Welcome to Opre Roma, the McGill International Review’s blog on the Roma and Roma issues.
The who-what? “Roma”?
I get this question a lot. “Who are the Roma?” people ask. My response, grudgingly, is “Well, you might know them as Gypsies.” When I say this, eyes light up with recognition. Yet, calling someone of Roma descent a “Gypsy” is (or should be) similar to calling someone of East Asian descent “Oriental”. Not totally wrong per se, but anachronistic, vaguely condescending, and in many cases holding racist overtones. Getting terms right is key.
Who are the Roma though? The Romani people are an ethnic group living mostly in Europe; communities of Roma, numbering over 12 million people, though exist word-wide. Roma are distinct as an ethnic group, and are not defined by their traditional mode of living or by their social marginalization, which they share with groups like the Irish Travellers. Roma often speak a dialect of the Romani language family, although not all do. There is no single Roma faith, with Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Muslim Roma, among others. Most scholars believe that the Roma originated in Northern India, beginning to emigrate from the region by the 8th century and trickling into Europe beginning in the 14th century. The Roma, with their dark features, were labelled as “Egyptian”, which eventually was corrupted into the modern “Gypsy”.
Marginalization was, and is, the norm for Roma in Europe. The Roma of Wallachia and Moldova, in modern Bulgaria and Romania, were enslaved in a system resembling Southern chattel slavery until the 1850s. In much of the rest of Europe, as modern states formed and borders thickened, Roma were forced to settle and were pushed to the margins of society. Despite oppression, Roma continued to build on cultural traditions and strengthen their communities.
The Second World War was highly traumatic for the Roma, and was the apex of persecution for the people. The Porajmos, meaning “destruction” or “devouring”, is the Romani name for the Holocaust. Between 200 000 and 1.5 million Roma were murdered by the Nazis and their allies. Liberation from the horrors of the Nazis was quickly subsumed by oppression under the Communist governments of Eastern Europe for most Roma. These Roma were forced onto the margins once again. While basic necessities and jobs were provided, Roma were systematically denied education and forced into the most menial and dangerous industrial jobs while being de-facto segregated, especially in schools and housing.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, there was much hope that the status of the Roma would change for the better, especially as the European Union, a symbol of democracy and human rights, expanded into Central and Eastern Europe. However, living conditions rapidly declined as the social supports of Communism disappeared and many Roma, marginalized and denied opportunity for so long, now struggled to compete in a fast-changing capitalist economy. The EU made half-hearted efforts to deal with these problems, which included an explosion in Roma unemployment, homelessness, and persecution, often by radical nationalist groups. This characterizes the situation to this day.
Why the Roma? Why Opre Roma?
The Roma are one of the most persecuted and marginalized groups in the world. In addition to the horrors of daily life that so many Roma face, this blog is meant to counter the narrative of the Roma that is so often expounded by the media: poor, untrustworthy, savage. While I am not Roma, this blog is written in solidarity with their struggle for a voice and a deserved share in Europe’s prosperity and society. Opre Roma, in the Romani language, means “Roma Rising”. This is both an aspirational and a descriptive statement; hope for the Roma to rise, and defiance agains those who would keep them down.
Much of the material for this blog comes from a WordPress blog, Roma Community Toronto, written by me over the summer as part of an internship with the Roma Community Centre there. Check it out for the archives if you are interested in learning more.
Thank you for following, and enjoy Opre Roma. To get you started, here is a link to a version of “Jelem Jelem”, broadly considered to be the Romani national anthem, by the Toronto-based Roma folk band The Gypsy Rebels.