In mid-October, French police interrupted a school fieldtrip to whisk away a 15-year-old girl. Her crime? Officially, the French government had just turned down the family’s asylum request and decided it couldn’t wait until the end of the school day to get her and her family out of the country.
Police escorted her off a bus filled with her classmates and she was quickly expelled to Kosovo, a country where she had never lived.
Many believe the bum’s rush was really a reaction to the girl’s ethnicity, Romani, or in the more common and derogatory word, Gypsy. Experts say that harsh treatment is all too common for members of one of the last ethnic groups in Europe for whom slurs and abuse remain widely acceptable.
A report by the charity group Oxfam recently described the Roma “as the most vulnerable and deprived ethnic group within Europe.” It went on to say Romani are “disproportionately affected by poverty and discriminated against in employment, education, health care, administrative and other services” and that “they face considerable obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
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The story of Leonarda Dibrani’s expulsion from France took a surprising turn. Hundreds of French students and supporters flooded the streets of Paris to demand that she be allowed to return in what many thought might mark a turning point in deeply negative views Europeans hold of their centuries-old neighbors.
But such hope disappeared within days when news outlets reported that a Greek Roma family might have abducted a blond girl who police found when they searched a Roma settlement north of Athens as part of a drugs and weapons investigation.
A Greek children’s charity official quickly noted: “This case has reinforced our suspicions of Roma involvement in child trafficking. . . . Blond, blue-eyed children are clearly being targeted.”
It was a stereotype that stretches back centuries. The Spanish author Cervantes in 1613 made child theft the theme of his story “The Little Gypsy Girl.”
“The Italians gorged themselves on this story of a little blonde girl who they believe was snatched by evil Gypsies,” said Rome-based human rights attorney Claudia Tavani. “This is despite the fact that, to this day, it has never once been proven that the Roma have had anything to do with kidnapping.”
Tavani said the recent European economic crisis has increased discrimination, especially in struggling nations such as Greece and Italy. When times are tough, people want scapegoats, and the Roma, who are thought to have originated in northern India but have lived in Europe since the 1300s, are an easy target.
In Italy, the Roma are trotted out every time a government or a politician is in trouble, Tavani said. “Politicians see easy votes in vowing to rid Italy of these thieves, robbers and kidnappers,” she said.
The demonization of the Roma is hardly limited to Italy.
In Slovakia, city governments build walls around Gypsy camps. In the Czech Republic, neo-Nazis lead protests against their presence. Famously tolerant Norway banned outdoor camping in Oslo to keep homeless Roma away.
In Romania, a right-wing political party recently offered cash to any Roma woman who would get sterilized. In France, Gilles Bourdouleix, a 53-year-old member of Parliament, this summer said of the Roma: “Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.”
Hitler’s Germany killed between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma (and Sinti, another branch of the people known as Gypsies). The Holocaust hardly ended hatred toward the population in Germany.
Martin Korol, a center-left politician from Bremen, recently said, “Roma come from an archaic world. . . . The prospect that they will ever contribute to the national product or pension funds is zero.”
Standing next to the year-old memorial to those killed by the Nazis, Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of Sinti and Roma in Germany, said the hatred remains widespread. It has been only 25 years since the official German dictionary definition of the term for all Roma and Sinti was “wandering criminals.”
“Even after the Holocaust, our minority still encounters racism and discrimination,” he said, noting that they are Europe’s last hired, first fired. He said poor villagers come to Berlin and find only overcrowded apartments where unscrupulous landlords overcharge them for a mattress on the floor. “Such overpopulation leads to conflicts with the neighbors, and old prejudices come up again,” he said.
A far-right political party recently capitalized on those prejudices with the slogan “Geld fur die Oma, nicht fur Sinti und Roma,” or “Money for Grandma, not Gypsies.”
Cordula Simon, the commissioner for Europe and International Affairs in the Berlin district of Neukoelln, is consumed with helping Roma immigrants. She recently wrote a paper on how her neighborhood is coping, and she believes it might be a blueprint for Europe.
“The Roma people, they live in mythology,” she said. “Europeans see them as either happy dancers and fiddlers or as dangerous criminals. The reality is that they are just people, and in dealing with Roma immigrants there are many positive stories to tell. Too few are willing to listen, however.”
The model is simple: Help out immigrants when they arrive, help their children get into school, help the adults find shelter and jobs. Don’t create Roma ghettos, where when something goes wrong (and something goes wrong no matter who is living in an area) it won’t be “the Roma” who are blamed.
She noted that there are thieves and organized beggars among the Roma, but the percentage is no higher than it is in other populations.
In a nation facing a demographic emergency, with too many aging adults who will soon need pensions and too few children to become workers and keep that pension system alive, the Roma should be seen as part of the solution, not the problem, she said.
Among the most positive aspects of recent Roma immigration, she said, is education. Teachers in her district have been approaching her, saying that after years of losing faith in the system they’ve been re-energized. Young Roma children, coming from desperately poor rural areas of Romania and Bulgaria, arrive in Berlin schools woefully behind. Many have never been to school before.
“But their energy level, their hunger to learn, is enormous,” she said. “Teachers again and again are telling me they believe in education again.”
It’s moving to see to what extent Roma parents will sacrifice to give their children a better life, she said.
Mitek is a 37-year-old Roma immigrant from Bulgaria. He lost a job and found no prospects at home, so he left his wife and children behind and came to the new capital of Europe hoping for a better life. What he has found to this point isn’t much, and he’s too embarrassed by his circumstances to let his last name be published.
When Mitek isn’t sweeping clean the patch of abandoned factory in central Berlin that he’s called home for six months, he’s either out scavenging plastic bottles for refunds or sitting and thinking about the good life that will come. And he still believes, even though his “home” is a scrap-wood hut inside an abandoned factory that he must defend every night from young hipsters who see the ruin as a place for wild parties and graffiti.
“My hope is still to find a job, and to bring my wife and children to live with me,” he said while seated outside his hut. “It hasn’t happened yet. But I have hope. My life will be better soon.”
McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this story.