Monday, 12 March 2012

The Romanis (gypsies) are abused by bigots everywhere

The country of origin of the Romani (also known as gypsies) was a great mystery during the Middle Ages when they arrived in Europe, to both the inhabitants of the countries they arrived in, as well as to historians. It isn't possible to determine the date of their arrival in Europe exactly, because they spread through Europe in individual bands independent of each other. The only available references are the records that have survived in the archives of various cities and towns. These records are evidence only of their official discovery and don’t actually reveal the exact date of their arrival but instead, it only reveals a chain of events that made their way into the archives.

There are many references in the chronicles of the period of wandering jugglers and conjurers entertaining the feudal lords, of scantily-clad dancers in splendid colors, favored in the gentlemen's courts and hated by the pious and respectable citizens. But they could have the Romani confused with wandering bands of artists which was commonplace then.

Then, abruptly, in the 14th century, groups of Romanis began wandering from place to place; people who differed from the inhabitants by their darker skin, their clothes, their distinct way of life, their completely incomprehensible tongue, their temperament, and their unwillingness to conform to the pressure of the majority population.

The most well-known and most widely-held opinion about the origin of the Romanis was that they originated in Egypt, from where they came to the Christian lands. This is evident in the naming of Romanis in many countries as Gypsies but in reality this name seems to be derived from the name of the Little Egypt region in Peloponnesia or Asia Minor. In the Balkans, the Roma were named by a term originally given to a sect of Macedonian monks, the Athiganoi or Atsiganos, from which came another group of names—Zingaro, Tsigane, Zigeuner, Cigani, Cikani.

It has been suggested that their origins were in India. Not only their language bears witness to their Indian origin; there's also the surprising similarity of a number of customs, a similar social structure, their choice of professions, the same technology of metal-working, etc. Linguists were able to lay out Romani history very precisely according to the evolution of Romani dialects. Due to the fact that languages evolve according to certain laws, linguists were able to determine very precisely the period and their places of residence. Among the first philologists to establish this was Martin Block in 1936. He said that the number of foreign words by the Romani corresponds to their length of stay in various countries. Thanks to this new information, we can estimate the migration of the Romanis from India to Europe with greater precision thereby making it more believable.

At first the Romanis aroused considerable curiosity in Europe with their exotic appearance which brought forth various speculations about the reasons for their wandering life and theories about their original homeland. Europeans were patient with the nomads at first by presuming them to be the penitent Christian pilgrims much like themselves. Chroniclers described their looks and compared them to the Tatars. Dark skinned, they approached the cities in long caravans, some on foot, others on horseback, with wagons full of baggage, women and children. Central Europe still remembered the Tatar raids very well, so for this reason, the Roma, who were well aware of their similarity to the Tatars, presented themselves as peace-loving folk and good Christians.

In some towns and villages, the Romanis were actually welcomed, because they brought new technologies for working iron and metals, they brought new experiences, and they came, at least according to their testimony, from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

In the medieval times, anyone who spent his or her life in one place, only understood wandering as a form of sacrifice or penance. For this reason, they considered anyone who wandered to be a penitent. The Romanis added to these ideas with their own legends. They tried to convince the inhabitants of these medieval towns that their wandering was penance for the sins of their forefathers, who refused to accept the Virgin Mary and Jesus, when they fled before Herod to Egypt.

Another universally widespread legend was the justification of their migratory life as punishment for renouncing Christianity, and that they had to pay for this betrayal with 7 years of constant wandering from place to place. This of course would bring them sympathy from the locals in the villages and towns the Romanis entered.

As time moved on, in Europe, the Romanis found themselves suffering from abuse by the locals because their group's informal norms weren't always in harmony with the norm and value systems of the surrounding majority population. Even to this day they have difficulty finding a compromise among others in the communities they are residing in. For this reason, the Romanis always lived in closed groups. Their entrance into the world of a majority population only intensified the closeness of their groups, and the unfriendliness of the local citizens increased the solidarity between individual Romani groups.

The towns and villages the Romanis visit was and unfortunately still remains for the Romanis as a foreign community, which very rarely did or does anything good to them in the past and in the present and for this reason some of them have been known to treat the locals of any community prople from who they can steal and rob without shame. Until mainstream society starts to treat them like the Romanis belong and the Romanis feel so in communities where non-Romanis congregate, each group of Romanis will feel that they are estranged from societies other than their own and will treat the local people with contempt.

Jozsef and Timea along with their 3-year-old child live in an apartment in Toronto, Jozsef previously worked for Viktoria Mohacsi, who is a former Hungarian member of the European Union Parliament. Timea worked in the human rights sector. They had a comfortable life in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. In September 2009, they left their home as refugees because in their opinion, they had no other option.

While they were in Budapest, Jozsef found himself protecting his wife and their baby from four black-clad, bat-wielding thugs who had followed him home from Mohacsi’s offices. He said, “They piled out of a jeep, shouting that they would kill us. They hit me over the head and shoulders. I was on the ground. They grabbed Timea by the hair. They were yelling at her that she was dead. I threw myself over the baby. None of this was totally unexpected. There had been a lot of threatening phone calls but the ferocity of the attack and my sense of helplessness stunned me.” unquote

Jozsef was aware that Mohacsi needed constant police protection, as she was the recipient of the 2009 Women of Courage Award in recognition of her extraordinary contributions in defence of human and civil rights of the Roma community all over Europe.

Jozsef, Timea and Mohacsi are all Romanis. The Romanis in Hungary live with a certain amount of abuse. There the people openly talk of “gypsy criminals.” One of the parties now in parliament talked of dealing with “gypsy crime” as part of its election platform. The paramilitary Gárda stage marches near Romani areas of the country and, while the government has banned the formal Gárda, its members and followers continue to march.

In a documentary report of the latest attacks on Romanis in Gyongyospata in Hungary one can see crowds of swaggering men in dark clothes, boots, caps and some carrying Hungarian flags. To anyone who lived in Germany before the Second World War will remember the swaggering black-booted, brown shirted thugs attacking the Jews on the streets. In Hungary, the swaggering men throw rocks through windows of homes of Romanis just as the Brown Shirts in Germany did to the Jews. They also yell through loudspeakers and, as one Romani mother complains, threaten their children on their way to school. The police arn't of any help since they don’t appear to be interested in complaints by Romanis.

The Romanis do not fare better in other central European countries either. Despite the EU’s 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights, their lot has deteriorated since the raising of the Iron Curtain. The EU’s guarantees of dignity, freedoms, equality, justice and solidarity seem not to apply to Romanis.

It is hard to think of dignity among the thugs who abuse the Romanis in Kosice’s Romani ghetto or of equality when, despite the condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights, the majority of Czech Romani children end up in special schools or classes for the mentally challenged. Until 1990, the Czech government routinely sterilized Romani women. During World War II, the Nazis murdered Romanis at designated killing sites including Auschwitz and no one kept count of the dead but it was in the thousands.

Dislike for Romanis runs deep in central European societies. A 1990 Los Angeles Times poll showed that fully 80 per cent of central Europeans view the Romanis as the “evil other people.”

For many generations, whole communities of Romanis have been left out of the workforce. Hungarian Romani leader, Aladar Horvath has said that that the Romani life expectancy is about a third shorter than that of their non-Romani fellow citizens.

It is not surprising that Romani families try to flee. Their options, though, are limited. They are not permitted to work in France or Italy without proof of permanent residency. Locals are unsympathetic. More than halfway through the EU’s decade of Romani inclusion, the situation of the Romanis has only worsened for them.

Most Canadian’s first encounter with Romanis comes in the form of warnings about purse-snatchers in Europe. Special areas, such as the Spanish Steps in Rome, the railway station in Madrid and St. Mark’s Square in Venice are highlighted in travel brochures as dangerous for the unsuspecting. The truth is that, while tourists are unlikely to get seriously hurt by a Romani swarming or a child-thief, the danger is
enough to influence their opinions about fairness and equal rights for Romanis.

The question is begs to be answered is; if the Romanis are not allowed to work, how can they feed their children? Surely they have no other way but to find criminal ways of earning enough money for them to subsist in the communities that appear to hate them.

During the 1990s, Canada’s acceptance rate for Romanis seeking asylum was high. But as the flood of refugees grew during the last decade, the Immigration and Refugee Board toughened its stance with respect to accepting Romanis as refugees. For example, after the restitution of visa requirement for Czechs, the number of Czech refugees plummeted to only 62 applicants in 2010 from 2,210 in 2009 in which many of them were Romanis.

Possibly, the IRB’s judges are influenced by Canada's government’s position that the Romanis are economic refugees and, as such, they should wait their turn among other would-be immigrants. But that is not what they are. They really are refugees attempting to flee the people in the countries they come from that abuse them.

They used to be successful immigrants. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Romani-Canadian author and academic Ronald Lee, they came to Canada as family groups, travelled westward, got land and raised horses. Later, they operated garages and sold truck and automobile parts. Many became successful small business owners. Unfortunately, in Canada’s multicultural society, they have all but disappeared as Romanis. Many of them no longer look any different from other Canadians. Perhaps it is because by looking like the average Canadian, there is less risk of being reviled as Romanis.

Now that isn’t necessary a bad thing. No one is suggesting that they abandon their beliefs and customs but until Canadians see the Romanis as ordinary citizens and not gypsies out to cheat and rob people, they are better off assimilating themselves into the typical Canadian community.

Most Romani refugees do not speak English and find it difficult to fill out the IRB’s forms. They are also confused with Canada's legal system. Some fail to file their personal information forms within the designated 28 days of arrival. If it is not done on time, they are deemed to have abandoned their claims and are liable to be deported. If they do file, they can get a legal aid lawyer, or an overworked licenced paralegal, and hope for a hearing within approximately 18 months.

Meanwhile they are completely devastated by the uncertainty of their status in Canada. It is difficult to get accurate numbers, but most people agree that about 90 per cent of Hungarian Romanis withdraw their claims, despite the fact that their withdrawal can mean they have to pay their own way home.

Despite that, there are 50 to 60 new Romanis arriving at the Pearson airport every day. Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina says that he is proud that Hamilton has become home to so many Romanis, adding that his city is one of the most accepting places in the country. “Most of the Roma I know,” he says, “have jobs already.” He is proud of his city’s renowned hospitality, its reasonable accommodation costs and his own instinctive understanding of Romanis.

In Toronto, most of the refugee claimants generally live in the Parkdale area. They are given welfare cheques, legal assistance and the chance to work. If, however, their paycheques are about the same as welfare, they lose their chances to get legal aid. Further, their salaries are taxed by the employers thereby making their take-home pay less than welfare. That is a problem that must be addressed.

Jozsef and Timea’s IRB hearing was on Feb. 16, 2011. They were not successful. He tried to tell the judge he had seen terrible things while travelling to Romani areas with Viktoria Mohacsi in Budapest and that he could not have endured another beating. He wanted the judge to see the Gyongyospata documentary but he felt the judge had already made up his mind.

It would appear so because their application was rejected on March 19th. The chief reason: Hungary is a democracy. Their appeal was turned down in August. I don’t doubt that Hungary is a democracy but when a class of people are systematically abused and the Hungarian authorities either don’t care or are unable to help them, then the Canadian government should accept them as refugees. There have been instances when refugees have been admitted into Canada simply because their former spouses would harm them if they return to the countries they came from. Why then would Romanis not be given the same opportunity to remain in Canada if thugs in the country they are fleeing from are abusing them with impunity?

Jozsef still holds onto the hope that his “pre-removal risk assessment application” to Canada’s Border Services will keep him safe. I am not that optimistic as he is.

The treatment Canada as a nation gives to the Romanis who come to its shores as refugees is a litmus test for any civilized society. If any nation mistreats a class of people like the Romanis, then alas, it is not really a civilized nation. This invariably begs the rhetorical questions: Is Canada a civilized nation? Will the citizens and government of Canada pass the litmus test?

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