News & Current Affairs

July 12, 2009

Russian Roma face image problem

Filed under: Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:03 am

Russian Roma face image problem

As part of a series on Roma Gypsies in Europe,we examines how their reputation has changed in modern-day Russia.

Burned Roma house

“Houses started to burn”: a Roma drug dealer’s house

Russians have traditionally tended to think of Roma (Gypsies) in two ways: as horse-dealers and rustlers, or as rolling stones, wandering around the world in colourful costumes and singing romantic songs.

But in the new Russia this old image has been replaced by a different one – one generated by media reports from villages where Roma drug dealers sell heroin.

And although pro-Roma organisations try to argue that this picture does not apply to all Roma, their voice is drowned out by the media.

“All of a sudden, their houses started to burn because of some electrical problems, and entire clans would leave,” remembers Yevgenii Malenkin from Russian non-governmental organisation City Without Drugs, pointing to a burned house not far from Yekaterinburg, in central Russia.

Mr Malenkin says that about seven years ago Roma people living in the house were openly selling heroin.

“Right here on the crossroads crowds gathered, waiting for drugs to arrive. Those who had received their dose were lying in the bushes nearby. And police cars would be there too, providing security for the Gypsies,” he says.

There are no Roma engineers, no Roma doctors, they are all drug dealers
Yevgenii Malenkin

City Without Drugs started fighting drug addiction and drug dealing in Yekaterinburg 10 years ago.

But it seems Mr Malenkin’s attitude towards Roma has been tainted by his experience.

“There are no Roma engineers, no Roma doctors, they are all drug dealers. There are five Roma villages in Yekaterinburg and all five trade drugs,” he says.

Misrepresented

Nikolai Bessonov, one of the best known Russian specialists on Roma, believes that they are misrepresented in Russia.

“The real number of drug-dealers among Roma is exaggerated. The news only shows the drug-dealers. We never hear about Roma who study in universities, work on a farm, we don’t see Roma engineers or Roma doctors,” says Mr Bessonov, whose daughter and son-in-law are actors in a famous Moscow Roma theatre, the Roman.

Mr Bessonov lives in a village near Moscow where, he says, there are many Roma of “respectable” professions: a lawyer, a jeweller and a number of legitimate traders.

But the media tends to ignore them and this leads to misunderstanding.

A recent poll by the independent Levada Centre found that 52% of Russians think negatively of Roma.

According to Russia’s 2002 census, there are 183,000 Roma in the country.

But Mr Bessonov estimates the number to be nearer 250,000.

Secret identity

Nikolai Bugai, foreign relations counsellor at the ministry of regional development, says that Roma are able to live in harmony with the rest of the community.

Traditional Roma

Can reviving traditions improve the image of the Roma?

He recently visited a village in the Krasnodar region in the south of Russia, where out of a population of 13,000, at least 5,000 were Roma.

“There is a farm there of 220 hectares, which is headed by a Roma and the workers are also Roma,” says Mr Bugai.

Nikolai Bessonov believes that Roma people themselves are partly responsible for their negative image, in that they prefer to keep their identities secret.

“When I try to write about Roma who work, I ask a Roma doctor if I can talk about him, but he refuses, saying that he doesn’t want his patients to find out who he really is because that might create work-related problems. I approach a teacher and she tells me the same thing,” he says.

It has been said that those Roma who have assimilated into society have therefore partly lost their Roma identity.

But Mr Bessonov disagrees.

“When Russians stopped wearing beards and woven bast shoes, stopped farming and went to work at a factory or became, for instance, engineers, no one said that they ‘assimilated’. So why when a Roma goes to work in a mine or study at a university, do people say that he has assimilated?” asks the historian.

Our women want to work, but they can’t find anything because they are illiterate
Elza Mihai

He says it is important that Roma continue to respect their traditions, no matter what they do in life.

Many Roma are afraid to assimilate and so they don’t send their children to school. And if they do, it’s only for a year or two, so that children learn to read and write.

But the lack of a complete education makes it difficult for these children to find a job later on in life.

“Our women want to work, but they can’t find anything because they are illiterate,” says Elza Mihai, a teacher from a Roma village in the Leningrad region.

Myths and prejudices

Ms Mihai hopes that with such difficulty in finding employment, Roma people will eventually be convinced to send their children to school for longer than just a couple of years.

But better education alone will not improve the negative image of Roma in Russia.

After all, there are many myths and prejudices about other, well educated peoples.

Nikolai Bessonov hopes that revival of Roma folklore will help improve the image of Roma in Russia.

Together with his daughter and Roma son-in-law, Mr Bessonov has created a folklore group “Svenko”, where artists in typical colourful Roma costumes dance and sing Roma romances.

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September 10, 2008

Making the world understand my face

Making the world understand my face

Alison Rich

The two sides of Alison’s face did not develop in tandem

On a packed commuter train, passengers rarely give their fellow travellers more than a passing glance. But Alison Rich is not just another face in the crowd – what is the impact of facial deformity on an otherwise normal life?

Every morning on her way to work, Alison Rich is met with sideways glances and furtive second looks. Some people stare openly, others turn away out of embarrassment.

Alison was born with a condition that impeded the development of the left side of her face and gave her spine a severe scoliosis, curving her back from side to side. From the ages of two to 13, she was strapped into a brace from her waist to her neck. She has had to deal with such reactions all her life.

She now works for Changing Faces, a charity that challenges the prejudices surrounding facial disfigurement. Ahead of a public discussion on Thursday at London’s Wellcome Institute, Alison invited me to follow her daily commute to witness the reactions of fellow passengers.

Crowded train

Don’t look is usually the unspoken rule of a crowded commute

What for everyone else is a momentary shock, followed by a double-take, for Alison is constant undermining scrutiny.

As suited workers file on to the drizzle-stained platform in south London, she is met with a series of second glances. One man stares openly, his mouth slightly open, eyebrows knitted in fascination. A woman looks away, her face full of pity.

No-one actually says anything, but as passengers crowd onto the train, their eyes dart up from a newspaper, or hastily look away and then back again. One woman stares, her eyes wide in grim fascination.

“Some people we work with, people literally stand back in horror. But for me it’s that constant slow drip, drip and you can imagine what that does to someone who is not emotionally equipped.”

Findings by Changing Faces suggest 542,000 – or one in 111 – people in the UK have a significant facial disfigurement. Alison, 35, says the publicity that comes from events such as the Wellcome Trust debate helps challenge responses to disfigurement, engrained from the playground to the workplace.

“We don’t have to be PC about it. We can’t deal with it until people are aware of what they are thinking.”

While society is more accepting of physical disability, the huge growth in cosmetic surgery suggests beauty is increasingly skin-deep.

A 2007 survey by market analysts Mintel predicted people in Britain would spend about £1bn on cosmetic surgery in 2008. They found 577,000 cosmetic treatments were carried out in the UK in 2007, up from 300,000 in 2005.

Woman having cosmetic surgery

Seeking to improve on nature

Alison believes the trend is leading to a narrower definition of what people find acceptable. Professor Alex Clarke, from the Royal Free Hospital – which has ethical permission to perform the first face transplant in the UK – agrees with her.

There is now pressure not just from celebrity culture, but in what is expected from day-to-day life as well.

“It’s more the sort of presentation of highly attractive people in everyday contexts. It’s the sitcoms like Friends or Neighbors, or very good-looking newsreaders. That’s the subliminal message,” she says.

And this airbrushed ideal is emerging at an early age. For someone going through puberty with disfigurement, the anxiety and insecurity can be particularly distressing.

“Because it is coming at you from all angles, from the TV, from the internet, it’s very difficult to stand back from this and say do I agree with this? Am I happy to look the way I am?”

Alison is not opposed to plastic surgery – she has had 15 operations on her face. The decision whether to go under the knife, she says, should come down to individual choice.

And medical advances such as face transplants can raise false hopes of what can be done for people with disfiguring conditions.

Surgeons gave Isabelle Dinoire a new face after her dog gnawed her features trying to revive her from a suicide attempt

Isabelle Dinoire, who received the first partial face transplant

“You look at somebody with a pan-facial scar from a Spitfire, for example, or at somebody with a pan-facial scar from a road accident, the cosmetic result really isn’t much different,” says Prof Clarke.

It’s a point that Alison feels strongly about too.

“The first thing is that they are only available to a very small number of people with particular injuries, so everyone is not going to be suddenly walking out with a face transplant.

“The way the media has presented face transplants is it sets them out as a great white hope and plays into this stereotype that it’s absolutely impossible to lead a decent life if you have a disfigurement, and that just isn’t true.”

Coping strategy

Ultimately Alison has dealt with her disfigurement through inner strength.

At school, girls would be friendly outside the gates, but shun her in the classroom. At discos boys would stand in front of Alison before turning to her friends and refusing to dance with her.

Alison Rich
I don’t look in the mirror in the morning and say ‘oh God, look at my face’

It was one of the cruellest reactions that transformed how she dealt with her disfigurement.

“I was in the student union and this guy came up to me and threw me against the wall and said: ‘You are the ugliest thing I have ever seen, I’d kill myself if I looked like you’. I just didn’t go out for a few days, I was quite bruised by it.

“But it also made me realize how I was going to handle myself and that I had to get strong inside. And I think even more importantly I needed to learn how to deal with these things.”

In a way, she says, he did her a favour. She now has a number of strategies she recommends to anyone concerned about their disfigurement: Look someone in the eye, have a short explanation ready, move the conversation on, and seek expert support.

But she still has bad days.

A young man who had been talking to her suddenly turned round and said: “you’d be really lovely if you weren’t so ugly”; and before her wedding a shop assistant told her: “Oh gosh, I didn’t think that someone who looked like you could get married.”

Alison is always aware of how those around are reacting.

“I never have a day off. But I don’t look in the mirror in the morning and say ‘oh God, look at my face’. I think I’m looking pretty tired today, or shall I pick up some lipstick, or ‘hey, you’re looking pretty good’.”


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September 9, 2008

Declaring love boosts sex appeal

Declaring love boosts sex appeal

attraction

The secret to successful flirting is letting someone know how you feel

Telling someone you fancy ‘I really like you’ could make him or her find you more attractive, research suggests.

Making eye contact and smiling have a similar effect, says Aberdeen University psychologist Dr Ben Jones.

His study, involving 230 men and women, found such social cues – which signal how much others fancy you – play a crucial role in attraction.

The work will appear in Psychological Science and will be presented at the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool.

Romantic success

Dr Jones said singletons could use his findings to help prevent wasting time chatting up people who were clearly not interested.

“Combining information about others’ physical beauty with information about how attracted they appear to be to you allows you to allocate your social effort efficiently,” he said.

In other words, avoid wasting time on attractive individuals who appear unlikely to reciprocate.

Maybe one of the ways you learn your level of attractiveness is through how other people behave towards you
Dr Lynda Boothroyd, a psychologist at the University of Durham

In the study, 230 men and women were asked to look at flash cards picturing a face with different expressions – making eye contact or not and smiling or not.

The volunteers were then asked to rate how attractive the faces were.

The preference for the attractive face was much stronger when people were judging those faces that were looking at them and smiling.

Dr Lynda Boothroyd, a psychologist at the University of Durham, said: “We like it when attractive people seem to be behaving positively towards us.

“And we seem to end up with people who are on our level in terms of attractiveness.

“Maybe one of the ways you learn your level of attractiveness is through how other people behave towards you.”


Have you been affected by the issues covered in this story? Send us your comments

August 23, 2008

Face transplant ‘double success’

Face transplant ‘double success’

The Lancet

This man had been attacked by a bear

Successful results from two more face transplants will speed progress towards similar operations in other countries, say experts.

The Lancet journal reported operations involving a bear attack victim in China, and a French patient with a massive facial tumour had taken place.

The Chinese patient was given not just the lip, nose, skin and muscle from a donor, but even some facial bone.

Specialists in London are working towards the UK’s first transplant.

Frenchwoman Isabel Dinoire became the world’s first face transplant patient in 2005 after being savaged by a pet dog. She described the results of the operation as a “miracle”.

The latest operations were just as complex, but involved different challenges for French and Chinese surgeons.

Face transplantation has moved from ethical debate to surgical reality
French transplantation team

The first operation took place in April 2006. The patient was a farmer from a remote village in Yunnan province in China, who had been attacked by a bear 18 months earlier, leaving a huge section of tissue missing from the right side of his face.

The operation, at Xijing Hospital in Xi’an City, used the face of a 25-year-old man who had died in a traffic accident.

Despite immune-suppressing treatment, the patient had to battle his body’s attempt to reject the new tissue on three occasions.

His doctors said they now believed that face transplantation was a viable long-term option.

The second operation, carried out in Paris in January 2007, involved a 29-year-old man disfigured by a neurofibroma, a massive tumour growing on his facial nerves.

Its removal was timed to coincide with a face transplant, and a year later, doctors again declared the operation a success.

The patient told them that previously he had been considered a “monster”, but now felt like an anonymous person in the crowd.

The procedure, they said, had moved “from ethical debate to surgical reality”.

Moving forward

In the UK, surgeons at the Royal Free Hospital in London are making preparations to carry out the operation if the right combination of patient and donor becomes available.

Professor Iain Hutchison, a consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Barts and the London Hospital, and founder of the “Saving Faces” charity, said that the twin successes would offer more encouragement for surgical teams considering carrying out their own operations.

He said: “This takes a step forward in two ways – firstly the use of bone as well as skin – and next is carrying out this operation on someone with a benign tumour.

“There will always be limitations to this – the main one would be a societal constraint – a lack of suitable donors.

“However, there is certainly demand for this, with the major area being for people with facial burns.”

Roger Green, president of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, said: “This particular surgery is a way of giving back a life to a patient who has been horribly scarred by burns, trauma or a tumour.

“However, we must acknowledge the long-term medical risks, such as transplant rejection and the need for life-long medication, associated with the procedure. There is also the potential of psychological impact following such a transplant.”

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