Discrimination: It is a trend that has pervaded almost every country’s history since the dawn of time. When a group that is different arises and challenges the societal norm, those who meet the societal standard discriminate against the new minority, often feeling afraid of or intimidated by this anomaly. Among discriminated minorities, some well-known groups are blacks, Jews and homosexuals. The Roma (otherwise known as its equivalent politically incorrect term “Gypsies”) have been discriminated against all across Europe for centuries, to the point where they lack basic human rights.
The penultimate ’DEIS Impact 2014 event, “Recognizing the Roma Conflict—An Exploration of Human Rights,” examined this critical issue on Feb. 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. and, at its height, filled about half of Luria Hall in Hassenfeld Conference Center. The event was comprised of three segments: a panel-led discussion about the history and current status of the Roma people, the screening of a film depicting their current status in Sofia, Bulgaria and a Skype interview with the director of the film, who could not be at the program. The panel was comprised of four experts on Roma discrimination: Margareta Matache (a post-doc fellow at Harvard interested in health and human rights), Camilla Ida (a Ph.D. student at Copenhagen University and Anthropology research fellow at Harvard), Ana Bracic (a post-doc student at Stanford) and Brandeis’ Damiana Andonova ’15, an undergraduate interested in social justice and obstetrics, who organized the event.
The evening started with a lengthy and informative introduction to the historical background of the Roma, and the panel spelled out just who the Roma are, since they are not a widely known group. The Roma immigrated to Europe from India in the 11th and 12th centuries. The derogatory name that they are more popularly known by, “Gypsies,” originated from the belief that their dark skin meant that the Roma were Egyptians. The Roma are the biggest, poorest and least educated minority in Europe, and of the 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe, 60-70 percent live in poverty. Most Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe where they have lived for a long time and are separate from other Europeans. This contrasts with a smaller number of Roma living in Western Europe, where they are more integrated into the community in a more developed society.
The Roma were enslaved until the 18th century. However, they were left homeless and were forced to squat on land illegally. This transformed into a ghetto style of living on government land without law enforcement. While some of the Roma were able to integrate into society, live among civilians, become educated and obtain jobs, most Roma in the past and present struggle to find employment and basic schooling.
The film, “Welcome Nowhere,” a telling documentary about Roma in Bulgaria, investigates the extent of this issue in Sofia, Bulgaria. To build a supermarket, Sofia’s mayor ordered 151 people out of a lot they had been occupying for over half a century. They were not allowed to take anything with them, and their homes were destroyed before their eyes. They were then relocated to a “temporary” new home that comprised of 21 old boxcars with canvas for a roof, one water source for 38 families and no plumbing—this occurred as recently as 2001. Thanks to a husband and wife team of pastors who provide some food, basic necessities and transportation for the Roma, they survive in this filthy excuse for a home in a severely impoverished state. The children of this “village” scarcely attend school because of their lack of supplies and shoes, and many are constantly ill.
The main cause of this hellish living situation is anti-Roma discrimination. Children generally do not attend school past middle school (if they get that far), and the vast majority remain illiterate. School attendance is inconsistent and unenforced, and the school programming itself is very ill-equipped. The children have no other prospects, so they get married and try to find work—an impossible feat when illiterate.
Far more significant than illiteracy, however, is the stigma that exists against the Roma. When Bulgarians were asked what their opinions were on Roma, condemning answers like “Good for nothing,” “They have different genes than normal people,” “They live in filth” and “They are always looking to steal, lie or cheat” accumulated dizzyingly. All of the answers were negative, proving that in the society in which Roma live, people are extremely close-minded, convinced that the Roma are almost disease-like.
Bulgarians are upset because Roma do not pay utilities or tax for their subhuman living conditions and feel that they receive preferential treatment from the government while ironically living like dogs. This film emphasized several issues: that the Bulgarian government is not committed to helping the Roma, the hostile discrimination (especially in the health field and employment) that hinder Romani advancement and how Bulgaria does not know how to integrate or accept the Roma people. “Welcome Nowhere,” directed by Kate Ryan, has won numerous awards and was debuted at Brandeis.
An especially memorable aspect of the program was when Andonova, who studied in Bulgaria, shared experiences where she witnessed hostile discrimination against Bulgarian Roma. She highlighted discrimination in the medical field, where Roma hardly ever receive even basic medical treatment. Shockingly, she spoke of instances when doctors yelled at Roma females in labor for being in pain, ridiculed her for holding Roma babies instead of Bulgarian babies. She even saw Bulgarian foster parents complain that they “did not feel” like buying shoes for their Roma foster children and that their orphanages would not take them back.
The information presented during the event enlightened the Brandeis community and the film informed viewers bluntly of anti-Roma discrimination while being easy to watch and understand.
The event incited an interest in anti-Roma discrimination and may have prompted in the audience a desire for further research and involvement in this crucial issue. The event was co-sponsored by the Health, Science, Society and Policy and the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence programs.