAT is what we call "gypsy’s work" in Bulgaria, not as the article states "a job not well done". When we want to say that a job has not been done well we say - "Bulgarian work". It is weird, I know. We are a self-hating people.

I also must protest against the claims that Roma people do not receive social benefits in Bulgaria. It is statistically easier for a Roma person to receive welfare than a Bulgarian. Do you know what happens when a Bulgarian person does not pay his electric bill for a month? He gets his electricity cut out. Do you know what happens when a hole neighborhood of Roma don't pay their bills for 6 months? Nothing. Do you know why? Because the electric company can not send representatives to turn of the electricity because they will be beaten to death. If the company tries to cut the electricity to the whole neighborhood, the Roma come out and riot as if they have been wronged.

What I dislike most about the article is that it singles out Bulgaria as the country which treats the Roma people the worst. This is not true. Romania has the same problem. There are many examples of countries struggling with the Roma communities and the most recent one is the deportation of large groups of Roma from France.

All that aside, I personally know of Roma families that study hard and work hard and they have my respect. Unfortunately they are a minority within a minority.
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I can't speak for the entire culture as the impression I got was based on a select few experiences, however the impression I did get when I was in Rome was overwhelmingly negative.

When I was entering the train terminal to head to the airport to leave Rome, I noticed groups of gypsies (Roma, whatever) selling items from open suitcases on the street. When I was sitting at a table in the food court within the terminal, a gypsy man came up to me and began speaking his language to me (not Italian), which I obviously didn't understand. Suspicious, I turned around to check my suitcase that was on my other side and noticed a second man reaching for, and about to run off with all of my luggage. I yelled my head off at him and they both slinked off. Keep in mind I was only 16 at the time, and I think it's disgusting that they obviously picked me out as easy prey because I was young and alone.

Other encounters included women throwing themselves at people's feet, clutching to their ankles and wailing dramatically, and a woman begging while holding her baby in the dead of Winter that looked like it was about to pass out from the cold because it was dressed in only a singlet and nappy while the mother was wearing warm clothes, using her child to garner pity by begging for money to cloth it, when she could have just wrapped the baby in one of her many shawls.

The gypsies appeared to especially target tourists and it was quite confronting having men follow me up the street, first begging, and then hurling abuse at me when I ignored them. There were also 2 incidences where gypsy men grabbed my hair (perhaps because it's long and red?). I never felt safe walking the streets of Rome.

I agree with nemo that there needs to be some reform in the gypsy community before they can be accepted as valued members of the wider community.
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As a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria (2005-2007), I worked with Roma children directly and had friendships with adults as well. I have a lot of hope for this community, but just like any segregated and impoverished people, they have a lot of progress to make. It's not simply a matter of ending discrimination. It's about ending institutional racism and generational poverty. I don't see that ending any time soon, and it's been a hard slog making what progress we have on the same issues in America.
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Cellania I would like to send you some "zigani" to integrate with your people in Kentucky...
I really don't know what connection you have with Bulgaria or how well you know the situation about the matter, but please don't bother about problems that you cannot eventually understand and that are not of your concern.
If you had to live everyday with these people you would know that they can blame themselves if there's a problem with their integration.
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I was denied my teacher's certification in 1991 based on my ethnic background, which includes Rom. It wasn't until 1995 or so that New Jersey's anti-Gypsy law was finally removed from the books and I could get my certification. Although seldom enforced (mostly because most New Jerseyans were unaware of the law's existence), it could legally be used to prevent one from obtaining a house, a job, a license or certificate... Oh, but we still had to pay taxes, of course.
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I am so sick of the Neatoramabot! It's been about 12 hours and my comment still hasn't been approved. Not only do the moderators not go over the comments in line for moderation quickly enough (what is the point of writing a comment if it takes so long to approve that nobody ever even reads it), but it is far too sensitive. there have been multiple times when I have written 1 sentence with nothing even remotely offensive and it triggers the Neatoramabot. What the hell is the criteria that is used to trigger the Neatoramabot anyway? Can't you moderators do something about it?
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I'm with you Jessss. This is the third time my comment has been stopped by the NBot and it was never for a good reason. What use is there to write a comment if it is going to be visible a whole 2 days later when the original article will be on page 2 or 3?
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I used to live in San Diego near a recreational vehicle resort and have had contact with American gypsies in the past. They stole all the toilet paper out of the bathrooms at this resort and were generally very confrontational and guarded. It doesn't surprise me that they haven't integrated well into society.
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What the writer forgot to say is that the Roma culture holds in high esteem stealing (for men and children) and begging and swindling (for women), on the basis that "the other races are to be prayed upon".

These activities are, unfortunately, not accepted by the laws of civilized countries - and no amount of "cultural heritage" bulls will convince the victims otherwise.

As usual, if anyone wants to live in a specific country, he/she has to live by its laws. What's so strange about it?
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Am I the only one here who wants to know what the kid in the first picture is doing with the knife??? How do you write a whole article about how they need sympathy when the little dude in the first picture is like "I cut you soooo gooooood..."
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@Briannana

I laughed :-)

What he is holding in his hands are actually shears. Behind the people in the picture there is a vineyard if I'm not mistaken. As I mentioned in my previous post the Roma people prefer to make their children work instead of sending them to school. The shears in the little guys hands are the tool he uses to cut the grapes from the plant.
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@Briannana
The kid has specific kind of scissors used for cutting vines.
I am Bulgarian and have the feeling that this article is more or less irrelevant to the reality.
For example my granny has 40years + of working experience and the government pays her 130bgn ~ $90 per month. The so-called Roma gets the same money(per person) without any required working experience.
It is a shame that such articles appears in nice places such as neatorama.
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In the UK Gypsies are often banded together with Travellers.

Travellers are harassed continually, never allowed a moments peace and are shunned wherever they go. On the flipside they will occupy any spare land without any care for trespass law - in the UK about 99% of land if not all of it is owned by someone. They will share no concern for the welfare of the land or anyone nearby. I'm speaking through experience here not ignorance. On many occasions they would camp opposite my work, be forcibly moved within a week and in that week they will have littered everywhere, fouled the ground with dog poop and cut down trees for firewood or anything else. On several occasions employees would be attacked by the dogs and they would tear up the grass with quad bikes. Genuine Roma unfortunately are pretty much always seen as Travellers and treated with the contempt that travellers often bring upon themselves.
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Very biased article.

In Scandinavia as well the gypsies are known for stealing, and for causing scenes, like coming into a restaurant and starting screaming and being generally obnoxious.
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"There are still 5-year-old Roma kids attending the first grade, and many who can’t speak or write anything that isn’t in Romani."

How is that discriminatory? 5-year-olds are supposed to be in the first grade. And why would you send your kids to a Bulgarian school if you didn't want them to learn to speak Bulgarian? My father couldn't speak English when he started the first grade - that's why my grandparents sent him to school.
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An expat American living in Eastern Europe here- We live with Gypsies here as well. They do not contribute to the economy or beauty of any place where I've seen them. They harass, heckle, beg and steal. They are dirty- always. And that's not prejudice- that's what they look like, grimy. In Odessa, I saw Gypsy 'houses' (not sure if that's the right word- palace would be more like it- massive and elaborate).
I agree with a sentiment expressed above- if they want to integrate, they're going to have to do something for their own cause. I saw Gypsies in Paris- they were a serious detraction. They send their tiny children to beg (where I come from, any parent who sent his 3, 4, 5 year old child out to do stuff like that would be investigated by child protective services). My friend's sisters were visiting her and wouldn't give money to a Gypsy woman who wouldn't leave them alone. Finally, the Gypsy got angry and lifted her skirt and tried to pee on them.
An interesting anecdote someone shared about Gypsies- They feel it is their God-given right to beg instead of work (and people are obligated to help them) because a Gypsy stole the nails with which Christ was nailed to the cross, thereby 'easing' his suffering!!
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