The world’s most persecuted ethnic group is one with which many people are unfamiliar – The Roma – descendants of Punjabi warriors who left Northern India towards the end of the first millennia to escape the spread of Islam. The Roma are the largest ethnic minority population in Europe, with approximately 12 million living throughout the European Union.
My great-grandfather was a Cigany (Hungarian Roma) who came to America at 18 years-old with only his violin and the clothes on his back. Very tall, thin, handsome, and dark, my Great-Grandfather Holti stood out amongst Berwick, Pennsylvania’s immigrant population of Italians, Carpatho-Rusyns, and Poles. Although he was quiet and gentle, most viewed him as a dangerous man with “strange talents” (referencing his ability to graft a tree to produce four different types of fruit) and who played bizarre music on his violin. Because of fear and prejudice, my great-grandfather and his children faced many forms of mistreatment; from being banished from church to being stoned in the streets. While the discrimination against our family faded over time, my grandfather’s tale is similar to present-day accounts of abuse found across the Atlantic.
Throughout history and still today, the Roma experience some of the worst forms of persecution and disenfranchisement on earth – slavery, genocide, systematic segregation, extreme poverty, public humiliation and racism. Shortly after settling in Europe, the Roma were enslaved by the Romanians because of their dark features and seemingly strange lifestyle and language. Roma slavery lasted nearly 500 years until Romanian abolitionists, influenced by the United States’ anti-slavery movement, gradually freed the Roma in the mid-1850’s. After enduring subsequent banishments, imprisonment, and social exclusion, Roma suffered multiple periods of genocide; most notably Spain’s “Great Gypsy Round-up,” where Spanish Roma (gitanos) were captured and systematically separated by sex to avoid further procreation of the Roma race, and the “Gypsy Genocide” by the Nazis during WWII, in which 500,000 Roma were killed while thousands of others were used as subjects in genetic “race” testing.
Though many years have passed since the days of Roma round-ups, the Roma continue to suffer horrible human rights abuses, ironically at the hands of countries that boast the most progressive human rights policies in the world. Many Europeans harbor extreme prejudice towards Roma people because of pervasive cultural stereotypes. Hate crimes against the Roma are widespread and violent, as evidenced by a killing spree of Roma people in Hungary this year. Roma children in Europe have little access to adequate education, making their primary school completion rate equal to that of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most Roma children attend segregated schools and those who participate in Europe’s mainstream schools are routinely placed in special education classes for the developmentally disabled.
In addition to citizen-prejudice, Roma families are often subjected to extreme EU member state policies. For example, 27 Roma-owned homes were demolished by Bulgaria’s Burgas municipal government just this fall. As a result, nearly 200 Roma people, including 80 children, were forced to the streets because no housing alternatives were provided. Even though the European Roma Rights Centre sent four letters of concern to Bulgaria’s Interior Minister, these families have yet to receive reparations. An example of the most controversial measure taken by an EU member state is Italy’s Ethnic Registration policy, which requires Italian Roma to register with the Italian government and submit to fingerprinting.
While conditions remain difficult for the Roma, there is some evidence of improvement. Just last week, donors in Brussels announced that over €25 million in funding will go towards the Roma Educational Fund. Still, while most measures are designed to help the Roma directly, most do nothing to change negative, long-standing stereotypes, which is the true catalyst for change. And, while the European Union strongly condemns all forms of violence against the Roma, public, blatant racism against them largely goes unchecked. For example, during a concert in Bucharest this past August, Madonna, who is adored by most Europeans, was booed offstage after she told the crowd of 60,000 that discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe “made her sad.”
The answer to protecting the most persecuted people in the world is a two-fold process: Educate and mandate. Europeans must be educated as to the true nature of Roma culture and identity. Public humiliation and violence against the Roma must not only be denounced by the European Union, but also punished by the European Commission. Likewise, European and Roma children alike should be taught Roma history, including the Roma Holocaust experience, and must be made aware of the Roma’s influence on European culture and society.
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