Sunday 14 August 2011

Inclusion to what?

Grabovica, a Romani village located a few miles North of Valjevo, is an interesting place. It is located on a gentle ridge surrounded by beautiful views of rolling farmland. The air is cooler than it is in Valjevo, and oddly pleasant wafts of cow shit and burning coal circulate around the houses.

The architecture varies as much as the inhabitants of this village.  Smaller, older homes are dwarfed by sprawling kitsch mini-villas, bedazzled with over-sized lion gargoyles and brass fences. In the driveway a glimmering BMW or Mercedes is invariably parked, the license plate marked "A" for Austria and "W" for Vienna. While a house like this may go unnoticed in a suburb of Monaco, in Grabovica a house like this can neighbor a one-bedroom home with a tin roof. Just beyond the brass fence you might see a Yugo-era tractor loaded with salvaged wood.

Like many towns transformed by economic migration, Grabovica is a place where many people are from and few people live. As I walk by houses where kids are dancing to rippling accordion lines and men are asleep on patio furniture, it's hard to imagine what this village will look like in three months, when 90% of its inhabitants will return to Austria to work for the fall, winter, and spring.

While Roma are known as travelers by non-Roma around the world, there is neither a word nor concept for “traveler” in Romanes. For Roma, traveling is a tool for survival, not a lifestyle. The word traveler implies a homeland, something all Roma lack. Even Roma whose families have lived in Grabovica for generations have never, and maybe will never, receive the benefits that are provided to the majority population, scant as they may be.

Through several conversations I've had with Dusan, the founder of the Amala School, I have begun to realize how complex and convoluted this issue is. For centuries, the identifying aspects of Romani culture (language, music, and customs) have been maintained because of their separation from Gadje (non-Roma). During those times discrimination was obvious, and often brutal. In the Balkans, this surface-level vitriol is rarely shown anymore, but it has far from disappeared. According to Dusan, anti-Roma sentiments are often disguised in the very organizations that claim to come to their aid.

We are currently in the middle of the European Commission “Decade of Roma Inclusion.” Millions of euros have been dedicated to meet the council's objectives. But the very title of the initiative demands the question, inclusion into what? If it is inclusion into a society that is yearning to assimilate and dismantle a source of strength and identity, many Roma will opt out. However, the odds against Roma in this game are stacked. In one corner you have an organized, heavily funded institution with international support. In the other you have a group of people who basically want to be left alone, but out of necessity need to participate at some level in the political and economic systems in which they live. Abject poverty and lack of services (water, electricity, sanitation, schools) for many Roma communities ratchet the pressure to assimilate, or be “included” even more. But at what cost? I think of Liljana Petrovic, one of the greatest Romani vocalists of the last 50 years, who spent the last years of her life as a house cleaner in Germany. Inclusion provides no default benefits, especially into a system that is consistently a source of suspicion and contempt.

So what is in store for the future of European Roma? According to Dusan, change needs to come from within the community, spearheaded by Romani intellectuals. Education and equal opportunity for Roma are essential, and the frame of the discussion between Roma and non-Roma needs to encompass more than the concept of “problem.” It's a long road ahead.


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