Change a culture – what does that mean? Assimilation, I expect. Indeed, in recent months the ‘Roma question’ has been at the centre of political debates, media campaigns and televised debates. Fuelled by the impending expiration of the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians freedom to live and work in the EU, attention has fallen on the Roma community. It was without surprise that the likes of Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail and the Express have used this as opportunity to foster an anti-immigrant and antiziganist sentiment, yet, when these words come from the mouth of a supposedly ‘left wing’ Labour MP, it is, perhaps, time to start worrying.
The Rom are by no means strangers to intolerance – it has defined our past, our present and, without a doubt, our future. Our history is not one that we look back on with nostalgia, indeed, we have long been maligned. From five centuries of enslavement in Wallachia; to orders for our expulsion which date back to the 15th century (and persist to this day); to being put to death for the mere crime of being Romani; and to the ‘Porajmos’ – the Nazi genocide of 500,000 Romani people. What is clear is that antiziganism has come to define the gadjo (non-Romani) population as much as it has the Rom.
Why? That is a question I have asked myself my entire life – why have we been so severely loathed for so many centuries? For sure, we were a mysterious stranger when we arrived in Europe in the 14th Century. Where we came from, no one can really say for certain. Whether it’s India, Egypt, or even the moon, what we do know is that we have remained in Europe ever since. We are no longer strangers, we have been part of Europe for 700 years, yet, we are still as mistrusted, as detested, and as enigmatic as the day we arrived. I suspect that Blunkett and Farage would suggest that there is something inherently wrong with our ethnicity that justifies the discrimination that we face, a view which was shared by Hitler. What that is though remains a mystery – is it, like Blunkett claims, our predisposition to congregate on the street and socialise or was Hitler correct to suggest that we are racially impure?
It seems almost inherent in the human race to suspect the unknown. We fear what we do not know and it is only with knowledge that our fears are eradicated. Once upon a time we believed the world to be flat and we feared fallen from its edges, yet, with knowledge we learnt it was round. We can, perhaps, then justify why Europe feared the Rom when they arrived from an unknown territory, in the 14th Century. There have been attempts to map our origins – linguistic evidence suggests we originated from Northern India – yet, our history is unwritten and, thus, theories of our origin are simply educated guesswork. That said, there is no concrete knowledge to lessen fears and suspicions and despite our 700 year presence in Europe we remain the stranger from an unknown land.
Still considered as the ‘unknown’, we are yet to be deemed ‘European’. We are not Bulgarians, Romanians or Brits, nor are we deemed to have any other national identity. We are simply the Romani – the strangers who wandered here from somewhere outside of Europe, and who have continued to wander through the borders of Europe’s territory. We have, thus, never been deemed as full citizens. This excuses Europe from providing us with the equal rights bestowed to its ‘real’ citizens – the citizens with a history and a homeland. We have, therefore, faced centuries of persecution for not being European enough. It is this persecution, however, that has led us to become so isolated from mainstream culture.
Romani cultures have remained strong and almost unchanged for centuries. They have adapted only to the oppressive policies which police our lives. How does one integrate into a society that has rejected them from the start? Indeed, policy has coerced us to part with many of our cultural traditions. Nomadism, for example, has essentially been outlawed which prompted our move into ‘bricks and mortar’ accommodation. This is arguably the process of ‘assimilation’ but certainly, within my own experience, this did not ease the discrimination that we face. The strangers in the caravans become the strangers in the gadjo neighbourhood – adhering to mainstream culture, yet, still visible as a target. Nomadism is unwelcomed; however, we are also unwelcomed as the neighbour next door.
If we look across Europe we will find neighbourhoods in nearly every big city that are inhabited entirely by the Rom. Politicians tell us that we have segregated ourselves, but we were unwanted elsewhere. For centuries, therefore, we have built networks of dependence amongst the Romani communities in which we live. Our ethnicity, our cultures, and our shared experience of oppression have been the links that have bonded us together. The longer our persecution prevails, the stronger our cultural identities have become. In a society that denies us our basic rights, our cultures are our only weapon. We have been denied equality and our rights have been taken, but the one thing they can’t take from us is our identity.
My grandmother is a Bulgarian Roma migrant. She arrived in the UK in the 1980s looking for a better life. Communist Bulgaria had a policy of forced assimilation for all ethnic minorities – the Romani way of life, the Romani language, and even Romani surnames were outlawed. Sedentarist policy forced the Romani away from nomadism, and the freedom to practice traditional occupations was restricted. “They hoped to eradicate us” she told me. “I left all my family behind to come to England. Back then we thought England was the land of the free, the land of opportunity. Now it’s like being back in the dark days – first, they take our homes, with the scrap license they have taken our jobs, and now we are banned from the streets. Banning us from congregating - did they not ban the Jewish people from the parks?” After the fall of communism in Bulgaria, conditions did not improve for the Rom. “Communism took our skills, our traditional crafts. There were no more jobs when communism fell and the Rom were left with no means to make a living. No one wanted to help the Rom, we were left in ghettos, no jobs, no money for water or electricity, not even a toilet.”
This is how conditions remain for most of Europe’s 12 million Romani people. Like my grandmother, they come to the UK looking for a better life. Instead, they are met with intolerance. These people have come to the UK from neighbourhoods where they have never had a refuse collection, yet, we assume they will understand our colour coded bins and waste disposal systems. They come from poverty that is unfathomable in this country, then criticise them for ‘stealing our jobs and our benefits’. Overcrowding has characterised their lives, both here and at home, yet, we chastise them for exercising their freedom to gather outside. The Rom do not congregate outdoors to ‘intimidate’ their neighbours, yet, this entirely harmless act is observed as menacing by a society who condemns them for simply being Romani.
Whilst writing this article, the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, endorsed David Blunkett’s attack on the Rom. “We have every right to say if you are in Britain and are coming to live here…you have got to be sensitive to the way life is lived in this country. If you do things that people find intimidating, such as large groups hanging around on street corners, you have got to listen to what other people in the community say." Coming from the ‘far right’ I’d perhaps not be shocked, but I find it increasingly distressing that antiziganist attitudes and scaremongering are creeping into mainstream politics. There is something quite eerie about David Blunkett’s words. The notion that we must ‘change’ a culture for the greater good of our society is heavily draped with Nazi connotations. To change our cultures, to assimilate, to lose the one thing that has bound us together through centuries of oppression, is genocide by another name.
The Nazis sought to eradicate Romani cultures by taking our lives, in Britain, seventy years on, they wish to take our souls instead. When they take away our culture there is no longer a need to kill us, for they have taken all that we have left. The Romani have a saying – Na bister 500,000 (never forget the 500,000) – but how could we forget when the genocide lives on.