Archive | August, 2015

The stench of hypocrisy

28 Aug

I have been a migrant. I have lived, legally and illegally, in nine different countries. In 1993 I was trying to escape Romania. I was studying engineering at that time in Craiova. Being a Roma in Romania in 1993 was not easy: we faced pogroms and strident anti-Gypsyism. But that was just one of the reasons. I was also trying to escape from the huge rats I saw every evening, the garbage and dirt of the city, the political instability, my violent and alcoholic father, and the uncertainty of the future.

I had a visa for Germany. Germany being notorious for its “love” of Roma, the UK seemed a better option. Because my father worked for the Romanian railways, I could get a free return ticket each year to any place in Europe. I decided to try to cross to the UK from Oostende, in Belgium. I had heard that some Romanians managed to do that.

I reached Oostende late in the evening. Compared to Romania, Belgium looked like a fairy-tale. Even the railway station was amazing. Clean and beautiful buildings, people dressed up elegantly, expensive cars and luxurious restaurants. I waited in the railway station for night to come. A barbed wire fence separated the station from the ferry dock. I planned to jump over during the night and to climb into one of the many trucks that were lined up for the ferry to the UK.

I watched the railway station cleaners with envy. They were dressed in clean name-brand sport clothes. They seemed happy and their job looked easy. They fed me – I must have looked completely destitute. That was the first time I ate falafel. Two Moroccans, one Tunisian, and one Libyan. When they left, they bought me a can of Fanta and tried to give me some money, but I refused.

I did not manage to cross that night. Cold, dogs and nasty truck drivers were too big obstacles for me. I returned to Romania. Over the next year, the friendship of a group of Palestinian students in Romania helped me to survive. I tutored them. One of them, Suheil, was always there for me. He often bought food for me and he shared whatever he received from home with me. He eventually married a really nice Romanian girl. Many people treated her as a whore for loving a Palestinian – one of the kindest people I knew. I used to joke with her that she would have been treated better if she was Roma.

Eventually I succeeded in leaving Romania and spent many years abroad. But I moved back to Romania and have been back for many years now. During the last decade, I often worked with refugees and migrants. I spent time in refugee camps. Not just visited them, but actually spent time there. There is a specific smell to a refugee camp. When it’s hot, the smell is a mix of rotten garbage and sweat;  when it’s cold and humid, it smells of smoke and dirty damp clothes. Smells I also grew up with.

I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people living in refugee camps, slums, shacks. Syrians in Lebanon; Serbs and Roma from Kosovo in Macedonia and Montenegro; Africans, Bangladeshis, Bosnians and Roma in Italy; Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds in Turkey; Rohingyas in Thailand. Slums in India, Cambodia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and ghettoes in Eastern and Western Europe.

Since this year started, 137,000 people have already crossed the Mediterranean Sea. It is very probably that more than 4,000 have died trying to cross. A good part of those are children. Desperate people trying to run away from conflicts and abject poverty.

In June this year I took part in a high-level discussion at the Romanian Presidency that touched on the “refugee crisis”. The President’s Councilor was adamant that Romania should refuse any quota for refugees as they would be a “danger for Romanian society”.

Political elites across Europe voice similar positions. It stinks thousands of times worse than the most awful and crowded camps. It stinks of indifference, cowardice and hypocrisy.

The majority of the refugees are children: children who had the bad luck to be born outside of the walls of Fortress Europe. At the moment, these children get more help from those radical groups we (rightly) despise than from us, the kind, generous, civilized Europeans. We simply build bigger and better walls, while lamenting about the “criminals” that bring these children to our borders.

We seem to forget that it was us, the Europeans, who created the migrant-sending states on the principle of Divide and Rule, throwing together people with a history of hatred for each other in the same nations. We supported insane despots, played the role of masters in a disgusting Game of Thrones, sold weapons, including chemical ones, and did whatever we could to maintain the flow of cheap oil and whatever other goods we needed to be comfortable. We had no regard for the consequences of these decisions in the countries we created.

Conferences and speeches at luxurious receptions will not solve much. The European approach seems to consist of talking about courage and preaching about what others should do. This is not courage – it is  sociopathy.

There are tens of millions of Europeans who could easily host and help a family of refugees in their homes. I am ready to host a family. I am not rich, but I will not become poor by doing this.

More than 3.4 million Europeans have savings of over 1,000,000 EUR. There are also tens of thousands, if not more, businesses that could adopt a family. Tens of thousands of NGOs, charities and churches.  Thousands of intergovernmental organisation bureaucrats who make a good living out of nice words and reports could finally gain some legitimacy by enacting the generous agendas of their institutions.

We can help. We can help enough to solve most of the problems. We could show that we are indeed a moral Europe, that we care and that our words about human rights and the value of democratic societies are not empty ones. At the same time, we would repair our broken relations with the Arab world and get back into the driving seat for making this world a better one.

It will require courage. It will not be simple. Politicians will need to make it easier for us to “adopt” these families. They will need to become serious about solving the root causes of the conflicts in these countries. But it would be worth it. Surely, if nothing else, it would ease the stench of hypocrisy that follows the speeches of most European political elites.

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On the blessings of being a gypsy

20 Aug

For my first seven years I had just one identity: child. The move to a bigger city in Romania made it  clear to me that I was not a “normal” Romanian child but a ”gypsy”[i] child that Romanians “put up with”. I worked hard for the next years, and I was promoted from “stinky gypsy”, to “gypsy”, to “ok gypsy”, to “good gypsy”, to Roma, and finally I made it as “a Romanian”, and “someone Romania is proud of”. A Romanian TV station blessed me with that final title. Not to worry; it is still honorific. Any “original” Romanian that I piss off might request a re-evaluation and demote me. At the end of 2013 I was sainted as an EU citizen by receiving an award from the European Parliament.

It is great to be a gypsy. To be a member of such an advantaged ethnic minority: part human, part animal, part magic: truly a magnificent thing. We are the living Sphinxes, Pans and Centaurs of Europe. The majorities were incredibly kind to us for centuries, as they did their best to domesticate us. The process of taming us took a long time. As part of the process, they provided unlimited access to work for more than 500 years. This made us so happy that we decided to do it voluntarily, and sometimes even wearing chains. In the 20th century we traveled freely – all expenses covered by some generous European governments – to many exotic destinations such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Transnistria. We misbehaved and complained unfairly about the quality of transportation, food and overall treatment, which deeply embarrassed our benefactors. No wonder some Europeans still get all tense:  we seem to have learned nothing from those experiences and continue to complain about all kinds of “silly things such as exclusion and racism”. Regardless, a good part of these Europeans still wish us all the best… in heaven. Hitler’s, Horthy’s and Antonescu’s heavens, that is.

As gypsies, we are truly lucky as we all have the same characteristics. Our race lacks any individual traits:   we do our best to satisfy the need for simplicity and clarity on the part of our fans and lords. We aim to  avoid confusion and the waste of vital energy to build new synapses in the brains of our admirers. The way we did this was simply to incorporate in our DNA the main attributes proposed by our tamers and educators: laziness, stupidity, criminality, kitschy tastes, lying, incompetence, and aggressiveness are all there. This might sound unscientific to some, but remember, we are a people of fortune-tellers, magicians, and children who never get sick; what people believe about us has more power than science or facts.

What might at first appear to be hate, disgust, and exclusion are in fact simple misunderstandings or malicious interpretations of what is actually a kind expression of love meant to help our education. Many Europeans use the slogan “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” to explain their relationship with us. This obsession with making us stronger is found not just in the speeches of many politicians, but also in the purifying actions (fire or “holy” beatings are the most usual) led by groups of volunteer “teachers”. Throughout history, hangings, axes, pitch-forks, gas-chambers, forced deportations, starvation, and more recently bullets increased the efficiency of the educational methods.

As gypsies we also have no individual responsibilities. We are all responsible for the worst of any of us. Any idiotic thing said by a self-appointed leader, king, emperor, prince, or (if lucky) any gypsy becomes representative and binding for all of us.

On the other hand, the corruption, violence, and sociopathy of some of the most representative European leaders (all democratically elected) are ruled by surprisingly different laws as they are generally considered the responsibility of that particular individual. This is another proof of the benevolence of our “host nations”. It is well known that we “diluted” the honest, smart, and blue-greenish blood of many European nations that offered us unlimited hospitability.

From time to time one of us gypsies falls from our magic realm and ends up being generously accepted by our co-nationals as an honorary citizen. I have had this good fortune myself, as I explained earlier.

This high status comes with some minor requests such as accepting full responsibility for the systemic racism against us. Each of us awarded with honorary citizenship needs to do it. We are to be extremely polite, diplomatic, and defensive towards the majority population whenever there are racist actions that affect our communities, while at the same time being tough and unforgiving with the mistakes of our “uneducated, dirty, cunning and violent race”. We need also to understand and promote the need for a strong glass ceiling, as high-level jobs involve a level of responsibility and knowledge unfit for us. Others deciding what is needed and good for us is not institutional racism, but evidence of friendly (sometimes even maternal/paternal)love and care.

If you (the gypsy) are blessed to have a love relationship with one of those from the superior European races it is highly likely you will have strong incentives to keep quiet about your ethnicity. In the best case scenario, s/he will have no problems with your ethnicity and his/her friends will regard him/her as a paragon of tolerance and kindness, proof of the magnanimity of the nation towards “foreigners”. It is true that many will think your lover is a “whore” or an “idiot”, and some will think you or your relatives cast dark spells that made her/him fall in love with you. Regardless, you should not worry: burnings are not as popular as they used to be a few centuries ago. The occasional “what would you expect from a stinky gypsy” meant to explain your shortcomings is just a kind and gentle reminder that your education and domestication is ongoing.

Certainly, I, as a gypsy, am a hypocrite writing all the above. My role should be to “denounce the criminals among my people”, to “educate the stinky children that disgust” the “normal European”, to do something to “solve the problems of the gypsy communities”, and most important, to stop complaining. At the end of the day “I am tolerated here by the kind Romanians/Europeans!”

For the first time I felt being treated as a Roma in the US. I told people at my work, reluctantly, that I am a gypsy. Their reaction was unexpected, for me as they did not seem to care. Moreover some thought I was cool: poetic, romantic, a talented musician, exotic and in a relentless pursuit of freedom and magic. It fit perfectly with my job – I was writing boring mathematical algorithms at that time. 

In India I felt even weirder, when in a very crowded train people wanted to make a place for me to sit down as I looked comparatively white and rich. I refused the offer.

In Romania, for years now I have been received as a “genuine” Romanian. I am successful and I receive lots of recognition for what I do, sometimes more than I deserve. I chose to make it clear that I am a Romanian Roma and generally that is received as it should be – with respect. From time to time I am called and treated as a gypsy but it is rather exceptional nowadays. Unfortunately there are many teenagers and young Roma that do not have my luck. The text here is for them and reflects, sadly, real discussions.

*The article above is based on a Romanian version that is available in the newspaper Dilema Veche published today August 20, 2015

[i] Gypsy is a pejorative – Roma is the correct word

One good and necessary step forward

2 Aug

On the night of August 2, 1944 2898 Romani men, women, and children were gassed at Auschwitz as Soviet troops closed in. Preceding it in January 1940 over 200 Romani children were murdered in Buchenwald, Germany, used as research subjects for the efficiency of the crystals of Zyclon B Gas later employed in the gas chambers.

This is the beginning of an article I wrote exactly a decade ago. It is available here.

Some things remain valid. Some changed.  Most to the better.

In 2005 the European Parliament resolution on Holocaust did not even mentioned Roma.

On August 2, 2015 the European Commission came up with a very strong declaration in support of recognition of a European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day and in support of a Resolution of the European Parliament requesting such recognition. The entire declaration can be found here http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-15-5444_en.htm.

A decade ago this would have been unthinkable.

The Romanian prime-minister released also a message about the Roma Holocaust. It has been taken by most of the media outlets in Romania.

This might well be perceived by skeptics as nothing more than lip-service. It will be a mistake.  An institutional routine acknowledging the mass killings of Roma is a very serious step forward in ensuring the attention needed to Roma Genocide in the Romanian and European history.

It will be also a mistake to consider that this is enough. We do not manage yet even to stop the negative trend that see more and more Roma children falling into the exclusion trap. Nowadays most experts think that overall the Roma situation was significantly better during the communism. Educational achievements, illiteracy, housing , poverty and employment rates were much better 26 years ago.

We continue to use poorly European funds ; anti-Gypsyism as well as institutional racism remain problematic  all over Europe.

There are some good signals that things are improving. The declaration of the two Commissioners is one of them. The fact that this is possible means that there is some good support within the European Commission for Roma issues – something that was not the case a decade ago.

There are many bureaucrats that are or were in the Commission that made this possible. Their experience (good and bad) is important and needs to be better used regardless of egos ( personal and institutional).  Same is to be said about the Roma activists and experts in Roma issues. A decade of advocating better Roma policies lead many to burn-outs. Frustrations and personal feuds are nothing but an expected outcome of what has been often a serious struggle. Those and some other frictions hindered essential exchange of knowledge and much needed cooperation.

Pushing the right policies for Roma social inclusion is not an easy feat. Lip service, polite indifference or diplomatic niceties are not the way to achieve it.

Many of those involved in Roma issues are truly interested to find solutions. Bluntly discussing what the problems are/were with the purpose to find the solutions and not winning some pyric victories for the sake of our egos is the way ahead.

The Commission seemed to have managed just that. This time.

  1. Most of the individual’s flaws here are mine. They have been an unpleasant but necessary and hopefully useful discovery.

PPS.  The success of the European Parliament for the recognition of Roma Holocaust is due to the activity of a small group of Roma activists. The much regretted Nicolae Gheorghe and the previous and nowadays Roma MEPs are (arguably) the main responsible . Thanks !