Roma: a proud identity forged through adversity

29th July 2016 at 00:00
Henry Hepburn travels to Italy to explore a community that is, at best, ignored and, at worst, persecuted, and discovers education can offer a way forward

Coffee cups are set aside. The restaurant falls silent. Toni Derange, a 23-year-old man with a fashionable wedge of jet-black hair and a sense of the theatrical, gets up to sing a cappella. The precise meaning of the lyrics is a mystery to many listening, but the potent mix of pride and melancholy is unmistakable.

Not everyone is as impressed as our group of 19 journalists from across Europe, gathered in Italy for a European Commission seminar on anti-Roma discrimination.

Derange is a Roma – the term “gypsy” is now widely viewed as derogatory – but the restaurant staff had not clocked this, nor the presence of several other Roma, until he started singing traditional laments.

The next morning, an organiser of our seminar tells me the restaurant manager had confronted her. “You told us this was an EC group – you didn’t say anything about any Roma,” he complained. She finds this attitude all too predictable.

Roma have routinely been at the sharp end of humanity’s baser instincts for centuries. In the Second World War, they, like the Jews, were singled out for elimination by the Nazis.

So the sight of Roma families living in squalid, temporary camps in 2016 carries uncomfortable echoes of historical injustices. As does a sober EC briefing for our group, highlighting countries that still build walls around Roma settlements and sterilise women against their will.

And education does not always provide the escape that it should. Worse, Roma children around Europe are routinely segregated into “remedial” classes on the basis of their skin colour and ethnicity.

There is no such segregation in Scotland – which a 2013 report suggested has a population of between 4,000 and 5,000 Roma ( But they have recorded educational attainment far below the national average, although University of Strathclyde research has shown that a supportive environment in schools is driving up Roma families’ aspirations for their children.

“School was a disaster,” says Derange, the singer from the restaurant, who grew up in a Milan camp where he still lives.

He noticed aged 6 that something was amiss: “There were children who wanted to play with me and others who didn’t, but I didn’t understand why.” Derange came to believe that, while there were some “good and fair teachers who treated me like other children”, others were straightforward racists.

“I was put in a corner and separated from others; children stayed away from me,” he recalls.

‘So many difficulties’

Derange, whose family was deported from Yugoslavia during the Second World War, gave up on his ambitions to continue with formal education, instead becoming a Roma activist who teaches people about his culture through theatre.

“One day, when I have a family, I would like to take my son to the park and watch him play with other children and not have their parents take them away,” he says. “I want him to live without the distress that accompanied my own childhood.”

Omeila Bignami, a social worker and educator who works with Roma families, says that the camps present “so many difficulties at a logistical level”. This applies equally to ramshackle settlements like one we visit in Rome (see box, below) and established examples such as Derange’s – he doesn’t like the word “camp” and calls his home Villaggio delle Rose, or “Village of Roses”.

Authorities do not always try hard to get Roma children to class – the school bus from Derange’s village runs only three days a week. And even when they do make it to school, Bignami says, teachers frequently complain about the behaviour of children who are not used to sitting down indoors all the time and may know little Italian.

Bignami notes sadly that there are teachers who display outright racism and schools that will not accept Roma children, or do so grudgingly and sit them apart from other pupils. Such attitudes are widespread: nearly half of Italians in an EC survey said that they would be concerned if their child had a Roma schoolmate (see statistics, right).

“When my friends found out I was Roma, everything changed at school,” says Ivana Nikolic, 25, a dance teacher and student of philosophy and educational sciences from Turin.

Her parents had fled Yugoslavia in 1991 – they were particularly vulnerable as her mother is Bosnian Muslim and her father an orthodox Serb – and were typical of a generation that hid its Roma identity to get on in life.

Bullied and ostracised

Nikolic made some firm friends at secondary school but took her parents’ advice not to mention that she was Roma – classmates assumed her darker skin meant she hailed from somewhere like Sicily. After her friends found out, they ditched her and turned spiteful. When Nikolic, who has dyslexia, was allowed to use a dictionary during exams, her former friends protested and lobbied teachers to have her results invalidated.

Yet like many of her generation, Nikolic is loud and proud about her identity – even organising a flashmob in the centre of Turin to highlight the plight of Roma people during the Holocaust. If Nikolic ever has children, she tells me with a steely look, they will not hide that they are Roma.

Every Roma person I meet tells of thwarted educational ambitions. Bologna mechanic and father-of-three Vincenzo Spinelli, 40, says that being a lawyer or a doctor was not an option for him: “My biggest dream as a boy was to build a huge robot that could host my whole family and move us somewhere far away from the people who hated us.”

Raising low expectations

Turin youth worker Gabriella Stojanovic, 24, wanted to be a surgeon, but a teacher told her it was impossible, there was no point in her going to school and she would “end up like all the other people like you”.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel. While Roma school attendance is still poor – only 20 per cent of children go to primary school in some countries – and educational attainment way below average, the EC says today’s generation is “probably the best-educated in Roma history”. The number of people from this community going to school and becoming highly qualified professionals is “growing steadily”.

Now, more than ever, young Roma children are proving the mantra that Nikolic’s parents lived by after fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia and enduring years of living in camps: “The only way to leave degradation is through education.”


Inside a Roma camp

Rachida Ahmetovic doesn’t sleep at night – she worries too much about cockroaches crawling into her children’s ears.

The 43-year-old mother of 10 has, for 25 years, eked out a life at Lombroso, a Roma camp on the outskirts of Rome that is home to 192 people, including 103 children.

Services are either poor or non-existent: Ahmetovic (pictured, right) makes a four-hour round trip by foot to get her children to four different schools; power and sewage systems are unreliable and the site floods regularly.

Camps like this are vulnerable in other ways, too: populist, right-wing politicians act tough by promising to crack down on their inhabitants. (An educator who works with Roma tells me that, while they empathise with Syrian refugees, they are relieved not to be the focal point of hate for a change.)

The campaigning group Associazione 21 luglio, which records attacks on Roma people in Italy, noted a total of 15 shootings and firebombings between February and August 2015.

“It’s like living in a concentration camp – it’s not a good place for children to grow up in,” Ahmetovic says.

These places are hidden and hard to get into. We were supposed to see another Roma camp – where the population had swelled from 300 to 1,000 without any improvement to facilities – but the visit was abruptly cancelled minutes beforehand, as tensions were high after a shooting days earlier.

Only 12 Lombroso residents have Italian citizenship and some are not recognised by any state – meaning that, as visit facilitator Gianfranco Deramo says, “Here, in the capital of Italy, [people’s] human rights are fundamentally denied.”

Stable employment, then, is a distant dream for many. Bric-a-brac spills out of the cramped, rickety containers that serve as homes: old CDs, chipped ceramics and peeling furniture are leftovers of attempts to make a basic living by fixing or hawking what others throw out.

The decades-long limbo of such camps, Deramo says, is a result of inept policy rather than direct racism. Minutes before arriving at Lombroso, we learn that jittery local authority officials have got wind of our visit and will lead us round – along with a police escort – such is their embarrassment.

Ahmetovic chuckles constantly about the “temporary” camp that has been her home since 1991, but this barely masks her weariness. “We’re tired of suffering in the camps without the outside world seeing the conditions we live in,” she says.

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