A Roma reality check by Yaron Matras

Gypsies in Cumbria

Last week a friend told me about a conversation he overheard at a hairdressers in Birmingham. The barber complained about the competition, which kept rates low by employing immigrant staff. “They’re probably Romanian, you can tell from the caravans outside,” he joked, then added hastily: “But I shouldn’t say that.” In the weeks leading up to 1 January, Romanians and Bulgarians were said to be queuing up to take advantage of the lifting of employment restrictions in the UK. Several weeks on we know that the panic was unjustified and the warnings were pure scaremongering. But the hairdresser revealed something about the public’s perception of the debate. Romanians are equated with Roma – hence the association with caravans and the shyness to appear politically incorrect.

“Roma” does sound a bit like “Romanian”, so you can’t blame people for getting confused. But the similarity is coincidental. Many Roma live in Romania, but there are also Roma communities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and many other countries. Most Roma don’t live in caravans, either; in south-eastern and central Europe they have been settled since the 15 century, often segregated on the outskirts of towns and villages.

It is the image of Roma on our streets that triggers an emotional reaction, more so than the thought of just any citizen from new EU member states arriving at a job centre in Basingstoke or Leeds. It was the Roma who were singled out last November by the deputy prime minister as “intimidating” and “offensive” in their behaviour. Unfounded allegations that Roma were kidnapping children in Greece and Ireland didn’t help either.

Why is the presence of Roma in Britain perceived as a challenge? There is, to some extent, the reality on the ground: Roma organise their lives in extended families and rely on their family structures for support. When they migrate they do so in large groups and not as individuals. This makes them more conspicuous, as they require clusters of rented homes in close proximity; they are often seen socialising outdoors because their houses cannot accommodate large groups.

But this does not explain entirely these reactions. Our perception of Roma is shaped by fictional images of Gypsies that are deeply entrenched in our culture. This fictional image represents the opposite of our own values: our society restrains the way it expresses emotion, so we envy the passion that Gypsies express through their music and colourful appearance. We feel trapped by the routines of our daily lives, so we romanticise Gypsy life as free and spontaneous, but we also resent it as lawless and uncontrolled. Roma organise their work in families and are usually self-employed, but we think of them as work-shy. They have no country of their own, so we regard them as rootless.

Perception and prejudice stand in the way of a rational assessment of the real problems on the ground faced by Roma migrants. But if we put them aside, we find that there are more opportunities than challenges. Compared with their neighbours in the deprived urban districts in which they tend to settle, Roma are more likely than others to find work and their children are more likely to attend school regularly. Allegations of a propensity to crime among Roma migrants have repeatedly been dismissed by local police as baseless.

Rather than change their behaviour or their culture, the challenge facing Roma migrants is how to make use of opportunities to settle, gain skills and participate in community life while protecting their own identity and values just like any other ethnic minority. The bigger challenge is how to change majority society’s attitudes to Roma.

By definition, social inclusion can only take place if exclusionary practices are eradicated. Instead of blaming the Roma for our fears and fantasies, we should reach out to them and allow ourselves to be inspired by their generosity, flexibility and their commitment to mutual support.

Article originally appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday, 12 February – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/roma-reality-check

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Meet the Gypsy entrepreneurs

Travelling people are putting their business skills to increasingly impressive use
 24 August 2013
Travellers Attend The Annual Appleby Horse Fair

Ask anyone from the settled community (known as ‘gorgias’ to Romani Gypsies and as ‘country people’ to Irish Travellers) what Gypsies do for money and the list would be short: tarmacking, roofing, scrap-metal dealing, hawking or maybe horse dealing.

This picture, of course, has a germ of truth in it. Many Gypsies still work as skilled labourers — but what’s remarkable is just how entrepreneurial they are, too. These are trading peoples, with a global attitude towards seeking work that would impress even Iain Duncan Smith. I’ve been astonished to discover that many English and Scottish Romani Gypsies are enthusiastic Freemasons. Away from evictions such as Dale Farm, in October 2011, most Romani Gypsies and Travellers get on with life — trading both inside their communities in what one Irish Traveller entrepreneur, the antiques dealer Candy Sheridan, dubs a ‘parallel economy’ and, somewhat quietly, outside with the settled community too.

Traders are comfortable travelling abroad to find work. Many Gypsy men are not only fluent in English but also speak German, French and a smattering of Scandinavian languages. This is striking, since academics often bewail the fact that many can’t read or write — a relic of a nomadic lifestyle where they were often moved on every few days from stopping places and few attended schools. But their linguistic skills are very impressive. So is their lack of dependence on benefits, which many men in the cultures feel are shameful to obtain. They would rather travel across Europe to work.

Professions vary in the Gypsy and Traveller communities, but the more traditional unskilled jobs are disappearing fast. Many have turned themselves into tree surgeons or landscape gardeners, for instance, as casual work in the agricultural industry has dried up. More worryingly for the Gypsies, as of this year, regulation of the scrap-metal industry has tightened. Hard as this is in the short term, it is probable that the communities will adapt fast. The evangelical Gypsy Church Life and Light, which is spreading fast throughout the communities, holds Bible-reading classes for adults. These are boosting literacy rates, and that in turn makes it easier for adults to obtain professional certification for skilled work.

More traditional professions are respected abroad, if not here. The Gypsy cob, a powerfully built, quiet and handsome horse, usually of piebald or skewbald colouring, with feathered feet and a luxurious mane and tail, has become popular abroad, exported by British Gypsy dealers.

Two years ago, British dealers were selling cobs for tens of thousands of pounds as far afield as the US, Brazil, Australia and Russia. That market has shrunk since the recession but remains active. One such dealer, Loretta Rawlings, who alongside her husband has been exporting cobs since 1999, told me that the elders who dealt in horses were taken aback by the welcome they got when they went to the US, where the Gypsy Horse Registry of America maintains a DNA database of the breed. ‘The dealers are treated like royalty there. Funny that they have to travel 3,000 miles to get respect, and they are outcasts here.’

Despite the impression that Gypsy and Traveller culture is male-dominated, women are well-respected traders. Go to any horse fair and you’ll see Gypsy and Traveller women running stalls with considerable flair, trading traditional clothes, antiques, bedding and collectable china (Crown Derby being most coveted). The aforementioned Candy Sheridan, who rose to prominence when she challenged the eviction at Dale Farm, maintains that Gypsy and Traveller women are born entrepreneurs. ‘We are brought up to work. Most girls and women contribute to their fathers’ and husbands’ businesses. Women traders are popular at the markets and the fairs, and they like supporting their families. But perhaps we’ve been a parallel economy for a long time, so people haven’t known about it.’

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She also points out that many do not advertise their identity when they sell to gorgias. ‘Go to any car-boot sale or to any market stall and you’ll see Gypsy and Traveller women selling alongside men. And we are good saleswomen, remember we have always sold, we would dukker [tell fortunes] around the houses of the settled people and hawk, selling lavender, heather, holly, pegs, paper flowers. I’ve still got my grandmother’s hawking baskets. It’s a great distortion when you see Gypsy girls sitting at home not working.’

Their entrepreneurial spirit is feeding their success in other fields. Tom Ewer, a chef with Welsh Romani roots, has cooked in the Oxo Brasserie and now cooks at Caravan in King’s Cross. He also writes a popular blog, where he features old Gypsy recipes, including foraged food, drawing on tradition. He attributes his strong work ethic — he gets up at 5.30 every morning — and his passion for cooking to his roots: ‘Through an understanding of the way my ancestors lived, worked and ate, I have built an ethos and cooking style that reflects that. For me, family, tradition and simple but flavoursome food made to share with others is paramount when thinking about my job.’

Billy Welch, a sherar rom or elder within the community, organises Appleby Horse Fair every year in Cumbria, which attracts about 10,000 from the community and a further 30,000 tourists. He told me that the links between entrepreneurial Gypsy men and the Freemasons are also helpful for business. Showing me his intricate masonic ring, he said: ‘This was my father’s ring, he was one too. Freemasons aren’t anti-Gypsy; the thing I like best about Freemasonry is that in it all men are equal.’

The links between Freemasonry and Romani Gypsies are thought to go back centuries. Cornelius van Paun, in his Philosophical Researches on The Egyptians and The Chinese, advanced the theory that Freemasonry was introduced to Europe by Romani Gypsies. James Simpson, in his History of the Gypsies, published in 1866, observed that there were many Gypsy Freemasons, including lodge masters. This link remains strong today. Billy Welch comes from Darlington, a town known as the ‘Gypsy capital’ of the UK, as it’s estimated that around a third of the population has Romani roots. Welch notes: ‘A couple of my cousins have even been in the chair, they’ve been quite high up.’

Damian Le Bas, editor of Travellers’ Times, explains the reasoning behind Freemason membership. ‘If it’s good for business, they will do it. If you think about it rationally, if you have got people who are part of the rural and urban economy for 500 years, it would be miraculous if they weren’t, especially a community that is so typically self-employed, fiercely entrepreneurial, where masculine identity is so tied up with making a living. Our identity is all about making good business contacts, being the boy who makes good, and that is the prototype of working-class people that Masons are looking to incorporate.’

But it’s not all plain sailing for Gypsy and Traveller businessmen, says Billy Welch. Such is the stigma of being a Gypsy that many successful businesspeople still hide their Romani or Traveller roots. Billy Welch told me: ‘I could take you to mansions, people who have houses worth millions, who drive Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, who have tennis courts, wine cellars and swimming pools. But they hide their roots because if they don’t people stop trading with them. I lost a lot of business when I started to organise Appleby. There are Gypsies and Travellers living in expensive apartments near Harrods, who spend half the year in Dubai. Then there are the 500, as we call them, who own skyscrapers in New York, who are all -originally English Gypsies. They turn up at our big weddings in limos, and they still pull on at Appleby, at least once in their lives.’

Some of the biggest businesses in the country are owned by Gypsies — shipyards, car dealerships, scrapyards, caravan suppliers, carpet shops and exporters, Welch says. ‘We are true business people, we are like Asians or Jewish people. We don’t just tarmac, or sell beds and windows. We do big business. We just keep quiet about it.’

Katharine Quarmby is author of No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers.

 

No place for Travellers says Badger and Batty.

Plans have been abandoned to create a 10 pitch Gypsy and Traveller site in Efford, Plymouth after council minutes from 30 years ago saying the site was unsuitable have been uncovered.

Cllr Brian Vincent, ward councillor for Efford and Lipson has acknowledged that there is a significant need for provisioned to be made in and around Plymouth for Gypsies and Travellers,  however he has helped conclude that as the site was not suitable for habitation 30 years ago when it was first used as a temporary site, it would be ‘unfair’ to continue plans as “People’s aspirations are far greater now.” Instead the £516,000 funding for the Efford site will be used to make improvements at The Ride, Plymouth’s only official site that in May 2012 proved to be an inadequate provision for Devon’s homeless Travellers looking for a legal place to live as it attracts more applications than it has pitches.

“We still have significant need for Gypsy and Traveller sites in Plymouth and finding suitable locations is essential. This will be an important part of the development of the Plymouth Plan and any detailed proposals will be the subject to thorough consultation.” – Cllr Brian Vincent

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Plymouth City Council has decided that the brown field site would best serve as a ‘wildlife area’ where nature would be allowed to take control, hoping that £2,000 allocated from the community fund will help turn it into a new home for bats, foxes and badgers.

“We are looking to improve the ecosystem by breaking up the concrete bases of the old shower blocks to encourage a natural progression of wildflowers.” – Cllr Brian Vincent

A success for badgers and opposition group Horseshoe Residents’ Association, but a bleak day for Travellers as the charity Friends, Families and Travellers have been reported to have accused the council of making a short-sighted decision that would increase homelessness.

“It’s deeply disappointing, Homelessness in the travelling community is 25% higher than the fixed community. It’s a desperate situation because those without somewhere permanent to go face an endless cycle of eviction.” Emma Nuttall, Friends, Families and Travellers Advice and Policy manager (via BBC News)

Concerns have also been raised regarding the cost efficiency of the change in proposal with the council reporting to spend between £16,000 and £300,000 a year on  processing unauthorised encampments where homeless Travellers have been forced to settle. “We have nowhere else to go and no other choice but to camp on derelict sites” said a local Traveller seeking advice from Friends, Families and Travellers: “it’s impossible to get planning permission anywhere even when we own the land.”

Quick Response: “Gypsy” School in UK?

A new education centre has opened in Birmingham for children who do not have a school place or have been excluded from mainstream school.

Baverstock in the City targets Gypsy and traveller children, those for whom English is not their first language and pupils with challenging behaviour.

It is a Balsall Heath branch of The Baverstock Academy.

An application to turn it into a free school has been prepared, which would give it a capacity of 1,000 students.

‘No place for them’

Thomas Marshall, head teacher of The Baverstock Academy, said: “There are close to 900 Gypsy Romany traveller children without a school place at the moment.

“The number of students with English as a second language is growing and growing across the city as people move into Birmingham and they don’t have school places because they tend to move into the centre of the city where there aren’t enough secondary schools.”

He said his experience with teaching excluded students was developed at the academy which regularly made eight or nine permanent exclusions each year and had a very high number of fixed-term exclusions when he took over in September 2010.

“When they enjoy education they want to take part even further and achieve goals… The children want to be educated and there was no place for them,” he added.

‘Get on without bullying’

Damien Le Bas, editor of the Travellers’ Times, said Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers report problems with school that includes bullying and teachers that misunderstand their ethnicity.

He said: “People forget that in the 1960s lots of schools wouldn’t accept traveller children so there is an historic cultural problem and it’s no surprise we [Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers] have the worst educational attainment in the country over all indicators.”

He said traveller children can have an expectation they will take part in a family business, sometimes instead of school, from a young age.

“I welcome this focus on traveller education, though am not sure about separating students,” he added.

“I benefitted enormously through being in a mixed school with people with high expectations, but I know some who wish they’d been able to be in a school just with travellers so they could get on without the bullying and other problems they faced.”

About 30 students will be inducted to the centre at the Friends Institute on Moseley Road later and a further 50 are expected to start this academic year. – BBC NEWS

 

The concept is really big in Europe and they’re really disgusting places to be, they’re basically sanatoriums, and forced enrolment has nothing to do with performance it’s based purely on ethnicity, topped up with ‘excluded pupils and others without a school place’. I’m sure nothing like that would happen here…
But you never know it might be a good thing but to group a group of ethnicities together with excluded pupils (side note: then shame the excluded pupils by calling it a “Gypsy” school, they’re not really going to like that) is pretty damning, you haven’t even arrived yet and you’re a ‘trouble maker’. A ‘drop in centre’ style thing would be pretty useful, not really viable but I would see people suggesting it, but it occurs to me that if you are already settled in Birmingham (or wherever), then you’re settled enough to apply for a ‘normal’ school place. But as Damien says, to have somewhere you can just ‘get on with it’ would be a welcome thing, assuming of course the ‘trouble’ children don’t hold them back, but continuing to segregate people isn’t going to promote inclusion, if we can’t get children of different cultures to play together how are we to expect them to play nicely as adults – both sides need to learn that the other isn’t “dirty, violent or stupid”. Settled people have jut as much of an image problem in Travelling communities as Travellers have in settled communities.
The idea of including speaks of foreign languages (umm good luck with that because I doubt many Europeans will be pleased about sending their children to the ‘”Gypsy” school’. Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Czech, good luck with that) is an interesting one, it would be interesting to see if the demand is high enough to bring in teachers that speak, at least a passing level, of Romani to accommodate for the increasing number of Roma refugees and immigrants. Most English Romany now use English as their first language (as do the Irish), the old chib is broken, but there are plenty of Roma children that require the additional support (but once again they’re from, or have family in, these countries with specialist Roma schools…).
It would be interesting, if the government is going to open a “Gypsy” school to open a “Gypsy” school, not just one for troubled children but an actual good quality school comparable to that of Jewish schools, providing high quality education whilst promoting cultural values (but whose culture? there isn’t but one), and some teachers who are themselves Romani and Pavee/Irish Travellers. Make it a place for, not a place to put. It’s never going to happen but equally why not? Forced inclusion doesn’t work, forced exclusion doesn’t work, to move forward we have to work with people.

Whilst there aren’t any Romany gypsies in New Zealand… You mean there aren’t many right? Yes you’re right, my mistakes: Whilst there aren’t many Romany gypsies in New Zealand…

Whilst doing my research yesterday on Romani in New Zealand I came across an article on the ‘Original Gypsy Fair’ discussing how despite there not being any Romany in the NZ a small number of Kiwis have adopted an itinerant lifestyle (going as far as to call themselves Gypsies).

This statement, that there aren’t any Romani make me feel uncomfortable because there are Romani there, between 120,000 and 300,000. Romany from the UK, Roma from Europe, Romani on gap years… Despite there not being a visible community it’s ridiculous to claim that there are aren’t any at all, like saying that there are no Indians, or Jews. Sure they’re not going around advertising themselves but they’re still there.

Anyway, the point of my post. I sent a quick message to the site explaining that a mistake had been made, and that claiming that there aren’t any is an insult to their Romani Kiwi population and mades me, a potential visitor, feel uncomfortable with visiting a country that wants to hide their Romani population and play pretend (I don’t think it was that at all, I just think that they literally did not know. Probably have no idea that there is more to being Romani than living in a caravan). I received a reply later that day apologising and the post in question has been change from ‘Whilst there aren’t any’ to ‘Whilst there aren’t many’. So a big thank you to Tourism.net.nz and to the lovely man who set things straight. Thank you for being understanding!

Here is the article in question! http://www.tourism.net.nz/featured-events/2011/new-zealand-gypsy-travellers-fairs.html

Romani in New Zealand

Recently I am becoming very interested once again in the situation of Romani people in New Zealand. Despite popular sources [citation needed] claiming that there are no real Romani ‘Gypsies’ in the NZ there is believed to be between 1,200 and 3000 with the most popular sub-group being Romanichal emigrants from the UK and more recently European Roma refugees (vitsas unknown?).

In the UK everyone *feels* like they know what a Gypsy is, it’s also not that uncommon for people to be able to tell the difference between an Irish Traveller and a Romany Gypsy even in-spite of MBFGW’s efforts to cause confusion. But from what I can tell from Google the term Gypsy and Gypsy Travellers in NZ has become incorrectly re-appropriated to mean ‘any old hippy in a truck’. The lifestyle of these housetruckers is indeed interesting, as someone who has spent a great deal of time with New Age Travellers (more the ones who want appropriate a stylised Romani lifestyle than the more new age hippy) I am perfectly comfortable around them but they’re not ‘quite right’. I am painfully aware that they’re not kin. It’s strange really, I read a lot of commentary from American bloggers who discuss the appropriation of the term gypsy to mean ‘free spirited hipster girl’ but as someone who lives in a country with a visible population it is sometimes difficult to truly appreciate the feeling of being erased. Yet now I am trying to research the situation in NZ I feel like I am just hitting my head against a brick wall, you’re not really Romani are you and, infact, are you even pretending to be?

Vintage Housetrucker house.

As part of my research a came across an annual ‘Gypsy Fair’ in Invercargill, I have been informed that it’s a traditional fair but from it’s facebook page all I see is hippies in trucks so I’m a little unsure. I think when they expect my joining request I might just go in guns blazing and ask. I’m not expecting an open harmed welcome, please join our family this instance, but it would be nice to know more. Trying to engage in Romani would probably be the politest way to go about asking but it’s not really a fair indicator, I’m not a natural speaker they’re probably not natural speakers, if they are natural speakers well then that puts me at a disadvantage, making me out as the outsider, silly old romanichal me!

And before I forget here‘s an article about a Romany family. The only true reference I could find.

Casual Racism in (Deviant)Art – ‘Ethnic Minorities’ are not Elves.

One of the most annoying aspects of casual racism I often witness on DeviantArt, in addition to the use of outdated and offensive anthropological terminology aka Eskimo, Lapp, Gypsy, is the continuous dehumanisation of ethnic ‘minorities’ via the use of overly mystical and magical imagery. I’m not going to go into too much detail about why this is ‘bad’ as I would hope that you should be able to figure it out for yourselves… [To me more about this – Kill me with Affection Part 1, Part 2]

Anyhow my criticism of such work has often resulted in people missing the point entirely, believing that my problem is not with the dehumanisation of vulnerable communities but with fantasy and magic. This is not the case in the slightest, I utterly adore fantasy as one should be able to see from viewing my gallery. The difference between my gallery, and the gallery of someone who enjoys dehumanising communities is that elves are not real. Portraying elves as magically beings (as they are) harms absolutely nobody whereas continuously portraying real world communities as magical, as elves and fairies, is harmful. It dehumanises them, taking away their humanity and white-washes over both the historical and contemporary struggles of these communities. It can also add to the political rhetoric used against them and decreases the believability of human rights abuse reports. It’s not on.

I’m not even going to go into the costumes used prominently in these pieces. Some of it even amounting to, and the equivalent of, black-face.

You want to appreciate the majesty of Native Americans, of Inuits, of Saami, of Romanies, of Maori, of Imazighen? Read a book, one with footnotes. Preferably written by someone within that community.

*shakes tambourine and shuffles out*