Written by Olga Fuseini, University of Sheffield and Dr Lois Orton, University of Sheffield
April 8 was declared International Roma Day at the first World Romani Congress, organised by the Comité International Rom (CIR) in London in 1971. The 1971 congress was the first Roma attempt at international cooperation, establishing the Roma flag and anthem. Since then Roma history, culture and perseverance has been celebrated around the world on this day. But, do we really know who the Roma people are?
In fact, Roma comprise many different populations, largely concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans (EC 2014). Some migrated to the UK as refugees in the 90’s with movement becoming easier following eastward expansion of the EU in the 00’s. Today, Roma are considered the largest ‘ethnic minority’ in Europe (WHO, 20201). Many Slovak and Czech Roma live in Sheffield and Rotherham. But would you know a Roma person if you saw one? Even though Roma are often conflated with two more well known ‘British minorities’ – ‘Gypsies and Travellers’ – they in fact share no history with these groups and have very little in common today. Contrary to popular belief, less than 20 percent of Roma people are thought to live an itinerant lifestyle (including seasonal mobility across regional and national borders), with the majority seeking to settle or required to do so through coercive policy directives (Matras, 2015; Donert, 2010).
We hear many negative stories about Roma people, particularly in the popular press. They are portrayed as both ‘exotic,’ and ‘victims of their own deviance’ (Kóczé 2019); a threatening ‘other’ with a mythologised past (and an appropriated culture) and a dehumanised present (Powell 2017). The imaginary is captured well by a line from the song ‘Break the spell’ by Gogol Bordello ‘you love our music, but you hate our guts.’ Such racist and dehumanising tropes reflect wider processes of entrenched, and evolving, state-sanctioned oppression that have followed generations of Roma (Lee 2000; van Baar 2019). Roma people have been subject to enslavement, forced displacement and exile, violence, cultural annihilation, medical experimentation, eugenics and genocide (Artal and Rubenfeld 2017). Hundreds of thousands of Roma people were killed during the Holocaust. In England, the first appearance of Roma people in the sixteenth century resulted in a set of anti-Egyptian laws that expelled, deported or harassed Roma people (known as ‘Egyptians’ or ‘Gypsies’ at the time) and those known to consort with them (Brooks 2012). In the current political period of mounting right-wing Euro-populism, Roma people face neo-fascism and centrist state violence including murders, roundups, forced expulsions, and manifold other violences (Sigona & Vermeersch 2012). Roma women additionally face various forms of gender-based discrimination and violence across the lifecourse (including forced sterilisation) that compound the effects of race- and class-based disadvantages (Zampas and Lamačková, 2011; Bollini et al., 2009; European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2013). Whilst the most extreme forms of Roma oppression may appear historical, intergenerational transmission of the effects of trauma are still felt today (Rosenhaft 2006); shaping experiences of the 2008 economic recession and more recent covid pandemic, for example (Ghosh, 2011; Matache & Bhabha, 2020).
Despite these ongoing experiences of oppression, Roma people have not been crushed. Their distinctive way of life and passion for music and art continue to enrich cultures around the world. They stand strong, continuing to survive and overcome many barriers. This is evident in the UK, where we see more Roma children achieving higher education (Roma Education Fund 2011) and their parents owning business and moving up the ‘social mobility ladder’ (Fuseini, 2021). Unfortunately, however, these positive stories are often overpowered by narratives that put more emphasis on Roma as victims of social exclusion or as a threat to society (Loveland & Popescu, 2016). Hopefully, more engagement with International Roma Day will help counter these misconceptions.
Olga reflects on her experience of coming to the UK from the Czech Republic in 2007:
“Leaving the Czech Republic and starting a new life in the UK was the best decision I have ever made. After years of experiencing racism and exclusion in Czechia, I was ready for a life with hope and opportunities. But it wasn’t easy. I had to overcome the language and cultural barriers and I’m still battling against the prejudiced views of Roma. Nevertheless, I made plans, worked hard and achieved many goals for myself and my community. It may be surprising to some, but most of my knowledge about the Roma history and understanding of the ‘Roma problem’ came from my studies at University of Sheffield. In Czechia the Roma culture is stigmatised and International Roma Day meant very little to me. However, after finding my new freedom in the UK and seeing how cultures are celebrated here, I feel so proud to share my own heritage with others, but especially with my own community. There is so much they need to know.”
Lois and Olga work together on the ‘Roma health stories’ project which aims to reimagine the experiences of Roma people living in the UK and Czech Republic. Find out more here and here. If you want to learn more about Roma people visit Olga’s World Roma Day exhibition, which is taking place at Clifton Learning Partnership, Rotherham until mid-April.
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