I don’t want my child to go through the hatred I‘ve faced – but the interior minister has made that a real challenge
27 June 2018 | | The Guardian
People often ask me: what is it like to be Roma? What does it mean, and why do I – though I’m a graduate and dress “normally” – keep saying I’m Roma? The widespread perception of Roma people is that the “good” ones are poor nomads who sing and dance, beg, or tell your fortune; and the “bad” are criminals, exploiters, who steal children and refuse to be part of society.
So few know that we are a people with our own beautiful language and culture, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, who have managed to preserve our own identity without having our own state. That since we arrived in Europe in the 14th century we have been persecuted and stereotyped – most brutally in the second world war, with the genocide of the Roma and the Sinti. More than half a million of our people died in Nazi death camps, an extermination that, as with the Jews, was based on race.
Few people know that after the war, and up until the 1970s, Roma communities were systematically persecuted in countries usually deemed civilised and tolerant, such as Switzerland, and Sweden – where Roma women were sterilised. Across Europe, research shows that we continue to be one of the most discriminated-against and stereotyped minorities. Our marginalised position today is the direct consequence of a history of persecution and discrimination: call it anti-Gypsyism.
Yet despite immense barriers of prejudice and hate, a large number of us still manage to study and find a place in society. Who’s aware of that?
I’m an actor and a Roma activist. Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, recently made headlines by calling for a census of Roma and for expulsions. But what strikes me most are not the threats, the forced evictions, the closure of the camps, the deportations, or any other manifestations of the resentment towards us. (Salvini’s League launched its campaign against the Roma in 2008, and the party has grown in prominence ever since.)
No, what struck me most was when Salvini recently claimed: “We do it for the children. They’re abandoned to parents who educate them only in the art of stealing.” This echoed what Elena Donanzzan, a leader of the League in the Venice region, had said months earlier in a regional council session: “We should take all Roma and Sinti children under the age of six from their parents, to start educating them properly to become good citizens.”
Roma history is full of such examples. The Austro-Hungarian empire removed thousands of our children from their parents in the late 18th century, and put them in re-education centres. The Nazis shifted to a more sinister solution, designed to eradicate the “Gipsy scourge”. To hear politicians today openly target us as unwanted people conjures up dark memories.
And today, once again, our persecution starts with our children. My friend Giulia is Roma, and a lawyer. Her community has been in Italy since the 15th century, and her five-year-old daughter, Angelica, is blonde with blue eyes. However, she was identified as Roma by children in her kindergarten through her surname. After that they refused to touch her; if they did, they would immediately wash their hands.
It’s difficult to explain to others how much we suffer when classmates treat our children badly or, as often happens, a teacher puts one of our children in a corner and just leaves them there. It is difficult to explain the extraordinary fortitude and energy we need to find every day to soften the blows to our children, to try to make the discrimination and humiliation more tolerable, to salvage our dignity as parents – and our children’s dignity as human beings.
I was born in Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia), in a poor family that was proud of its Roma origins and determined to struggle for its place in society. My parents believed deeply in the notion of equality, as did the rest of our community.
My grandparents were illiterate, and they’d made great sacrifices to send their children to school. My mother found a job in a textile factory, my father in a general store. The purpose of their lives was to give my brother and me a sense of dignity and help us become successful individuals. They taught us to never deny our Roma roots, because that would mean negating our family and our ancestry.
So I grew up proud to be Roma, but realised early on what I would have to cope with. I happened to be good at school. When I was seven, my classroom friend turned on me. “You may have good marks,” she said, “but you’re Gypsy and you will always only ever be Gypsy.” When I came home in tears my mother told me: “Stop crying. To them, you will always be a Gypsy, but you have to be a proud Gypsy. You have to be better than them – always. They will never love you, but they will have to respect you.”
Even now that I am a successful woman, I still have to pay a heavy price for being a Roma activist. In 2015, Gianluca Buonanno, who was then a League member of the European parliament, publicly called me and all Roma people “the scum of society”. In 2016 my husband (who’s Italian, and not a Roma) was beaten up in front of our home for being “married to the Gypsy who goes on TV”.
Today I’m as determined as ever to fight for our rights, and to make sure that my eight-year-old son, together with millions of Roma children across Europe, can live in a more beautiful and more democratic world that respects minorities and diversity. I want them to walk into the future with confidence, and not suffer discrimination. In Italy that is a very challenging task.
The campaigns that have now been unleashed mingle the fear of an “invasion by migrants” with the fear of the “Gypsy thief”. “Migrant” and “Roma” have become slogans of hatred. So I think about Salvini’s children, whom he often mentions. What thoughts will they have for the poor, for migrants, for “Gypsies”. How much of their humanity will remain: the humanity that everyone, especially in childhood, spontaneously feels?
A few days ago my son told me: “When I grow up, I’ll make a law that punishes rich people who don’t help the poor, so there won’t be so many poor.” I know that if he grows in this way and with these ideas, his life won’t be easy. But at least I’m sure that I’m bringing him up to become a decent person and a good citizen.
• Dijana Pavlovic is an actor and Roma activist in Italy
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