On a stage above a rapt audience, Dijana Pavlovic’s words fill Piazza del Duomo in Milan, Italy. “Now and forever resist!” she yells, finishing an impassioned reading of Erri De Luca’s poem “La notte degli zingari” or “The Night of the Gypsies.” The poem is a poignant retelling of the genocide of the Roma people during World War II, when about 3,000 died in a single night at Auschwitz in 1944.
The audience gives fierce applause to Ms. Pavlovic, a theater actress-turned-activist who is one of the most visible members of Italy’s Roma community. The crowd bursts into a spirited singing of “Bella Ciao,” an Italian folk song and an anthem of the anti-Fascist movement.
“The Roma movement in Italy and all Europe is growing up. It’s organizing, and we’re winning in the wider movement against this terrible period, this black period of racism,” says Pavlovic in an interview with the Monitor, her voice hoarse from her performance.
Pavlovic is trying to change how Italians interact with and perceive one of the country’s oldest minorities. And she’s working to boost the Roma’s political representation. She’s run for several offices herself, and although she was unsuccessful, she thinks the campaigns have helped reshape stereotypes of the Roma. Knowing that such work is ongoing, she is also among those promoting political mentoring for young Roma.
Her poetry reading, at a large Italian Democratic Party protest, was during a busy weekend for her last fall. She also helped organize a Roma concert and a rally against Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who has taken a hard-line immigration stance.
At the heart of what Pavlovic does is a desire for the Roma to be proud of their identity.
“Dijana is someone who has a certain authority,” says Marcos Andrade, coordinator of ROMED, a program through the Council of Europe that mediates between Roma communities and local authorities. “As an actress and political actor in the public sphere, she has been an inspiring example for Roma women. She was involved from the moment we started [in 2012] as a facilitator, and then as our national program officer.”
Views of the Roma
Discrimination against the Roma, both in Italy and in Europe more broadly, is nothing new. As many as 12 million live in Europe, and the Council of Europe has estimated the Roma population in Italy to be 140,000. A 2014 study that gauged views of the Roma in seven European countries found that Italians were the wariest of the minority. Eight-five percent of the country had an unfavorable view of the Roma people, according to the Pew Research Center. No Roma hold local or national office in Italy, although there are three Roma representatives from other countries in the European Parliament.
The current climate in Europe also includes the rise of populism and challenging conditions for migrants. In Italy the tough immigration policies of Mr. Salvini, as well as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, have been popular. Italian ports have turned away boats carrying migrants and refugees from North Africa. And a recently enacted law has made it easier to deport migrants and allow Italian citizenship to be stripped if an immigrant is convicted of terrorism.
Hostility toward migrants is also being felt by minorities in Italy, including the Roma. This past June, Salvini called for a census of the Roma and vowed to deport those who are not Italian.
As May elections for the European Parliament approach, Roma across the continent are preparing to field candidates and gain political representation.
“The Roma are the biggest transnational minority in Europe, and they can be a European political actor with a lot of demographic force,” Mr. Andrade says. “If you put together the Roma vote within Europe and the EU, you arrive to the size of a medium member state.”
Pavlovic hadn’t thought much about her Roma heritage before moving to Italy. The Serb had migrated to Italy in 1999 to further pursue her career on the stage. Learning Italian, she made a name for herself in Milan’s performing arts scene.
She traces her transformation from an actress into a Roma activist to 2005. It was a few days after an Italian newspaper published a review of her performance in Jean Genet’s play “The Maids,” and she was barraged with phone calls and visits.
Those outside her theater weren’t mobbing fans or talent scouts. They were organizers and leaders of the local Roma community, wanting her help in drawing attention to their marginalized existence.
“They asked me to make a performance about the Porajmos, the Roma Holocaust,” Pavlovic recalls. “I said it was a great idea. I had the culture, the identity necessary, and I started working on it.”
Soon after Opera Nomadi, one of Italy’s oldest Roma associations, asked her to be a mediator for Roma children in a Milan public elementary school. On her first day as a mediator, she became aware of how deep the stigma against Roma runs in Italy.
“I went to the school, and the children were coming on a bus from a Roma camp. And on the outside of the bus was written ‘pulmino Rom’ – Roma bus. They were all getting out of this bus, but they were all Italians. I had never felt this level of discrimination before.”
From 1965 through the 1980s, successive Christian Democratic governments created separate classes for Roma children in the Italian public school system. Roma advocates say the policy decision has had lasting repercussions on Roma educational standards.
“I realized that inside of this kind of mechanism – schools [and nongovernmental organizations] – there is no way out. And that’s why I said, ‘OK, I want to do politics because this is an issue of policy,’ ” she says.
Running for office
Pavlovic officially entered the political scene in 2006 when she was nominated for the Milan City Council. In 2008, she was nominated for the Italian Parliament, and then the European Parliament in 2011. She lost all three of those races, but she points to a wider importance of the campaigns.
“I was the first Roma candidate on the national level.... It was time to break this idea in Italy that Roma are only capable of assistance, to show that we can participate in the political life of the society,” she says.
Not only does Pavlovic aim to help Roma gain a voice within Italy. She also wants to connect them to Roma across Europe, and toward that end she’s a founding member of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin. In addition, she helped organize Aug. 2 protests at Italian embassies across Europe against the Salvini policies regarding Roma treatment.
Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office in Berlin, points to Pavlovic’s work acting as a bridge between fledgling Roma communities in various European countries. “Dijana has been fighting an uphill battle for a very long time, and we see a sense of hope that there are other people around her and a growing support from the Roma community for this struggle,” he says.
Pavlovic’s current focus is on creating academies that can develop young Roma leaders into political candidates. One member of her new academy is Fiorello Miguel Lebbiati, a human rights activist from Tuscany, Italy. Mr. Lebbiati is Sinti, which is an ethnic group associated with the Roma people. “[Pavlovic is] a great leader,” he says. “She gave us courage, and she’s able to help us in every kind of problem we can find on our path.”
His grandfather was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Italy during World War II because of his Sinti identity, and that history has been a factor in Lebbiati’s drive to organize the Italian Roma community.
“I feel like a partigiano [partisan] 2.0. I don’t have to fight with weapons, but I have to fight for the future of Italy by getting involved in politics,” he says.
Pavlovic’s academy endeavor is part of a broader movement across Europe in which so-called Roma political schools are engaging with a generation that’s more assertive of its identity and place on the continent. Some schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina have already seen success in getting Roma candidates elected.
“Our kids are our moral responsibility,” Pavlovic says. “If we become stronger, if we have political power that will represent them, then it will also be easier for them to come out and accept themselves as Roma.”