News & Current Affairs

September 16, 2008

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

The European Union’s freedom of movement laws mean Eastern Europe’s large population of Roma (Gypsies) is now spreading west.

Roma family in Hungary

Roma make up around 10% of the population in Eastern Europe

The effect of this influx on national economies, as well as the deep poverty of the EU’s Roma, are high on the agenda as the first summit on Roma integration within the EU begins in Brussels.

Italy and Spain have received the most Roma, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, where they make up more than 10% of the population.

Italy has witnessed the most serious effects – murders blamed on Roma, and revenge attacks by vigilante groups, followed by controversial government attempts to fingerprint Roma immigrants.

In Hungary, there is tension between Roma and non-Roma, after the lynching of a teacher by a Roma mob in one village, and attacks on a lorry driver and his family in another – both after road traffic accidents involving Roma children.

The creation of a “Hungarian Guard”, by far-right groups who arrive in villages after such incidents, is fueling fears of an explosion.

Integration key

“I don’t really know how the EU could help,” said Andras Ujlaky, head of the Chance for Children Foundation in Hungary.

“But perhaps they could start by pressurizing national governments to implement their own declared policies in housing, employment and education.”

Hungarian customs trainee Jozsef Nagy
There weren’t many opportunities… This was the chance for me!
Jozsef Nagy
Trainee customs officer

In Hungary, an earlier policy to give money to schools for the mentally disabled, to which a disproportionate number of Roma were sent, was abandoned when it was realized that it encouraged segregation.

Now funds are focused on mainstream schools which accept more Roma – though they impose limits of 25% Roma in a class.

There has been a wave of school closures in recent years in Hungary, as population figures fall.

That cuts both ways for the Roma. When Roma ghetto schools close, and the children are redistributed among schools with an ethnic Hungarian majority, it helps integration efforts.

The town of Hodmezovasarhely in south-eastern Hungary has been a pioneer, with five out of 11 primary schools closed last year alone.

But in far-flung villages with a majority Roma population, Roma and non-Roma parents alike are upset when local schools close and children are bussed off each day to towns.

The links between the parents and the schools are broken.

An alternative policy, supported by opposition parties, would be to improve the facilities and standard of teaching in existing schools.

Police drive

In eastern Hungary poverty is so endemic – with the Roma blamed for widespread petty theft – that the head of the Hungarian Poultry Board recently complained that people are no longer raising hens in several counties.

One new initiative for Roma integration in Budapest is being run by Gyorgy Makula, a policeman of Roma origin.

Hungarian police officer Gyorgy Makula (left) and some Roma boys

Officer Gyorgy Makula (left) hopes to help Roma boys out of the ghetto

Giant placards will be placed at strategic points around Budapest, to try to encourage more Roma to consider a police career.

Data protection laws make it impossible to measure how many Roma police there are in Hungary, but Gyorgy Makula estimates no more than 200, in a police force of 38,000.

“We should show to the Hungarian people, to the majority, among them the police staff, that there are really excellent people in this community who have been working for the police, who are not criminals of course.

“So we would like to change the mind of the people,” said Capt Makula.

At the Police High School, on Szecsenyi Hill overlooking Budapest, Jozsef Nagy, a third-year trainee customs officer, says he always wanted to join one of the law enforcement agencies.

“There weren’t many opportunities in our village to get somewhere in life. This was the chance for me!” he said.

Bending rules

One obstacle to increasing Roma numbers in the police is the fact that fewer than 10% of Roma students complete secondary school in Hungary.

A new idea is to bend the rules – to let them begin police training, and take their school-leaving exams inside the police academy.

In Csorog, a village less than an hour’s drive north of Budapest, with a large Roma population, the idea of more Roma policemen goes down well.

“I can foresee some problems,” said Zoltan Lakatos, a dustman, “if a policeman was forced to arrest one of his own relatives. But on the whole it’s a good idea. I think it would help.”

But his son, Zoli, 15, cannot imagine himself in uniform, planning a career steeped in Roma tradition.

“I’ve already decided,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer. I’m going to teach Gypsy dance.”

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September 3, 2008

Grappling with a Roma identity

Grappling with a Roma identity

It was just a passing remark, the first time I heard Arpad Bogdan talk about the Roma father who had left him in an orphanage, and wonder if he should try to find him.

Arpad Bogdan

Arpad Bogdan spent his childhood in a state orphanage

We were drinking late at night in a semi-derelict house in a Budapest side street. We had skipped over bicycles and rubbish to make our way inside. I should say this was not a doss house but a trendy Urban Minimalism club.”He doesn’t have to tell you this you know,” whispered our mutual friend, director Antonia Meszaros. And it was then that I realised how conflicted Arpad is – how much of a dilemma his Roma inheritance has created.

Arpad is a much-garlanded young film director, whose feature film Happy New Life has won many awards. It is about a young Roma man’s unbearable childhood in an orphanage. In the end, he can’t hack it – unlike Arpad who emerged from his own orphanage into the University of Pecs and a promising film career.

“My film,” Arpad says, “is about the dilemmas of someone who realises that in order to face the future, he must come to terms with his past – and that’s something that I still have to do in my own life.”

Arpad was one of thousands of Roma – or gypsy – children who were taken into orphanages during Hungary’s Communist years. The truth is cloudy here, but it seems that in some cases their parents wanted this, in many they didn’t.

Sense of identity

“In the orphanage, being Roma had no positive implications for us,” Arpad recalls. “But some of the kids were visited by their parents and they brought smells and flavours that were strange to me and even a little bit frightening.

Hungary's Roma at an Easter celebration

The Roma people are Hungary’s largest minority

“There was also something exotic and exciting about them. The smell of an open fire, the smell of freedom.”Like many of his peers, and like many people in a globalised world, Arpad is now unsure where he belongs. He certainly seems to have a stake in the metro-savvy, globalized world of Budapest’s cafes, salons and grunge clubs.

But does he also belong – at some level – in the world of Gypsy Harlem, Budapest’s District Eight? Or in the villages where he reckoned his parents must still live?

Soon after our meeting, using powers under new Hungarian laws, Arpad sets off – in our own film – to find his parents. He had a rough idea where they lived, and had set off on a voyage of discovery before, only to lose his nerve.

What he finds is extraordinary. Newly released records show his parents “liked a drink, [and] discipline their children by beating them”.

He meets a brother, Laszlo, he had never met. He learns their mother is dead. And finally, he meets his ragged, handsome dad. A new young wife hangs back, in the shadows of the garden. Some 40 dogs bark and make our film crew nervous.

‘Forgiving’

And then his dad smiles, and extends a hand, and says, “Which one are you?” He’s so charming, it is impossible to take it the wrong way.

Whether I’ll see my father again, well maybe I will, but definitely not on my own
Arpad Bogdan

He’s called Laszlo too. He was in prison for 12 years.”I had a mean punch,” he says. “I always say better be accompanied by a prison guard than a priest on your way to the cemetery. Isn’t that right?”

The elder Laszlo doesn’t see much of any of his nine children anymore. “At least you came to find me,” he says.

“As for the past, let’s pull a veil over it, we should look to the future from now on.”

Back in Budapest, Arpad must think about his own future. First he must decide what his next film is about. He’s not really in a dilemma about whether to carve a career as a “gypsy director”. He doesn’t want to be typecast.

But he is uncertain about whether to stay in touch with his dad.

“I looked at my father, into his eyes, and I suddenly felt myself forgiving him. I let him go, along with all the bad things I used to blame him for,” he says.

“After that, I could see him for what he is, I could listen to him. Whether I’ll see my father again, well maybe I will, but definitely not on my own. I will have to take someone with me, someone from my own life.”

We’ll have to wait and see what he does.

So far, he doesn’t know himself.


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August 23, 2008

Gypsies are ‘Europe’s most hated’

Gypsies are ‘Europe’s most hated’

An effigy of a Gypsy caravan on fire during bonfire night

An effigy of a gypsy caravan is burnt, leading to racial hatred allegations

Gypsies are the most hated minority in Europe despite centuries of persecution and the Holocaust, it has been claimed.

Up to half-a-million were killed by the Nazis – but their plight is often forgotten and they remain “demonised”.

The comments were made by Dr James Smith of the National Holocaust Centre, where a conference on the treatment of gypsies and travellers is being held.

It is hoped the event will help promote greater understanding of both the gypsy and traveller communities in the UK.

‘Hysteria’

Dr Smith said: “If we don’t learn from the past, we run the risk of repeating its mistakes in the future.

“Sixty years ago, after centuries of persecution, Europe’s gypsies faced extermination under the Nazis, simply because of who they were.

When hysteria is whipped up against a minority by politicians and the media, people get hurt and they are getting hurt, right now
Dr James Smith

“Up to half a million were killed. Yet even after the Holocaust, gypsies remain perhaps the most hated minority in Europe.

“When hysteria is whipped up against a minority by politicians and the media, people get hurt and they are getting hurt, right now.”

‘Overcome problems’

Delegates are being asked: “Are these Britain’s most demonised people?”

Organisers say issues covered include the Holocaust and recent media coverage of controversial traveller camps.

Among participants are National Travellers’ Action Group chairman Cliff Codona, recently seen on a television documentary about travellers with Robert Kilroy-Silk.

He said: “It’s important for people in the traveller community and the wider community to work together a lot more.

“The only way it’s going to happen is through conferences of this kind taking place, and through good media coverage of what we’re doing to overcome the problems.”

‘Memory alive’

He added: “The experience of our community during the Holocaust is often just completely overlooked, and it shouldn’t be forgotten.

“The more that can be done by places like the Holocaust Centre to keep the memory alive and to provide education about this, especially in schools, the better the prospects for equality.”

As well as negative media reports and being ostracised, the issue of attitudes to gypsies was raised during a controversial bonfire night celebration in 2003.

A caravan bearing effigies of a gypsy family and the number plate P1 KEY was burnt in Firle, East Sussex.

This lead to 12 members of a bonfire society being arrested and accused of inciting racial hatred.

However, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ruled they would not be prosecuted because of insufficient evidence.

The bonfire society insisted there was no racist intent behind its actions.

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