Little Has Changed: Gypsies Still Marginalized

Bad times also bring out the good in people. This period of ethnic conflict, ecological degradation, population explosion, and economic uncertainty has seen more humanitarian action than ever before. Even before governments are able to focus, private organizations swarm to help. Sometimes they prod governments to come to grips with problems that bureaucracies would rather ignore.

The Biblical question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" more often draws a positive answer. Human rights, civil rights, and minority rights are part of the scene. Disabled people and disadvantaged groups get sympathy and help. Yet, one people, the Roma or Gypsies, falls between the cracks.

An ancient, mysterious folk, the Roma originated in northwest India. Rom, their generic name, means man or husband. They took to the road, it is thought, to escape the Hindu caste system. Historians record the arrival of a considerable number in Persia in the 10th century. They were noted as musicians and described as being allergic to agriculture, inclined to nomadism, and somewhat given to pilfering.

At the time of the Mongol invasion, they left Persia. European travelers to the Holy Land noted them - in the 14th century in Modon, a fortified town on the southwestern tip of the Peloponnesus - as being "black as Ethiopians," mainly metalworkers. Modon was called "little Egypt"; possibly, as a fertile spot in a dry region, it seemed like the Nile delta. The dark strangers were labeled "Gypsies."

To smooth their journey as they fanned out across Europe, they said they were pilgrims. Some had letters of protection from the Holy Roman Emperor, others manufactured their own credentials. Usually in trouble in most countries, batches were sent to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. Portugal deported them to Brazil, France to the "islands of America," and Britain to plantations in Jamaica, Barbados, and Virginia. Gypsy families began immigrating freely at the start of the 19th century. Today some 650,000 live in North America.

The story of the Roma is a centuries-long struggle to preserve a distinctive culture and an ethnic bond in the face of misunderstanding, suspicion, and ostracism. The essential cause of their protracted woe is that they are different from whatever society they live in and want to preserve that difference.

Their language is incomprehensible to their neighbors, and their tradition is oral. They have no written historical record or literature. They live their tradition of strong family solidarity - and of travel. Little wonder these strangers perplex and disturb the sedentary host communities who pillory them as ignorant, shiftless, dirty, thieving nomads.

Some settle down. Many have adopted the religion of their host regions - largely Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox - adding their own touches. They continue their distinctive trades but adapt to change. Stainless steel pots and pans have nearly put the tinkers out of business. Horse traders are turning to the sale of used cars and trailers.

They are musicians still, with traveling circuses and amusement parks. The women traditionally have told fortunes, sold potions, begged, and worked as entertainers. Just as Romany is not a written language, so is flamenco not written music. Yet this exciting dance and song of southern Spain is the Roma's gift to the world.

Over the course of centuries, the Gypsies have preserved their culture against corrosive prejudice, forced settlement, assimilation, sterilization, and mass extermination.

Gypsies shared the Holocaust with the Jews. Some half a million men, women, and children marked with the black triangle are thought to have been killed in Nazi concentration camps. Today's German government supports the Roma, subsidizes their community and cultural organizations, and prosecutes skinhead attackers. The Catholic and Protestant churches deplore the scapegoating and stereotyping that persist toward Germany's 80,000 Gypsies.

Yet polls show that most Germans don't want them as neighbors, and the government has paid Romania to take back tens of thousands who have immigrated as asylum seekers since 1990.

In Europe there is not state oppression of Gypsies, but harsh official and societal discrimination. A new citizenship law based on ethnicity in the Czech Republic, regarded as a bastion of tolerance and democratic values, seems designed to exclude the country's 20,000 Gypsies. This keeps them not only from voting but also from routine social benefits. In a booming economy, three-quarters of these Gypsies are unemployed.

Well over 3 million Roma live in southeastern Europe. They are all at the bottom of the economic ladder; more than 70 percent are classed as illiterate. Racist violence has risen as governments fail to enforce constitutional protections and antidiscrimination statutes. Public opinion is with the governments, and the Roma, politically fragmented and keeping their heads down, do not have a national or international leader to focus their protests.

Around the world, minorities are being given their due. But the Roma are not a recognized minority. The UN International Decade of the World's Indigenous People does not cover them. They are, by definition, not indigenous. They fall into the cracks of an incomplete world order.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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