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Call Me Rom

Without Prejudice and Stereotypes

Please Call Me Rom

by Šani Rifati

My name is Šani and I am a Rom. Rom means human being, or person, or man ( Romni is for woman ) in the Romany language. The Native American “Cherokee” and “Hopi” mean the same thing in their native language. I am not a Gypsy. The term Gypsy stems from peoples’ ignorance, when we were mistaken for Egyptians. Gypsy is an inaccurate term for Rroma; (plural of Rom ). Rroma moved from the East Indian region of Punjab during the twelfth century through the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Turkey, then spread all over Europe.

Šani teaching a Rom dance. Photo: Elizabeth Artemis Mourat

Being a Rom is not about belonging to a country or a piece of land. It is culture. It is language. It is tradition. It is hundreds of years of oppression, suppression and depression. I am sure that many Rroma can’t even come out and say, “I am a Rom” without fear of repercussions — i.e., people counting their silverware before we leave. I won’t play you a sad song on my violin. I do not have a bandanna. I do not have a golden tooth. I do not have long hair or a golden hoop in my ear. I am just trying to speak up for my people: the Rroma.

I want to tell you about their suffering and the persecution they’ve endured throughout the centuries. I want to tell you how to fight the enemy, which is ignorance; to tell you about prejudice and stereotypes. This doesn’t apply only to Rroma. Look how Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Mexicans, Asians, hippies, etc. are treated in this country, not to mention gays and lesbians! These two words: prejudice and ignorance, represent our biggest enemies. But prejudice and ignorance cannot be overcome unless some exchange takes place. So, that is why I am writing this story.

“I was gypped.” The word “gypped” is derived from “Gypsy” and is a racial slur based on the stereotype that Gypsies always cheat people; it implies that you have been swindled. We have been raised with the expression, and even today people continue telling it to their children. “If you don’t behave, I’m going to leave you out and Gypsies are going to steal you.” Czechs are calling Rroma “dirty Gypsies, horse thieves, uneducated.” Bulgarians refer to Rroma as “dark-skinned, villains, incorrigible perpetrators, criminals.” Hungarians refer to Rroma as “olive skinned.” In ex-Yugoslavia, where I come from, they call us “beggars, dirty Gypsy,” etc.

I’d like to tell you about some of the experiences I’ve had that illustrate racism and prejudice against Rroma. For a while I lived in a Romani ghetto on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. There were hundreds of families with children living there, next to the site where the nearby hospital disposed of its medical and human waste. It had never occurred to the city council that they should remove this dump from where people were living until a few Rroma and Italians insisted. In this period of my life, I must confess that I also experienced a lot of internalized prejudice against my own people. I was embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I was a Rom, or to be associated with “thieving, dishonest Gypsies.” I lived in a Romany ghetto almost one year. When I moved out of the ghetto and began living away from other Rroma, I started to read about my own Romany culture for the first time. I discovered a lot of fascinating things about my own people through books, and after years of reading and learning about Romany culture, I feel ashamed and guilty about judging my own people in the past. Now I understand why they remain so marginal and don’t like to mix with non-Rroma people, or gadje (which is similar to the term gringo used by Mexicans, or “honkies” used by African Americans). Sincerely, as a speaker for my people, I don’t like the term gadje, because it creates barriers between Rroma and non-Rroma. After all these years of reading and research, I now feel very proud of being Rom. Hopefully this article will be a good link and lead to a better understanding between my Rroma people and people of other cultures.

For almost 28 years, before I lived in Italy, I grew up in the former Yugoslavia. I couldn’t speak up for my rights. If I had, I’d have been in big trouble. I was born in Pristina, in the region of Kosovo, in southern Serbia. Kosovo is the region which has a 90% Muslim population; 75% are ethnic Albanians, 10% are Rroma, 5% are Turks and only 10% of the population are Serbs. Rroma, in particular, were always one of the most oppressed ethnic groups. 250,000 Serbian refugees were relocated to Kosova after the Dayton Peace Accord. All those refugees were brought from hot spots (borders) in between Serbia and Croatia and from Bosnia Herzegovina. In order to create a bigger Serbia, Miloshevic’s government wants to have a bigger population of Serbs in the Region of Kosovo, and in the meantime a lot of Rroma have been kicked out of their jobs in order to hire Serbian refugees.

Besides my own experience of discrimination (Never having worked in my field as a chemist because I was a “damned” Gypsy), I can tell you about one of my personal friends. He finished his studies at the University of Kosovo as an historian, worked for fifteen years in a book shop in shipping and receiving, and was forced to leave this job to make room for a Serbian refugee.

Here are some examples (taken from articles published on the internet by Human Rights Watch) of the kinds of racist acts and crimes committed against Rroma today in some other countries:

In 1993, following the division of Czechoslovakia by peaceful means, a law of citizenship went into effect in the new state. The law had been drafted in late 1992 and duly signed by the president. When the law went into effect, approximately 100,000 Rroma were designated foreigners, and were accordingly denied all of the rights they had previously enjoyed as Czechoslovak citizens.”

The reason for this was that Rroma had been moving because of their nomadic roots, and many of them had birth certificates from Slovakia but had settled for ten to twenty years in the Czech Republic. So they didn’t have papers from the region where they lived, which then became a new State. Automatically, all 100,000 Rroma were denied social assistance like health care, welfare, unemployment, etc.

In Hungary on May 27,1997, the Ozd city council announced plans to blow up a building located in the city center, which is inhabited primarily by Rroma. The reasons cited for this decision were unpaid utility bills, which had earlier resulted in the disconnection of electricity to the building, and sanitary conditions.

Paradoxically, the city council of Ozd thought it could resolve issues of poverty with dynamite.

In many places in Eastern European Countries and even in Western Europe, like England, there are signs: “We don’t serve dogs and Gypsies.” The media, written or broadcast, fictional or nonfictional, particularly in Europe, have helped to develop ideas about Romany people, and shaped negative public opinion about us. But a very curious and sad thing is that, of all the inaccurate and often insulting images of Rroma in the media, none of them originated from Romani sources, and no one ever consulting with Rroma about the truth of what the media portrays.

My goal here is to make the following point: very few outsiders interact socially or have developed close relationships with Rroma. Despite the not inconsiderable Romany population (larger than some European nations), some people are still not convinced that Rroma are real people. The media has created an image of

…a “true” Romani people, a people apart, keepers of a lost rural life, unspoiled by civilization, living contentedly in the woods, subsisting on the occasional stolen chicken or rabbit, entertaining themselves in the depths of the forest with music and song. The real families whom they observed, whose trailers were pulled up near city dumps or abandoned quarries and whose children were seen playing amidst [civilized] society’s refuse, were not acknowledged to be Roma at all but rather were considered to be a mixed and degenerate population that gave the “true” Roma a bad name. This kind of thinking reached its predictable conclusion in the porrajmos (holocaust)— the mass murder of people of Romani descent by the Nazis during World War II. (From an article by Ian Hancock).

Mass murder and atrocities against the Rroma didn’t start then, it started many, many centuries ago. In Europe today, Rroma (Europe’s largest minority) are a threatened group. They are a population without land, which is not surprising since Rroma have never tried to conquer others or to kill in order to acquire a piece of land. Rroma have never had a single national/political hero.

Every social, economic, and political indicator places Rroma at the bottom of the scale: they are the least healthy, poorest, most politically excluded group in Europe. Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch and other reliable sources, their physical safety is threatened by mob and individual attacks, police brutality, and a discriminatory legal system. (from a letter by Carol Silverman to the White House liaison to the U.S. Holocaust Council).

What is the fate of my Rroma, the individuals, the children, the culture? While we are not presently targeted for mass murder, as in the Porrajmos, we are systematically marginalized all over the world, and continuously scape-goated in one form or another. I hope that the more I and other Rom speak out about our history and the current plight of Rroma, the more the rest of the world will wake up to the reality of who we are, and understand our culture better.

Submitted by friends of Shani Rifati: Kajira Djoumahna and Artemis Mourat.

Shani Rifati lives in Sonoma County north of Sebastopol with wife Carol Bloom and son Benjamin, where he works as an environmental lab technician. He is a cousin of Esma Redzepova, and was recently interviewed on “Curse of the Gypsies” on the Discovery Channel. He produces the Herdeljez festival in Northern California each May. www.voiceofroma.com

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