With multiple stories in the news about the Roma, writer Isabel Fonseca joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the history of the Roma — historically known as Gypsies – and the discrimination they have faced.
Fonseca spent four years with Romani people from Albania to Poland before writing “Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey.”
The term Gypsies is now sometimes considered pejorative. The word ‘gypped’ is supposed to have come from the word Gypsy.
“Gypped means to be ripped off, or to steal,” Fonseca said. “The assumption is always that there is some criminality.”
‘Alarming’ rhetoric in Greece
The case in Greece recently involved a little blonde girl, known as Maria, who was found when Greek police conducted a raid on a Roma camp, initially looking for drugs and weapons.
Because Maria bore no resemblance to the couple that claimed to be her parents, the police became suspicious.
DNA testing has shown the couple is not related to the girl, and Greek authorities have charged them with child abduction.
Fonseca finds the rhetoric in the Greek case problematic.
“What I find alarming is the glee with which it’s been seized on, as proof of a genetic disposition to criminality,” Fonesca said. “Another thing that immediately struck me is that whenever a country is in great economic disarray, like Greece, it is not surprising that [Roma] are going to be covering the front pages. Because they really are a handy scapegoat for all the ills in a given society.”
A history of legislated discrimination
Fonseca says that while criminality certainly is an issue with the Roma community, it is often misrepresented.
“I don’t want to skirt the issue of criminality, but I’d like to put it in a certain context,” she said. “You cannot overstate the discrimination against Roma in Europe, and the degree of poverty.”
European governments practice what Fonseca calls “enforced segregation” against its Roma population, including creating separate schools for Roma children. She also adds Roma have had a “historic relationship with authority that is entirely negative,” which leaves Roma, understandably, unwilling to cooperate with European authorities.
“It is not endemic to their culture to be outside the mainstream,” Fonseca said. “It’s just that they are, and it’s self reinforcing.”
Education as the key to integration
Fonseca says the only successful program in Europe that integrates Roma with the mainstream population is Ovidiu Ro, in Romania, which involves getting Roma children to attend preschool. The end result is that families also become integrated.
“The discussion really should be about how we’re living in a way that the have-nots are so far down the totem pole,” Fonseca said. “We all know that education is the key to changing attitudes towards people.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Today, a Roma woman in Bulgaria said officials think she might be the mother of that blonde girl found living with that Roma couple in Greece who've been child abduction and suspected of snatching the girl to get welfare benefits. The Bulgarian woman said she gave up the girl because she couldn't afford her.
And two blonde children who were taken by police from two Roma families in Ireland have been returned. DNA tests showed they were the biological children.
Isabel Fonseca is author of "Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey." She says the community is being discriminated against again. Isabel, by the way, what should we call them?
ISABEL FONSECA: Well, the name, to start, says a lot. Roma is the plural for Rome, which just means man or person. It's a name they have for themselves. Gypsy is a corruption of Egyptian, which was a way of denoting them as outsiders. Roma, though, is complicated, too, since not all gypsies are Roma. For example, in Ireland, they're mainly travelers, a different kind of ethnic group. I used gypsy because it covers a lot of other things, but with caution.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, the caution is that it's become a pejorative. Gyped(ph) is said to have come from the word gypsy, and it's considered a very negative word.
FONSECA: That's exactly the issue we're talking about. Gyped means to be ripped off or to steal. The assumption is always that there's some criminality. They haven't seemed to have investigated the explanation that these people have given. They have, however informally, adopted a child. I mean, there are blonde gypsies, lots of them. But that's just because it fits so wonderfully neatly with an ancient expectation and stereotype that the gypsies will come in the night and steal the blonde child. I mean, it's very old.
YOUNG: What I find alarming is this sort of glee with which it's been seized on as proof of a sort of genetic disposition to criminality. I mean, another thing that I would say that immediately struck me is that whenever a country is in great economic disarray, like Greece, it is not surprising that they are going to be covering the front pages because they really are a handy scapegoat for all ills in a given society.
But what is true about the Roma community in - or, as you say in Ireland as they're called, the travelers? The stereotype is that they do travel from community to community, don't put down roots, that they steal. They're not legal in the way people want them to find as legal. There was a story out of France of a young Roma girl living in France illegally. She was taken off her school bus by officials and deported.
FONSECA: She was deported with her family. And now, after this public kind of outcry, Hollande has said she can come back but without her family. What I think as the irony in the French case is that as everyone knows, millions and billions, in fact, of euro, dollars have been poured into the idea of getting Roma into education. They are widely segregated by governments into separate schools.
There's such an enforced segregation throughout Europe that to have a girl doing well in France in a school, to take her off the bus is a sort of cruel comedy. But the general feeling in France is that these people have to go. So it's a popular thing whether you're right or left government. You're not going to have very much trouble with that. I think they might have been very surprised that there was a kind of outcry.
YOUNG: Yeah, in support of her. But what is true? What's really true? That's the stereotype.
FONSECA: Yes. That's the stereotype. And I don't want to skirt the issue of criminality. But I would like to put it in a certain context. I mean, you cannot overstate the discrimination against Roma in Europe and the degree of poverty. I mean, there are people living in Europe in, you know, dirt and shacks, that you have benefit fraud, you know, welfare fraud. It's not at all surprising. I mean, these are people who are unemployable. Not just unemployed, but no one will hire them.
If you have a historic relationship with authority that is entirely negative, you're not going to rush to have documentation before you need it. I mean, she may not have been born in a hospital. I mean, their own children - I mean, there are many extenuating circumstances.
YOUNG: You lived with them.
YOUNG: What did you come to learn that others might not know?
FONSECA: Well, that the squalor that you often see on the outside is very different from an incredibly strict set of rules, including rules for cleanliness, you know, washing clothes, separately, of men's clothes and women's clothes. I mean, if you live by fortune-telling, you want to appear to be slightly frightening and mysterious. So it's been a kind of symbiotic relationship that has not actually served the modern Roma well.
YOUNG: Yeah. Now, I was fascinated to read in August. There was an obituary in The New York Times for a man, Florin Cioaba, who called himself the king of the gypsies, and it said that when he arranged a child marriage for his 12-year-old, which is common in the culture, young marriages, she stormed out. And it pushed him to have a public change of heart about child marriages. And he was said to have integrated the Roma into Romanian society, sent members of the community to school. What does he represent?
FONSECA: I don't think he represents very many people. He's a - I mean, these guys are just - it's a theater thing. That's - again, it's a sort of folkloric, headline-grabbing thing, but it's not very relevant to the 12 million Roma who have no interest in these people. But the discussion really should be about how we are living in a way where the have-nots are so far down the totem pole. The Greek government's response to this has been immediately to refer to the empty baby coffins.
This is exactly how the Nazis described Roma during the Holocaust, during which 500,000 Roma were killed, although they were not afforded any reparations because they weren't described as another race but as a criminal group, which doesn't mean that this particular couple is on the straight and narrow. But welfare fraud is not the same thing as child trafficking. There is a strong element of discrimination and sort of - we don't know much about gypsies, but they're part of all of our imagination at some point.
I mean, it's the - we all know that education is the key to changing attitudes towards people. The one program that's been successful in integrating Roma is in Romania, where they are getting young children into preschool and they do fine. They are fully integrated. Their families become integrated. And it's not endemic to their culture to be outside the mainstream.
It's just that they are, and it's self-reinforcing. And in Czech Republic and Slovakia, all over the Eastern countries, they are mostly in separate schools, and they mostly don't start school till 8, 9, 10. By which time it's really too late.
YOUNG: So get them in to school early and they will become integrated into society.
FONSECA: Yes. And there's a program run actually by an American and a Romanian called Ovidiu Rom, and they basically give incentives to poor families like hot lunch and shoes to get them in there. And once they're in, they're - it's a transformative experience, as you would expect.
YOUNG: Isabel Fonseca, author of "Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey." Isabel, thank you so much.
FONSECA: Thank you.
YOUNG: And again, two children have been returned to two Roma families in Ireland after DNA testing.
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