International Romani Day: April 8th

Today we remember. April 8th is a day designated to think about the largest ethnic minority- some ten million Roma live in Europe  and six million within the EU- and we should remember that Romani people are still subject to discrimination and social exclusion.

I’ve heard the same argument all my life, words which come from people who don’t seem to know better. I heard it again a week ago, when  a man I know vaguely, whom I was chatting to at a party said he had never met a Rom who wanted to integrate with him. He then issued forth with a mouthful of stereotypes and misinformation, based on prejudice and hype, complete with words I found offensive.  I moved on.

Education is the answer.

Years ago, my Dad was born in a wagon. My Grandmother pushed him out while my Grandfather was outside playing the hurdy-gurdy. At that point, my Dad had no concept of prejudice.

Eighteen  years later, my Dad joined the army to fight for this country.  He told me he was more afraid of the prejudice of the men on his own side than he was of the enemy. He said one of his fellow soldiers told him he would cut his throat and make it look like he’s fallen in the line of duty.

As a child, I was told to ‘keep it quiet and keep my distance’: the idea that outsiders would judge, that there would always be discrimination, was a constant companion. My parents were brilliant and proud of who we were: they did their best and I am grateful  but there was a repeated message:  ‘You are as good as everyone else. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.’ The inference was that, somehow, other people wouldn’t see it the same way.

For me, education was the answer, my way to restore the balance.

My Dad didn’t go to school for long. Days, not months. He could recite a couple of random lines – he didn’t know the source but it was from Love’s Labour’s Lost. He had no idea what it meant and  it didn’t help him with literacy. He spent most school days in the woods and learned a number of useful skills which he later passed on to my brother.

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

My upbringing was perfectly normal to me but I always knew we were outsiders: there were different words for things, different rules inside and outside our council house home. Then there was my Grandma, with her clay pipe and her unusual ways of cooking, washing, speaking. I loved my Grandma.

When my Dad died, I couldn’t tell the registrar when or where he was born. He never had a birth certificate. I wasn’t even sure of which of his names was the official one. But I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. He’d have found it hilarious, the fact that the person filling in his death certificate had no information to go on. He’d have preferred the anonymity.

But today isn’t a day to keep quiet: it’s a day to celebrate Romani culture. There are so many other people in the UK who are proud of their heritage. On March 17th, so many people wave the flag of their Irish ancestors and enjoy the celebrations of St Patrick’s Day. I’m sure St George’s Day is commemorated in many schools.

But when I was at school, I never heard any mention of the Romani people in History lessons. I was never taught about the 500 years of Roma slavery. There was no mention of Roma literature or poetry, yet I invite you to read Louise Doughty and Cecilia Woloch for some of the loveliest words written. We were never taught about Porajmos. All cultures should be represented in schools if all children are to feel included. We all need to understand our own and others’  history.

Education is the answer.

As a culture, Romani people are often expected to be invisible. Think back to the words of my racist acquaintance, whose attitude stems from ignorance rather than evil . It’s sometimes easier for us to stay quiet, keep out of the way, say nothing, : after all many people today who consider themselves non-racist are still validating racism, saying anti-ziganist abhorrent things which they consider somehow to be acceptable because it falls outside the racism most people mean when they use the term.

Jekh dilo kerel but dile hai but dile keren dilumata.

Education is the answer.

Someone once suggested the Romani people make little contribution to society. Perhaps some of these Romanichals will surprise you. My guess is that there are a ton more Romani people, some now house dwellers, achieving brilliant things in the normal way, discreetly and modestly.

But today April 8th is a remembrance day. It is a day for dignity and respect. A day to put dangerous stereotypes and misleading information to one side, and to celebrate a culture which emerged from India from the time of Alexander the Great. It is a time to move forward, to ask for improved human rights. It is also a time to remember the history of abuse and ill treatment, and to consider the victims of the Porajmos, who are believed to be upwards of near 500,000 men, women and children.

Education is always the answer. The words of Dr Ian Hancock  resonate with me, today and every day:

In order for things to change, the Gypsy Image must be deconstructed, and a more accurate one put in its place – in the bureaucratic structures as well as in the textbooks.

Ashen Devlesa, Romale. Na bister 500,000.

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