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Europe Thursday, 6 April, 2000, 18:09 GMT 19:09 UK
A European odyssey
Roma street children in Bucharest, Romania
By Paul Vickers

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Although the Roma people originate in India, a country that they migrated from a thousand years ago, most of them now live in eastern Europe, their communities concentrated in Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, HUngary and Turkey. Some of them have moved further to the west, reaching Spain, France and the United Kingdom, searching for a better life.

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Many of them live on the margins of their host communities, poor, rootless, loyal to nobody but their own, fashionable, perhaps, for their music and their 'magic' but also despised because of widespread misconceptions about their culture.

In Britain the media focusses on the women who beg in the streets with their children or the 'squeegee merchants'. They are portrayed as being troublesome, as scroungers, 'bogus asylum seekers', uneducated and workshy.

This school troupe from Mangalia, Romania, is trying to revive traditional culture
But today, across eastern Europe, a growing number of Roma people are being educated - either in state schools or in one of the growing number of schools set up by the Roma themselves - and there is a new hunger for knowledge of Roma culture and history.

Various non-governmental organisations from western countries have funded educational and community programmes for the Roma, with varying degrees of success.

In Romania, for example, a lack of accountability means that it is sometimes hard to tell how well some projects work. During our visit to the country, we found that despite many schemes mounted by local and international NGOs, and millions of euros' worth of aid to the government from the EU, very little seems to have trickled down to poor Roma communities themselves.

But in richer countries like Hungary and Poland such schemes have been so successful that a 'Roma renaissance' is in full swing, spilling into mainstream culture thanks to 'gypsy' musicians who play to packed houses in most of Europe's capitals.

Some of these groups, like Kalyi Jag - Black Fire, led by Gustav Varga - plough some of the fruits of their success back into educational projects to encourage younger Roma people to pick up the traditions that would otherwise be forgotten.

Presenter Olenka Frenkiel with one of the Roma children who make a living begging in Bucharest
Of course not all Roma traditions are understood by outsiders. Begging, for instance, as was explained to us, is seen by Roma as simply another way of making a living and obeying the iron rule that everyone must work to help feed the family. Some traditional communities expect their women to stand when serving their husbands.

Daughters can be sold in marriage - sometimes for the price of a second-hand car - and it is very difficult for women who want to escape these customs to do so. A new generation of Roma children have to decide how much of their heritage to bring into the 21st century.

At the heart of this renaissance is the notion of memory - what to preserve and what to forget. Fifty years after the murder of gypsies at Auschwitz, the Roma are coming to terms with the Holocaust and what it means to them. Many Roma cannot read or write and so many were killed that oral accounts of what happened are rare.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: the Roma holocaust is little recognised
Now, in a lonely corner of Birkenau, at the spot where Roma prisoners were kept, a small memorial has been built. Seldom visited by the majority of visitors to the camp it becomes the focus of remembrance for gypsies every August. As such it is a symbol of the rediscovery by the Roma community of its identity - at the very place where persecution turned to genocide.

Roma identity is a complex and shifting thing. Language, nationality and culture make up a very different 'package' in every Roma community across Europe. All that is certain is that the Roma shall continue to be - as they have been for over a thousand years - a truly European nation spread across the continent.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Roma children, Bucharest Romania Mar 2000
in Bucharest talk about their lives
Costel Bercus March 2000
on his neighbourhood in Bucharest, Romania
Olenka Frenkiel Roma CC Mar 2000
visits the Roma memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau
See also:

04 Apr 00 | Broadband
03 Apr 00 | 
Hungarian official apologises about gypsy plan
03 Mar 00 | Europe
09 Jun 99 | Europe
24 Nov 99 | Europe
02 Aug 99 | Europe
Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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