Society tends to lapse into fairytale terminology when confronted with otherness, the manifestation of xenophobia turning those at the edges of society into bogeymen, hobgoblins, foreign shadowy creatures that are to be feared and ostracised. It is this exact attitude that is behind the insidious “child snatching gypsy” myth – an image borne of society’s lack of knowledge.
The phrase elicits images of a hunched over, dark-skinned woman, head swathed in colourful scarves, coaxing unassuming and incautious children into her monstrous clutches. It is this image that was probably swirling around the heads of those that bought into the moral panic that overtook people last month and led to two young Roma children being temporarily taken into state care. It was done on the basis that they didn’t “look like” their parents after a tip off was sent in to the Facebook page of TV3’s ‘Paul Connelly Investigates’.
It seems incredible that something like this could happen in Ireland, of all places, considering the country’s history. We were subjected to similar treatment once upon a time – portrayed as savages by the English, uncivilised denizens of the dark and unruly world “beyond the Pale” akin to a Jabberwocky in the woods.
Lack of knowledge tends to inspire paranoia. People don’t like mystery and, above all, they fear what they don’t know. The problem is that we as a country know very little about Roma people despite their presence here. What happened in late October was the product of confusion; it seems a majority of individuals in our society are operating under very basic misconceptions, misconceptions that must be clarified. Up until this point, the Romani people have been unfairly treated and unfairly portrayed.
Gina Iordan is a Ph.D candidate at University College Cork. After completing a Masters in Contemporary Migration and Diaspora, she decided to pursue a Ph.D focusing on the Roma community. “When I started my Ph.D, I was thinking of doing something on Romania. But it was clear to me that Roma people are one of the most marginalised groups [in Europe] and very little research is done in this particular area in terms of the situation in Ireland.”Iordan, who is Romanian herself, went to a school with Roma children. Following her arrival to Ireland, she began working with the Romani people here, first in Killarney and then in Cork where she is now based.
She echoed my sentiments that a lot of basic facts needed to be clarified. Throughout the course of my conversation with her, I couldn’t help but be shocked by how little I’d known, and how wrong much of the information I thought I had really was. For one, I was under the very false impression that Roma and Romani indicated a link to Romania.
“No, that’s absolutely wrong. I presume it’s only because of the similarity between Romani and Romania that this mistake is made.” While it does seem a logical connection to make, it couldn’t be further from the truth. “Roma or Romani in Romani language means ‘man’ or ‘husband’.” Academics such as Ian Hancock have determined by linguistically analysing Romani that the community originated from Northern India over 1000 years ago, though there is debate over the reason why they decided to leave India. Furthermore, Romani people would have only arrived in the Middle East and Europe in the 14th Century, on which occasion many of them were sold into slavery across various countries, Romania included.
The assertion in Ireland was that the two Roma children couldn’t possibly have belonged to the families in question due to their skin and hair colour. When the accusations were made, the Roma community was, more than anything, baffled.
“We have to realise that these people have been living in Europe for a very long time, and in most of these countries – especially Eastern European countries – they have intermingled with the central population.” The breadth of the Roma Diaspora makes it both reductive and nigh impossible to box them into one sole racial profile.
While the Roma people are primarily concentrated in Europe, they can be found in America, Australia and Africa, and in numbers that have recently been revealed to be larger than researchers first assumed. After generations of mixing with different races, a child born to a Roma family could conceivably be of any type of colouring imaginable. “We have fair skinned children down here [in Cork], with blonde hair and green eyes, or red hair and blue eyes, and it’s seen as normal.”
While the case in Ireland seemed to come down to the skin and hair colour of the biological children, one must remember that this wasn’t the only reason for suspicion. What is often singled out is the fact that Roma people will often facilitate unofficial adoptions. Such as was the case with the “blonde angel” Maria in Greece, children can be taken in when their biological parents feel unable to care for them.
“The Roma felt initially welcomed when they arrived here as asylum seekers residing in camps. However, when they emerged from these camps, at an inherent disadvantage due to language barriers and their difficulty accessing education, they were soon deemed the scourge of our society.”
Is this willingness to foster the unwanted and disenfranchised charity? Yes, but it can also be explained by the attitude towards children in the Roma community. Gina explains, “Children are idolised by Roma people. For them, children are a blessing and the more children you have, the more blessings you have….the children carry on the culture and the traditions.” Amid allegations that Roma families will take on and have a lot of children in order to reap government child benefits, it seems all the Roma people want to do in having large families is ensure there will be generations after them to carry on time-honoured traditions.
I was also surprised to learn that the aforementioned scholar Ian Hancock, a professor at the University of Texas, was Romani. With a name like Hancock I didn’t expect such origins. Ian’s mother hales from the Czech Republic. Though not born to a Roma family, she was accepted by Roma parents in an act of kindness to a mother that was unable to feed her. She grew up surrounded by the Roma culture and eventually went on to marry a Romani man, before they relocated to England where Ian was born in 1942.
He then went on to become a linguist – and I suspect this is also what led to my surprise. For like it or not, I found it a little surprising that a member of the Romani community had such a profession. “We have a lot of Romani academics, lawyers and consultants.” A far cry from the profession that many seem to assume for Roma people – that of a beggar or thief.
While the Roma children cases may be the result of these misconceptions, the crux of the issue is the general attitude we have towards the Roma community. Roma people are frequently accused of forming crime rings and going abroad just so they can crouch at the entrances to supermarkets and chemists holding out a withered coffee cup and shaking it to the sound of a faint hollow clang of some meagre bits of change. An impression has been formed, and it’s easier to just continue thinking that way. Humanity has an incredible leaning towards hierarchal structures.
The Roma community is, unfortunately, no stranger to playing the part of the oppressed. Though it seems to be the statistic that history forgot, it is estimated that as many as two million Roma people were killed during the Holocaust.
One of the most abhorrent cases in recent times was Naples in 2008. Following claims of a kidnapping, a group of Italians set fire to a Roma camp on the outskirts of Naples, proudly boasting that they were partaking in ‘ethnic cleansing’. The local Democratic Party decked the town with “No more Roma people in Ponticelli!”posters, promising to rid the area of them upon election. When I asked Gina why Romani people come to Ireland, she explained that they wanted “a better life, for them and for their children.” I tentatively asked her how the Roma find Ireland as a host. “Many Roma people have experienced racism.” It seems a Roma person – particularly a Roma woman, more conspicuous due to her traditional dress – cannot make it down the street without being accosted. “People hit them, curse them, yell ‘Fuck off gypsy’ or ‘Go back to your own country.'”
In spite of this, the Roma felt initially welcomed when they arrived here as asylum seekers residing in camps. However, when they emerged from these camps, at an inherent disadvantage due to language barriers and their difficulty in accessing education, they were soon deemed the scourge of our society.
Gina says that the Roma are painfully aware of the percentage of them that are beggars. “They feel ashamed but feel they have no choice.” With few options, mouths to feed, and sick elderly members of the community to care for, as a last resort many of them will end up begging. She hastens to add, however, that there is hope. “Their children have gone to school, learned the language, and they feel like the next generation won’t have to beg.” The hope she conveyed to me, the optimism with which the Roma people are regarding their situation, was what pained me above all else. “They believe that everything bad that happens can bring some good.” In Blackpool, Co Cork, an area where the Roma people she works with have settled, they are doing as much as they can to prove themselves. When a local shopkeeper’s premises was flooded after heavy rain, the Roma people got together to help to clear out all the mess and debris.
They salvaged tree trunks and chopped them up, hoping to distribute these logs during the winter to the elderly who may struggle with heating. Both Roma men and women are taking literacy classes in the hope of tackling the language barrier that they feel alienates them further from the Irish people. “They want to say ‘We are here to stay, and we want to contribute to the community.'”This is one of the last things Gina says to me before our conversation ends. She encourages me to come back to her at a later date if I want to follow up the story, and asks that I email her a copy of the article I write. “I want to pass it on to the Roma people that can read. Seeing something like this will boost their morale.” The Irish, more than most, have long played the role of the wanderer or citizen of the world. As a people who have, throughout history, been forced to leave home to work and live, we’ve still always had the luxury of a homeland to return to. Yet the Irish have not displayed a willingness to share this luxury. While the past cannot be altered, the future is ours to mould. The events in October have drawn our attention to this marginalised group and the Irish people should respond accordingly. We are renowned for our generosity, both tangible and of spirit, and once we realise the error of our ways up until this point, perhaps we can extend this generosity to the Romani.