Who’s ‘getting gyped’?: Learning about the Roma

When Graham and I were getting ready to leave for the Czech Republic in the summer of 2009, I started following European news a little more closely. At that time, there was domestic conflict in the Czech Republic between the Czech majority and the Roma minority. In the wake of an economic downturn Romani people were being severely persecuted, literally being burned out of their homes. This sounded unbelievable, the kind of ethnicity-based persecution one wouldn’t expect to find in Europe without a major uproar and outrage. However, these events were not reported very widely and maybe I would have missed them had I not specifically been looking for news from the area. It turns out that although it had increased in intensity, this type of violent persecution of Roma is endemic and therefore not really ‘news’.

Many East Europeans (and probably lots of west Europeans too) use (or at least understand) ‘Gypsy’ as a pejorative. The term ‘Gypsy’ is as outdated as ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Lapp’, and most people from this group identify as ‘Roma’. These folks have faced long-term persecution and discrimination and were targeted by Nazi death camps during World War II.  However, this started long before the Nazis, and lasts to this day. Even in modern English language, people describe a bad deal as ‘getting gyped’ which is short for ‘cheated by gypsies’.

The Roma were nomadic for a long time and so there are Roma folks all over Europe, including Sweden; the words ‘kille’ for ‘guy’ and ‘tjej’ for ‘gal’ are originally from the Roma language.  In the UK they are often called ‘travelers’, and have been the subject of a recent reality program called (lamentably) ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’. Despite the name, the show apparently has a lot of interviews from Travelers and shows things from their perspective, so it may go some distance towards breaking down stereotypes and building understanding and tolerance. Or it may just invite fashion critics.

There is also a cool project I heard about where Roma women tell their stories and work to enhance their communities. Here is one video, there are more on You Tube.

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