In the middle of prosperous cosmopolitan Europe, I saw beggars and was warned by several locals not to give them any money and to watch my belongings when I was around them. It was the same story from Dublin to Berlin to Warsaw and now in Prague in the Czech Republic.
They are the Romas and Gypsies — the marginalised ethnic group that is believed to have its roots in India and have been persecuted, deported and ostracised for centuries. The Nazis sent tens of thousands to their death in concentration camps and millions still live in run-down ghettos just outside Europe’s largest cities. There are up to 12 million Roma in the European Union, most living in dire circumstances. Their life expectancy is several years lower than the ethnic population of the countries they call home. Their children are rarely admitted or accepted in the public schools and stigmatised as dirty, liars and thieves.
The Romani are a nation without a state. Recently, French President Nicholas Sarkozy faced the ire of the European Commission when he ordered the systematic clearing of hundreds of Roma camps all across France. The Roma were to be deported to Romania and Bulgaria. Senior officials in the European Commission compared it to the deportation of Jews to concentration camps and rued the discrimination based on ethnicity.
All this smack in the middle of what is called ‘The Decade of Roma Inclusion’ — an unprecedented political commitment by European governments to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma. ‘The Decade’ focuses on the priority areas of education, employment, health, housing, and commits governments to take into account the other core issues of poverty, discrimination and gender mainstreaming. 1.6 percent of Czech Republic’s population is Roma — roughly 180,000 people. The country also holds the Presidency to this commitment since last month.
In Prague, I met an amazing Roma girl who’s changing the perception and plight of her people in the Czech Republic. At 31, Gabrile Hrabanová is the director of the Council for Roma Affairs in Prague. She advises the Czech government on all policies regarding its Roma citizens.
Gabi derives her Roma heritage from her mother and is immensely proud of her people. Her brilliance at school was the primary deterrent to any discrimination that might have been her lot as a Roma student. “In my late teens I had strong anarchist leanings. I soon realised that if I really wanted to make a difference I’d have to change my level of influence and go mainstream”.
Since then, Gabi has received multiple scholarships and has systematically educated and positioned herself as the leading voice for Roma rights all across Europe.
She knows it’s an uphill battle. “My own sister faced discrimination in a public school and never went back. Recently, I met a educated young man at a social gathering who told me bluntly that he could never take me to his home because his family would not allow a Roma girl in their home”. We talked for hours — about our homes, our culture and how we loved being gypsy women.