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Jordan's scorned gypsies, the Dom, say it's time to demand their rights

The Dom held key roles at the time of Jordan's founding, but have been ostracized for decades and now sense that they are further diminished by the influx of Syrian refugees.

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    A Dom man with his children in their makeshift home on the outskirts of the Jordanian city of Madaba.
    Taylor Luck
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Anas Hussein holds a terrible secret.

Unbeknownst to his closest friends, colleagues, and even in-laws, the Jordanian police lieutenant is living a lie, concealing his true identity, which if revealed would cost him his job, reputation, and even his wife.

Anas Hussein is a gypsy.

“If people discovered I was a gypsy, they would not only lose all respect for me,” says Mr. Hussein, who refused to disclose his full name to conceal his gypsy heritage.

“They would stop seeing me as a human being. I would lose everything.”

After decades in the shadows, Jordan’s closet gypsy community is coming forward to demand their rights as one of the country’s largest minorities. They’re seeking representation in parliament, recognition as an official tribe, and calling for an end to systematic discrimination that has forced thousands to break ties with their family and heritage.

Numbering some 70,000, Jordan’s gypsy community, an Indo-Aryan people known as the Dom, or Bani Murra, hold Jordanian citizenship and once held key roles in the military at the time of the country’s founding in the early 20th century. The Dom are believed to have migrated from the Indian subcontinent in the 6th century and slowly migrated through the Middle East, with evidence of Dom settlements in Jordan by the time of the Crusades.

When Emir Abdullah, later to be King Abdullah I, looked to build a state in the sparsely-populated Trans-Jordan region in the early 1920s, the Dom were considered an asset and were conscripted into the army. The gypsy tribal leader, Saeed Basha, was even recognized by Abdullah as a respected tribal leader.

Yet after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to or were driven into Jordan in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, the kingdom was no longer in need of the Dom’s support, and the gypsy community soon lost its privileged status. Rather than as a Jordanian tribe, the Dom increasingly were seen as “deviants” and “third-class” citizens.

“We have been pushed out of the state and society all together,” says Fathi Moussa, tribal leader of the Jordanian Dom community today and son of a famous Dom musician who often entertained King Hussein. “We were one of the founders of Jordan, and now are being treated as third-class citizens.”

Battle against stereotypes

Derided by many Jordanians as “nawar,” or unclean, the Dom, whose family names give away their gypsy lineage, are largely barred access to public health centers and are pressured to drop out of school at a young age so as not to “pollute” the student body.

Jordanians associate the Dom, who traditionally lived in encampments on the outskirts of cities, with witchcraft and fortune-telling and often brand them as bandits and liars – similar to the way Europeans have regarded their counterparts, the Roma. They are also believed to be faithless, although the vast majority are practicing Muslims according to academic studies and community leaders.

“The nawar have no values, no religion, do not fear God, and use immorality to make money,” says Mohammed Ahmed, a teacher at a public school in an east Amman neighborhood that is home to several thousand Dom residents, who claimed to have expelled several Dom students from his class.

Several public school teachers and health-care professionals from across the country shared Mr. Ahmed’s sentiments.

Driving the Jordanian gypsies’ new call for rights is Jordan’s latest demographic shift: the influx of Syrian refugees.       

The Dom watched as over 1.2 million Syrian refugees poured into the country, receiving hundreds of dollars in monthly aid from the UN and international donors, taking day laborer jobs from Jordanian Dom, and receiving free access to public health care and education.

The kicker: Thousands of the Syrians who fled to Jordan reportedly are Dom themselves.

'I am Bani Murra, I am Jordanian'

“Syrians are taking jobs, given ID cards, health care, and education while we are still being treated like animals,” says Ahmed Abed, Dom tribal representative in the port city of Aqaba, where Syrians reportedly have taken over 300 jobs from Dom at the docks and market stalls.

“It is time for us to speak out.”

The Jordanian Dom are hitting back. The community has organized for the first time, forming in May the Bani Murra Association, an organization devoting to challenging stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the Dom.

Under the slogan “I am Bani Murra, I am Jordanian,” Dom leaders are reaching out through print and social media to change Jordanians’ perceptions of the gypsy community. 

While thousands still live in tents on the outskirts of industrial complexes, the Association says more than 80 per cent of Dom live in apartment buildings like average Jordanians. Jordanian Dom are practicing Muslims, they stress in their pamphlets, and dozens are even employed as imams.

Setting sights on parliament

Despite institutionalized racism, the Association boasts dozens of members who have risen in the ranks of army officers, lawyers, doctors, and university professors. Yet nearly all hide their Dom heritage.

The Association has a new goal designed to encourage the country’s 70,000 Dom to “come out” – a Dom MP.

Mr. Moussa and the Association are lobbying the Jordanian government to grant the Dom a quota in parliament – noting that the country’s Circassian and Chechen populations, which according to various estimates number some 80,000, each are given three seats in the 150-strong parliament.

“If we are seen in a position of respect, in parliament, people will begin to see us differently,” says Moussa, who himself unsuccessfully ran for office in 2003 and 2010.

“We need to give a role model for Bani Murra who have been taught to be ashamed of themselves,” he adds.

Trying to offer hope

The Jordanian government has balked. Officials have rejected the Dom’s petitions, continuing to refuse to recognize the Dom as a minority and leaving any changes in electoral law to the country’s tribe-dominated parliament.

From Moussa’s diwan, or gathering hall in southern Amman, Dom from all walks of life come and meet with Association members to discuss their plights. Problems with the law, rejected marriage proposals, school bullying, and drug abuse are all common complaints.

On this particular day, a family whose son was shot and killed by police in April in what they said was a gypsy “hate-crime,” came to Moussa for legal representation. The case is still pending as the Association is mounting a legal challenge to push Jordanian police to open an investigation.

Unable yet to upend an entire system they say is bent against them, Dom leaders say they offer instead something the community has been without for decades: hope.

“We are Jordanians, always were Jordanians, and are on our way to reclaim our role,” Moussa said.

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