Racism beat it
Every country has its favourite scapegoat and for Romanians it`s the Gypsies. Romanians stealing abroad? ?Gypsies. People begging in the streets? ?Gypsies. Rapists, robbers, car thieves, abandoned children? ?All Gypsies. Fortunately, some Romanians have opinions that are a little more open-minded, especially when they are directly confronted with the question: `what do you think of Gypsies?`
When confronted with that direct question, most of my respondents try to find words to describe that Gypsies are people, just like Romanians are people and all humans are people. However, during most other conversations that unintentionally touch upon any negative aspect of Romanian life, it`s the Gypsies who are quickly blamed. Many Romanians readily admit that they are scared of Gypsies. They fear to be robbed or molested by their compatriots, who are though of as living obscure lives and dirty lives at the edge of the city, and spend their days begging and stealing.
`I can be more of a gentleman than many Romanian men`
Roma, as the Gypsies are officially named, have never had a very good reputation in Romania. Before WWII, they worked as slaves for Romanian families. During the war, Romania`s pro-Nazi leader Antonescu had many of them deported and communism put a further strain on the life style of the Roma. Some Romanians argue that the communist days were actually the best of all, because the Roma were put to work like the Romanians were. They were forced to live in houses and lead `normal` lives, suspend their traditions and behave like `proper` Romanians.
In present day Romania, the Roma population can count on two different forms of discrimination: positive and negative. On the positive side, they are encouraged to attend school and, unlike Romanians, they have access to free study programs, free books and free study materials. A number of NGOs and religious organisations help promote the integration by setting up exchange programs between Roma and Romanians.
Negative discrimation is another fact of life that Gypsies can take for granted. Depending on their appearance, they may not be welcome in shops and are susceptible of being chased out of public transportation. Today`s young Romanians have grown up with the idea that Roma are dangerous and unreliable ? and that they should be ignored and avoided whenever possible. Romanians tend to know very little about the daily lives of their Roma compatriots. Anka (28) thinks that Roma are not very well-integrated: `I used to have one Roma classmate, but I have never known any of them personally. I think they all speak Romanian but I`m not sure. I don`t know what church they attend either.`
Simi (24), who grew up in a `neighbourhood full of Gypsies` thinks that narrow-mindedness of Romanians is a more serious problem than anything the Roma could actually do wrong: `There are barely different from Romanians. They too like to stick to their traditions, they too tend to have big families, they too need to work hard to make a living. If nobody is willing to give you a chance, of course you will become creative in ways to make money. They have plenty of talents and are renowned for them. Romanians perfectly know where to book a Gipsy family to play music at their weddings. Roma are also the perfect people to get the gutter of your house fixed. They are good at anything that requires manual labour, ranging from gardening to wood carving and making music.`
Simi continues: `I don`t think it`s just Roma who emigrate to other countries to beg and steal.
There are at least as many Romanians and Yugoslavians who do the very same, but we prefer to blame it on a specific group and keep our own conscience clean. Many think of Roma as unintelligent because few of them make it to higher education. But see how they go to France, collect old clothes, manage to sell them for more and make a living out of that. You must be smart if you are able to sell people their own clothes!`
Andrei (20, photo) confirms that there are many different Roma clans: `I am part of the Matasa clan, which stands for silks and refers back to the profession of my grand-grandparents. Other groups are the Linguari, Sitari, Hugari, Gabor and Culturali. I would exaggerate if I said that there were big tensions between the groups, but there are occasional quarrels. We sort them out among ourselves, and that`s not something any outsider would want to be involved in`
Andrei explains that the Gabor are a particular group of Roma. The Gabor can easily be recognised by their dress codes. Men, even young boys, wear hats and women wear colourful dresses and golden earrings. Members of the Gabor clan are very strict about following their traditions. Their weddings are usually arranged by the parents well in advance, and they get married at the age of 14 or 15. Unlike most Roma populations, they are very rich up to extremely rich: `They have managed to make money abroad by begging. They live in houses the size of palaces and most of the money is collected by the many small kids they have. Another thing that helped them get rich: during communist times, Ceausescu confiscated their gold reserves, and the state is now forced to pay all of that back, with interest and damage claims on top of the original value.`
`The Ciurari are the ones to look out for. They are the ones who gives us a bad reputation. It`s easy to recognise them, they hang around on the street and do nothing`, Andrei says. `I myself have worked in Spain for a while. I was picking olives there. That`s what we do, just go somewhere and try to find a job in whatever we are good at. Some Roma end up stealing by circumstances. They are abroad and do not manage to find a job. But that is by no means something that only Roma do. I have come across Romanians who pretended to be Roma so that they could get away with the begging. Anyway, there are no legal differences between Roma and Romanians. We have the same passports and the same rights. And despite of our reputation, I can tell you that I can be more of a gentleman than many Romanians. My skin is a little bit darker, but there are many Romanians who have the exact same skin colour I have.`
Anca (21) admits that she is afraid to get too close to Roma. I am afraid that they will steal from me or will attack me. They tend to have a parallel society that is hard to access. They live in areas where many Romanians do not often go, usually at the edges of the city. I don`t think they have specific shops or buy specific products that Romanians don`t buy.`
Romania used to have a compulsory army service, which, just like primary school, is the only likely opportunity for Roma and Romanians to share bits of their daily lives. Malina (23) thinks that Roma should put more emphasis on their musical qualities and dancing skills. `I would be happy to use cultural events as a way to get in touch with them, as I do think that they have a very interesting culture.`
Oana (22) comes from a village near Arad, where she oftentimes listens to small Roma children who tell about their lives: `They tell me about how they are not allowed to return home before they have made enough money. Most of those kids are between 7 and 10 years old. There`s also a 15-year old girl who got married recently. She wears a traditional costume and looks like an adult woman.` Oana likes the efforts of the government to promote involvement of Roma in public life, but she is not convinced that current methods really work: `The government is not trying hard enough and the Roma themselves are not too fanatic either. They prefer to stick to their traditions, even if that means that they have to leave school in order to get married.`
Mariana (30) is part of the Ungari clan. She is trying to make a living out of selling wooden spoons: `I have five children to feed. Nobody is hiring me, so this is the only way to make money. The Romanians are not very helpful. My children need to walk to school for 5 kilometres every day and I travel from our village into Cluj to try and make money. I have also been to Italy because somebody had promised me a job there. But I returned after a week, because I did not receive any salary.`
While I am talking to Mariana, a German-speaking lady pops up and interrupts the conversation. She wishes to inform me that Roma should not be talked to. They cause too many problems in society and she has suffered from their presence in all the different cities she has lived in: `They rob and steal, even from your house, these people are very, very bad`, she says.
A little later, I meet Catalin (24) who comes up with an entirely different story. `I am not a Gypsy, but I am trying to help this fellow here sell some wooden stuff. Life in Romania is tough these days. I went to university to be a sports teacher, and spent some time working as one as well. But if I manage to sell 10 articles in a day, I make more money than they salary I earn as a sports teacher. In any way, I think that Romanians are losing their sense of what life is about. They drift away from nature and if you drift away from nature, you can`t be free.`
Catalin further explains: `My cousin was raised in the United States. When he came to Romania and saw a chicken lay an egg, he did not want to eat it because who eats eggs that come from chickens? He was too proud that in America, eggs don`t come from a chicken but from a supermarket. Imagine how tough this guys life`s going to be when the time comes that the perfect photo image of society falls apart? He will be completely lost. But for now, he lives in the convenient conviction that he has freedom of choice. While actually, he is as much caught by the prison of society as anyone can be. Only when living outside society, one can live in a natural way.`
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