No Country for Roma People

August 23rd, 2013 1:37 pm

Caution! A discussion below is charged with subjective experiences and views on the situation and conflicts related to the Roma minority in Hungary. Your critical eyes might be needed there to read and rethink! The conversation could be used as a resource material for discussions as well.

Normally you can hardly embarrass a Hungarian by asking questions. Even complaining about wages or about your illnesses, after or even before getting to know the others names, those topics are not belonging to the taboo zones for a Hungarian person in general. But if you ask: What do you think about the Roma people – you are risking getting into a very passionate discussion. Somehow, you avoid the question even at home if you want to finish the Sunday supper without a conflict.

I asked three young Hungarians how they see that issue. Is that a matter at all? I was looking for answers together with Andrea (28) a student of English literature, Katalin (32) a journalist, Balázs (29) an IT support person. Once seated in one of the typical cozy cafés in the inner city of Budapest, my interviewees, who I know from the university asked me to use fake names for them. My first question to them was almost given:

Why are you afraid of?

Balázs: There is a real danger. I am sometimes really afraid in my everyday life, although I am not belonging to any ethnic minority. Probably just to a political one, as I am rather thinking in a liberal way. Many people would immediately consider me as anti-Hungarian for this approach. I was threatened on Facebook as well.

Andrea: I know what Balázs is talking about. I have been there too. Exclusion and intolerance is not only in Nógrád (county in the north of Hungary where the Roma population is the highest comparing to the other areas of the country) but here in the capital it is present as well. Last week I was named “a dirty Jew” by couple of young men. It was during the day, on a crowded street, probably because of an unusual colorful outfit I was wearing. I was leaving the library with some books in my hand. I pretended I could not hear them. Now I can imagine that everyday life must be very tough for people who look different than most of the Hungarians.

Katalin: Indeed, there are sometimes very difficult situations. My father is African, and some people who never seen Africans think that I am gipsy[1]. One old woman in a supermarket accused me without any reason that I was standing near hear at the cash because I wanted to steal the products from her basket. It was very humiliating.

Andrea: There are these stereotypes about the gipsies that they just do not want to work, therefore it is very difficult to overcome this image for the ones who would really like to change. I had a gipsy roommate in the dormitory and a family friend, a musician, but I never came to the idea to connect the gipsy stereotypes with them.  They wanted to study and to work.

What could be the reasons for the stereotypes you mentioned?

Katalin: You did not prepare easy questions, did you? Well, I think most of the Roma people, even that they are not a homogenous group, are living according to very different traditions and social realities than most of the Hungarians do. Just to name an example, in many communities girls are only counting as “somebody” if they marry until 16 and give birth to a child. This pattern is not easy to fit in the system of education and work. Even after the socialist era the traditional skills disappeared for Roma people and they had to survive by other businesses, living out of illegal activities. The generation growing up now brings these patterns as examples.

Andrea: Obviously, everyone seems to know that the key is education.

Balázs: Yes, but somehow there are very few successful programs. My mother was a nurse in a kindergarten. She told me about an education program that failed during the socialist regime. In the 80’s gipsy children of very poor background were getting placements in a dormitory, close to the school. The problems started as the children did not want to go back to the poverty. Their families were afraid of loosing contact with their children. Consequently, the families would not not let them go back to school. Obviously, if one does not want to change, then she or he can be changed, neither by an individual NGO nor by a group of politicians.

Andrea: I don’t agree, it is not only a question of a decision. This is a vicious circle. Roma children who are already in schools are facing lots of difficulties such as circumstances at home, or simply the fact that they have to work at home and that they do not have energy for the rest of the day. Even if these students graduate, they will be hardly hired by anyone. OK, there are exceptions, of course. In one of my previous jobs there was a Roma guy, very intelligent and a good worker, but in the companies’ party he could not avoid to listen the colleagues’ stories and jokes on gipsies.

What else could be done?

Balázs: Maybe we have to rely more on the law? I wish to see more actions to strengthen the social inclusion. Try more education programs. And forbid and punish the violence and crime, no matter who committed it.

Katalin: I think that the churches are not speaking up loud enough to reduce the intolerance and underline the teachings of Christ, that everybody is your sister and brother, nobody is an exception, neither the ones we like or we are afraid of. I do not really understand, and I feel ashamed of that, that certain denominational communities are not separating themselves from right extremist groups and they mix up national values with social exclusion.

Andrea: Yes, there is much to do from the side of the state, or the church. I agree. But we are all responsible to establish a discourse and express sympathy or disagreement.

Thank you for your thoughts and shared experiences!


[1] In Hungarian, according to the political correctness the word Roma is used, but gipsy is not necessarily a pejorative or negative expression like in English , but rather charged by a colloquial, everyday sense of the term.

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