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Roma are a social rather than an ethnic category

28 October 2013 / 18:10:11  GRReporter
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Anastasia Balezdrova

Maria, the girl who was found in a Roma camp in Farsala, is a child of a Roma couple from Bulgaria. The discovery has shocked the majority of the public in two ways. One regards Maria’s biological family. Too many comments on social and traditional media contained an almost racist question, namely "How could this blond and blue-eyed girl be the child of those parents?" The other, however, relates to the trafficking of babies, illegal adoption and institutional corruption that allow the flourishing of this immoral "business".

The story has uncovered something else, namely the big difference between the living conditions of the Roma in Farsala and those of Maria’s biological family in the village of Nikolaevo. GRReporter sought teacher in intercultural education at the Pedagogical Faculty of Democritus University in Komotini George Mavromatis, to answer our questions about the Roma in Greece and their way of life.

Mr. Mavromatis, are the Roma integrated in Greek society and to what extent?

Before I answer this question, I would like to clarify something. When discussing this topic, the big question always is "who are the Roma?" Are they are a biological, ethno-cultural or social group?

Assuming that they are determined biologically, what could the criteria be? Are all dark-skinned people with dark eyes Roma? Their mobility could not be accepted as a factor determining the community either, simply because other groups lived nomadic life 100 years ago too. So, nor could this be accepted as the sole criteria.

My opinion is that the Roma are a social category in the sense that they do not have access to things that the state equally allocates to all of its citizens. When we talk about the Roma, we mean the poor and destitute people. The people who have a home, work and are of Romani origin are not the subject of this discussion because their problems are not so different from those of the majority of the population.

We do know that today's Roma are not the descendants of the people who came to Europe from India 10 centuries ago. Many different people entered and left this group. During my lectures at the university I often tell my students that if tomorrow I find myself out of work, in the street, eating whatever I can find and if, at some point, I have a biological heir, this child will surely be Roma without knowing it.

According to the data, about 300,000 people live in Greece who are part of the so-called Roma culture, i.e. they speak Romani. There are many civil servants, police officers, doctors, engineers, priests and representatives of many other professions among them. The issue of social exclusion does not affect all the Roma in Greece. It refers to about 50,000 people who are living in conditions of absolute poverty and have no property. They are nomads and make their living through begging, with farm work or other unskilled occupations.

The most significant problem is that the civil status of these people is not regulated. The governmental institutions do not know who they are, where they are or how many they are. Many of them do not have an identity card, some have two, a third group of them are registered in more than one municipality. Roma immigrants from other Balkan countries who have arrived in Greece in various ways are moving and living along with them and due to the lack of data, the Greek state is not able to establish which of them were born here and which have come from other countries.

What are the expressions of their social exclusion?

In practice the Roma are not victims of social exclusion on the part of institutions. There is no order claiming that the Roma are prohibited from one thing or another. At the same time, however, they cannot obtain many social benefits because a person who has no documents virtually "does not exist". Therefore, many of them have no access to social benefits and this is a kind of social exclusion.

Another factor is their mobility. This continuous process of movement, which is linked to the need to find a job, prevents the Roma children from attending school classes on a regular basis. Therefore, they cannot be educated and this is not due to a ban by the institutions but by coincidence.

Of course, there are examples of social exclusion for which society is to blame. In some cases, the majority of the parents do not want the Roma children to attend the same schools as their children. In other cases, residents of the neighbourhoods do not want the Roma to stay in barracks near their homes. In addition, every time the Roma stay in someone's private property or communal areas they become victims of persecution with all the negative implications. In my opinion this would happen to everyone who is in that position, whether he or she has dark skin or speaks the Roma language or not.

However, why don’t the Roma have personal documents? What is the reason for this in your opinion?

On the one hand this is due to the fact that they find it difficult to understand how the state institutions operate. And secondly, this is due to the clientelism and protectionism that are widespread in these communities and involve people who are promising the Roma that they would tackle all their issues unsettled with the institutions and who are other Roma with easier access to them. This shows that, among the Roma themselves, there are many different categories and that, to a greater extent, other Roma exploit the weakest ones. Indicative of this is the case of the granting of preferential housing loans relating to the settlement of the Roma. Community members cheated other Roma who trusted them to do the paperwork, by obtaining their loans and disappearing afterwards. Do not forget that people who are of similar socio-economic status are always looking for illegal ways to survive. But we should not go to extremes and call all Roma scammers. We have too many examples of non-Roma people who are in the public administration, committing huge frauds.

According to commentators, this is mostly due to the fact that the Roma are not educated. What is your comment?

School is not enough. Educating a child has always been something relatively "expensive". It takes time to go to school but a 15-year Roma child is obliged to work to survive simply because his family has no means.

However, there is something else and the examples are very specific. For example, I have recently asked a Roma man about his nephew, who had graduated from an agronomy school. He told me that he had graduated with success and when I asked him what he was doing now, he said, "He is selling skewers at fairs as he did before." When I asked him "Why", he replied, "Well, schoolmaster, would you hire a gypsy as an agronomist for your fields?"

So it is not just school. The question is how you can utilize this knowledge afterwards. Especially at this time, other people who are not Roma cannot find a way to survive. This is a broader problem.

What could be the solution in your opinion?

Society does not want to deal with this problem because this would give rise to questions like "What is the reason for poverty and social inequality?", "What should be the difference between the poorest and richest?", "Are these issues to be decided at the central level or not?" No society wants to discuss these topics nowadays. The only thing that is being done is controlling things so as to prevent the situation from becoming "explosive".

After arriving in the Balkans in the period 10th - 14th century, the Roma adopted the habits and culture of the local communities, with which they had mingled in some cases. Thus, the Roma who have settled in the western part of the Balkans speak the local languages ​​and they are Slavic Christians. In the eastern part of the peninsula, in the part of Thrace, which is divided between Greece and Bulgaria, the Roma are Muslims and speak Turkish. They no longer identify themselves as Roma but as the community of the place where they have settled.

The majority of the Roma who are living a nomadic life in Greece are Christians and the Muslims among them are few. I could describe them as very religious. During the Assumption, the vast majority of worshipers in the temple of the Virgin of Tinos are Roma. The same happens in other places of worship as well. Of course, this religiosity is seen through the prism of their traditional beliefs. It is worth noting that there are Roma priests too. I know two Roma men who have been appointed in churches of Roma communities in the regions of Thrace and the Peloponnese.

Tags: SocietyRomaIntegrationSocial exclusion
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