They have never caused any war
Anna Alboth is Europe Media Officer at Minority Rights Group International. This opinion piece was originally published in Polish by Weekend Gazeta. Please note, this piece contains language, in quotes that some may find offensive. It has been retained to show the levels of aggression that Roma communities face.
Uzhhorod, Western Ukraine, right on the border with Hungary and Slovakia. Regulations say only four Roma children can be enrolled in each class. With some districts of the city inhabited by Roma only, most children have no chance at an education.
‘Imagine kids who have never held a pen in their lives. Or ones who can’t name colours or even distinguish between them,’ Eleonora Kulchar, or Lola, explained to me. ‘What chance do they have of being admitted to a state school and staying in it?’ she asked when I visited her school – a pre-school project. Here Roma children learn how to hold a pen, spell, write and simply function in the school environment before entering the mainstream classroom.
Lola distributes money for things needed when the child starts regular schooling. ‘How would I send my children to school without shoes, a backpack or a notebook?’ Natalia from the Radvanka district of Uzhhorod, where there is neither gas, nor running water, asked me. ‘Of course, I would like my children to go to school. It is only thanks to Lola that this possible.’
‘What would you like to be in the future?’ I ask Natalia’s son.
‘A soldier! And to defend Ukraine against Russia.’
Even back then, in 2018, there were already tens of thousands of displaced people all over Ukraine; the war in the east had been going on for four years. Roma from Crimea or Donbas tried to settle on the outskirts of Kyiv or Lviv, but were unwelcome everywhere always.
That was four years ago. Today, Lola’s school is a shelter for refugees from the east, Roma and non-Roma alike. Natalia’s husband has enlisted in the army and is fighting near Kharkiv.
2019. Perryasliv. Valentina’s family lives in a brick house, 13 people in two rooms. On the wall of the house there is a plaque with an address. Every couple of weeks the family is visited by a social worker who advises them and brings essentials. There is not enough money for everything the family needs because the adults are undocumented. They can’t be registered with authorities, healthcare systems or schools. They are invisible.
This is a common problem among Roma in Ukraine.
Julian Kondur of the Kyiv-based Chiricli organization, which has been supporting Roma throughout Ukraine for years, explains to me that the story of the lack of documents began during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Roma communities in the region were forcibly displaced by conflicts, especially along the borders of the newly formed states.
The Roma, who lived in villages, or back then still in forests, often had one document for the whole family. Sometimes not even that. How do you prove where you are from when you don’t have proof that you own your house or land, of your children’s baptism, your marriage, and everything else we all keep in an important drawer? Forced resettlement further complicates the matter, because people without documents could not cross borders to the ‘old country’ to retrieve documents.
Some Roma today have only Soviet-era birth certificates or passports no longer accepted by anyone. Others have nothing. A lack of documents leads to statelessness, which is often inherited, as undocumented parents face obstacles registering their children. Julian analyses, ‘added to this is the complicated process of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship, the lack of information campaigns to make things easier, marginalization, lack of awareness, and, well, living in the countryside, far from the offices.’
A lack of documents means a lack of work, a lack of money, and no access to healthcare. Eight-year-old Angelika, Valentina’s daughter, has a hernia and many other health problems. That’s why her grandmother sent an application to the TV show Changing Lives: ‘maybe they will choose our pretty Angelika and operate on her on air for free? That would be my biggest dream.’
Why is it that even though Ukraine has been independent for more than 30 years, there are still people living with no rights? At the heart of this pathological situation lie deep-rooted racism, hatred and fear. Fear instigated by the far right results in aggression at every level, not just verbal.
Later that day, I ate cake with Valentina’s family standing in the ruins of burned-out houses. Few people know that since 2018 there have been more than a dozen pogroms and deadly attacks on the Roma in Ukraine. Tents and houses have been set on fire, properties attacked with axes, leaving lifeless bodies on the ground.
In June 2018, near Lviv, David Popp, a Roma man, was stabbed 15 times by a group of nationalists during one such attack. He lost his life. That same night, 17 others were wounded, four hospitalized, among them a child and a pregnant woman.
Children’s toys were strewn about the burned-out house where I was standing in Kyiv. No one was killed here, but according to the neighbours, the family had to flee in a hurry.
None of the crimes committed against Roma in recent years have been described as ‘hate crimes’ by authorities. No one has been convicted of killing a Roma person. Prosecutions are slow and drag on for years. On top of that, the lawyers who take these cases are intimidated and beaten. Andrei Mukha, a lawyer from Kharkiv, was beaten in his own office and forced to eat his documents relating to the murder of Roma in a suburban settlement.
For years, anti-Gypsyism has been steadily growing in Ukraine.
At the same time, international organizations were pumping money into education and integration projects for Roma. On 24 February 2022 as conflict with Russia became a fully-fledged war the Roma were forced to migrate again. The pogroms of the past lives on in the hearts and memories of Ukrainian Roma. Their impact on refugee relations in the country today is huge, because Ukrainian Roma come to Europe with special baggage.
A war of all Ukrainians?
In the six months since the start of the full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine, nearly 7 million Ukrainian refugees have left for neighbouring countries or for further west in Europe. This includes at least 100,000 Roma.
On the very first day, thousands of Ukrainians went to the Polish, Slovakian, Hungarian, Romanian and Moldovan borders. Roma with documents tended to choose European Union countries, while those without tried to enter Moldova.
European solidarity proved to be selective. Those who welcomed refugees into their country often turned on their heels at the sight of darker-skinned Roma men or women. In temporary centres, shelters or waiting rooms, segregation between ‘Ukrainians’ and ‘Roma’ began. It was as if the world had suddenly forgotten that Ukrainian Roma are also Ukrainian refugees. Roma found themselves at the end of the line, in separate rooms and on the streets.
Volunteers at train stations whispered among themselves: ‘Roma steal food, are loud and cause problems’. Official messages were even stronger in their senseless reproduction of stereotype: ‘they have lice, worms and fleas, Ukrainian women demand separate washing machines! Do they have citizenship? What citizenship! After all, they are eternal nomads, aren’t they?’
On the routes that Roma refugees take through Europe, I visited temporary residences many times. I didn’t see lice, nor get robbed, nor hear about lice or theft from people working there. Yet these stereotypes spread widely, fostered by ignorance stemming from lack of education on diversity. Poles know little about Ukrainian Roma, or indeed about Roma at all.
They know little about the fact that not only can Ukrainians be prejudiced against Roma, but also Roma, especially those who have experienced pogroms, can be deathly afraid of Ukrainians. Because how can you ride in the same train compartment with someone who supported setting Roma tents on fire, knowing your brother slept in one of them?
They know little about the fact that Roma families are large, but also that their most important value – in travel and in difficult times – is sticking together. So yes, they prefer to sleep at the train station with all their aunts, sisters, and children, rather than split up and go to different hotels.
To say that the Roma are stealing by taking more food (for their larger families) at aid stations is speaking with the logic of Polish president Andrzej Duda, when he described the news that Roma Ukrainian soldiers had seized a Russian tank in Ukraine, as them having… stolen it. So yes, a Roma mother of six taking care of her sister’s additional five children does need more sandwiches than a Ukrainian woman with one child. And to many, Roma soldiers taking over the tank are heroes.
Mundra, a Roma woman working for years at the Nomada Association in Wroclaw explains: ‘Poles don’t understand Roma culture, and they think they do. Talking loudly is not brawling, it’s just talking loudly. Being together in wandering is better and safer for us. We are afraid of separation, we are afraid of the racism ingrained in every office, we are afraid of the hospital, the school. Those people who come here now have not only the experience of war, but also of everything that went on before. All our lives we are tortured, set on fire, challenged, we are promised something and then [they] do not keep [their] word.’
Another Roma Ukrainian, Olena Vaidalovych, a young lawyer who came to Poland in March, tells me what it’s like to encounter Polish stereotypes: ‘a while ago I came back from a training session in Przemyśl organized by the international humanitarian organization Oxfam for all those who work with people coming from Ukraine to Poland. At this meeting someone started talking about negative experiences with Roma. And you know, again I had to come out in front and say, “Oh, I guess I should introduce myself. I’m a Ukrainian Roma woman. And no, I don’t steal, I don’t beg.” At the end of the day, they thanked me for this intervention, for being able to get to know another Roma woman and confront their stereotypes with someone like me. But again, I have to become not only a participant in the training, but also an activist. Again, I have to strip down to my ethnicity.’
Everyone helps the Ukrainians, and the Roma… the Roma
There are already many more Ukrainian Roma in Poland than Polish Roma.
Joanna Talewicz, president of W Strone Dialogu Foundation, told me in February: ‘suddenly I get a call from volunteers from the border telling me about a Roma refugee: “You have your man here, do something with him.” Or they call from the temporary waiting room and say, “If someone doesn’t take these savages of yours away immediately, when the football fans come by, they’ll mess us all up.”’
I don’t even try to imagine what, as a Roma woman, she must feel hearing such words. ‘Well, sure, among the Roma, as among people in general, there are people who argue louder or take advantage of the situation. But at such a time the police are called and justice is sought. But one doesn’t get called in the middle of the night. One does not ban several Roma families from the centre because one Roma did something. One does not blame … all the Roma of the world, me included, [on the actions of one man].’
Homogenizing people, excluding an entire group and labelling them as dangerous leads to some of the worst behaviour in human history. In the first days of mass migration from Ukraine, experts had raised their voices on this issue. Marian Turski said: ‘I would like to take this opportunity to appeal: let’s not practice selective solidarity. I’m getting signals that, yes, we show solidarity to Ukrainian refugees, but we no longer have it towards those refugees if they are Ukrainian Roma. Note that this is the first rung to complete indifference!’
Fortunately, not everyone has is indifferent. It would be unfair not to mention those who do not divide Ukrainian refugees into good and bad: in Warsaw, the Roma are supported by Bread and Salt and the Conflict Kitchen, and in Cracow an SPA (Social Active Space) was created, initiated by Salam Lab, while the Roma organization Harangos is also very active.
Bashing from Russia, bashing from Europe
Roma have lived across Europe for hundreds of years. The EU enlargement of 2004 and 2007 made them move more intensively within it. Roma from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria – countries where many Roma live – could suddenly move like other EU citizens. So they did.
Today, Ukrainian Roma don’t want to go far. Most dream of being close to Ukraine and returning as soon as possible. At the same time their decision to stay close to home is also motivated by fear.
I ran into Larysa and her 5-year-old daughter at the Ostbahnhof train station in Berlin. She was very lost. When they crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border, someone put them on a bus, and the bus took them to a small town in western Germany. Larysa can’t even tell me where it was. Larysa doesn’t read, doesn’t have a phone with internet, doesn’t use Google Maps. She asks me to help her find the right platform from which the train will take her back to Poland and then near Kyiv. ‘I wanted to go to Poland because I was afraid of bombs. No one wanted to tell me where the coach was going. Maybe I am a simple woman, but how can people be treated like this?’
* * *
Belgium has placed Roma in retirement homes that have not been renovated for years, which have been deserted after successive waves of the pandemic. In confidence, a volunteer acquaintance tells me the instructions he received for dealing with Roma refugees: ‘I was to pretend not to understand the questions, not to offer aid packages like other Ukrainians, and not to smile at the children. And you know, I’ve read a lot about the Roma since I started working here with the Red Cross. This is probably the only ethnic group that has never caused any war!’
* * *
The Czech Republic is a country that has treated and continues to treat Czech Roma as second-class citizens. It sterilized thousands of Roma between 1966 and 2012, and the Minister of Education, when asked ‘Why are Roma children still segregated in schools?’ answers bluntly that ‘families will not tolerate vermin in school.’
In Ostrava, 150 Ukrainian Roma families were locked up in a detention centre behind a high wall and barbed wire. In Brno, 200 families were kept in tents without floors, in mud, and local authorities are still threatening that if they do not return to Ukraine, the children will be taken away from their mothers.
Returns to Ukraine
It is no surprise, then, that a great many Roma have decided to return to Ukraine. But just as with those who moved from east to west in the last eight years, those returning and trying to find a new place are not finding it easy.
A few days ago, German politicians Mehmet Daimaguler, Commissioner for anti-Gypsyism, Daniel Strauss, head of the Sinti and Roma Association, and Romeo Franz, a parliamentarian from the Green Party visited Roma settlements and encampments in various parts of Ukraine. They said they had never seen such conditions in Europe. Their specific words were ‘we are shocked.’
The situation is indeed difficult. There is a shortage of accommodation, of food – of everything. The European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network (ERGO) together with Chiricli is trying to support as much as they can. Since March, they have been preparing and distributing hot meals in Odessa, Kharkov, Chernivtsi, Nikolaev, Chernigov and Kyiv. So far, they’re managing to give out three thousand meals a day, thanks to the ‘Hot meals in Ukraine’ campaign. Chiricli also delivers gloves and knee protection to Roma soldiers on the front lines. Their families have no means of supporting them.
‘There are no ethnic divisions on the front line,’ David, who has been fighting since day one, writes to me online. ‘We are all fighting for our Ukraine. But it’s a fact,’ he admits, ‘that it’s hard for my family to send or donate anything to me, because they have nothing to live on. When I was at home, I was the one earning my bread. However, I can’t imagine not fighting.’
Who knows, maybe Roma fighting will change the narrative about Roma for the better? ‘I am a Ukrainian, can I prove it even more strongly than by risking my life?’ asks David rhetorically.
‘We hope that after the victory and Ukraine’s eventual entry into the European Union, Ukraine will be more attentive to minority rights’, says Julian of Chiricli.
President Zelenskyy created a government agency to deal with ethnic policy and religious affairs in 2019. The government is coordinating the introduction of a Roma Strategy to reduce social inequality by 2030. The President spoke out during Independence Day about how Roma and other minorities are part of the social fabric. ‘I think this is the first time something like this has come from the president’s mouth,’ Julian enthuses.
Today, the ‘real’ Gypsies are gone
That the Roma are part of Europe’s fabric should have been obvious. But discrimination, exclusion and violations of basic rights of vulnerable groups intensifies in crisis conditions. Trauma and tensions lift the demons even higher. This was true when the first waves of coronavirus swept through the world, it is also true in times of war or conflict.
‘Gypsy is the name given to our ancestors when they arrived in Europe between the fifth and tenth centuries, and comes from “Atzinganoi”, a sect of prophets,’ Joanna Talewicz explains. ‘And the word “Rom” comes from the Romani language, meaning man. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain why we want to be called Roma.’
Late, but still: at the First International Roma Congress in London in 1971, the name “Roma” was conventionally established as a term to cover all Roma groups, respecting the diverse panorama of Roma communities around the world.
More pointedly, Sebastijan Kurtisi, a German Roma and Roma Union Grenzland activist, says: ‘It’s not even about the acuteness of the word anymore, but what it means to us Roma. What primordial fears and traumas it evokes in us. The word “Zigeuner” [German for “gypsy”] was tattooed on the skin of our ancestors. First they tattooed us, and then they gassed us.’
Again: to this day it is not known how many Roma died during the Holocaust. The official figure is half a million. But was it possible to count all the victims? Were those murdered in the forests counted? Were the missing and never found included in that number? The Roma have neither a country nor political representation to claim all the victims. According to various estimates, there are supposed to be as many as 1.5 million lost. 75 per cent of all Roma living in Europe at the time. In some countries, even 90 per cent.
‘I know that stereotypes make reality easier, but they are harmful,’ says Talewicz. ‘They only show some part of this reality, they distort it. We Roma do not necessarily miss the tabors [camps]. We are not all dancers. Do we not like to learn? Well, somehow this language and culture of ours has survived so many hundreds of years. Do we commit more crimes? No study confirms this. Do we love to be on the move? No, some move because they are constantly denied help and equal treatment.’
However, the Roma are looked upon as people that arrive and disrupts order. Communities that do not fit with development and capitalism, and are often placed in opposition to modernity:
‘What we’re dealing with here is classic anti-gypsyism. This term is used interchangeably with Romaphobia or anti-Roma racism. Romaphobia consists of negative convictions, judgments, approaches, emotional attitudes (e.g. dislike, fear, contempt, hate, disgust) towards the Roma and Sinti (people colloquially called Gypsies). Romaphobia finds sustenance in stereotypes and the perception of Roma people. Consequently, it leads to the acceptance of a conviction that all members of the Romani community display pathological characteristics and behaviours. According to a definition suggested by the Alliance Against Anti-Gypsyism, anti-gypsyism is a deeply rooted, historically stable and multifaceted, specific type of racism against Roma, Sinti, Travellers, and all those who are labelled as Gypsies. There are a number of key concepts related to Roma people that are all linked to anti-gypsyism, such as orientalism, nomadism, rootlessness and backwardness. Anti-gypsyism is a theory based around stereotypes, which “homogenises and essentialises perception and description of this group”. This approach is homogenising, which means that all members of a given group are seen as the same, and as behaving in a particular way. They are usually attributed deviant, negative characteristics, and more rarely positive ones. This attribution of “gypsy” characteristics to a group or people, declares them as a circle or persons treated as “abnormal”, “foreign”, as those who are unable to adjust and position themselves as members of the dominant society.’
Here and now
Roma groups are plentiful and diverse. Polish Roma do not always share a common language with Ukrainian Roma or Romanian Roma. They have different experiences: histories, customs and traditions.
There were perhaps as many as half a million Ukrainian Roma living in Ukraine until February. There are less than 20,000 Polish Roma in Poland. Why should the Ukrainian Roma be supported by the Polish ones? After all, they don’t talk about the Roma community, they talk about Roma communities. Among which I see only one, sad similarity: all of them were, and are, discriminated against.
To somehow grapple with this discrimination, you have to face it. So both Roma and non-Roma have a lot to do here.
Most of my friends, even those who have travelled the world and hosted Syrian refugees in their homes, tell me that they have ‘never met a Roma’. Maybe this is also where part of the problem lies? Because we are afraid of something we do not know. To really get to know each other, to foster integration, there needs to be systemic change based on something shared. ‘Patriotism and national pride cannot be juxtaposed in opposition to multiculturalism and inclusion of otherness,’ says Joanna Talewicz.
Everyone here agrees: the long absence of anti-discrimination efforts or multicultural education in Poland cannot be made up for in a few months.
However, Talewicz and her Foundation Toward Dialogue are not giving up. Since February, there has been a Poland-Roma-Ukraine crisis intervention group, now comprising dozens of people who find safe hostels and housing for refugees, and serve as cross-cultural translators, teachers and providers of support generally. They’ve managed to set up physical headquarters in Warsaw, with literacy classes for children and adults in Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Romani.
On top of that, consultation and teaching programs such as mentoring and coaching are offered. Workshops in boxing, soccer, ceramics, drawing and manicures too. All this in cooperation with Warsaw City Hall on the one hand, and Chiricli and Roma mediators on the other. With the participation of other Ukrainians and Poles.
Want to get to know the Roma? Listen to them, hear their stories, look up the organisations and events they organize. Then it will be easier to get through these difficult times. As the Roma say (depending on the dialect): Khetane ame Zorale. Together we are stronger.