This was a short piece that I wrote at the end of The Roma Series that I never published. The Roma Series is about my experience visiting Roma settlements in Athens. If you haven’t read the series, perhaps you’d like to now? I hope you will.
I wish there was a conclusion to this series of writings. That I could tell you that all the families I met are now housed and that the children are going to school. But they are not. I don’t know where they are. Probably spread throughout the city, on various other pieces of wasteland. No better off than when I first met them. I know that the whole community at Psari Aspropyrgos has been evicted and have moved further into the hills. I will continue to visit when I am invited to but it will always be with a very heavy heart because nothing has changed.
Bringing this community to you has been my contribution. Sadly, it doesn’t mean anything tangible for them. The situation for Roma all over Europe is declining rapidly. Evictions, here in Greece, are continuing, pushing people further out of the city. Funding for the few Roma advocates has been cut drastically. In France, mass deportations have been ongoing for years but have recently escalated while the rest of Europe hardly notices. Italy began wholesale fingerprinting of Roma communities in 2007, implying inherent criminality. Evictions and deportations have risen sharply since then. Many other Western European countries have made noises about doing the same thing as anti-Roma sentiment spreads, almost without comment. In the “new” European countries the situation remains, as it has been for decades, desperate.
It seems that the widespread discrimination against the Roma is acceptable. Why else would nothing be said or done about it? If this were happening to any other group of people, there would be an outcry. There would be demonstrations, governments would be brought down, and solidarity would be widely expressed. So why are we saying nothing about what is happening to the Roma? Is it because we don’t know? Is it because we still have deeply rooted prejudices against them? Is it because, in the end, we really don’t care? We must ask ourselves these questions because it goes to the heart of building the Europe we want to live in.
We are nearing the end of the Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) but from where I’m standing; all I see is further exclusion. I have yet to see full-scale movements to enroll Roma children in school. I do not know of any national campaigns to ensure that everyone has access to clean running water. I do not see any Europe-wide housing projects. I have not seen films and TV programmes promoting positive images. I do not see debates and discussions about inclusion happening in a public forum. Only behind closed doors, which is not in itself a bad thing but what about the reality that is happening outside the door?
During the holocaust, as many as half a million Roma were murdered. We barely remember or even acknowledge this genocide. There are International Days for most things; World Aids Day, World Water Day, International Day for the Eradication of Poverty etc but did you know there is an International Day of the Roma on April 8th each year? Probably not, because it is omitted from most lists. Just as the Roma are omitted from most countries political and social forums.
For me, education has always been the key. I almost despair of adults achieving anything in terms of building unity but I do believe children can do a better job. Educating all our children together, in the same schools, giving them all the same opportunities and allowing them to share their cultures and histories, can and must be, a way forward. There should be comprehensive, compulsory training for teachers to handle today’s multicultural classrooms. There is a desperate need to recognise that children are coping with being educated in their second and sometimes third language. Given the chance and expert guidance, they actually do extremely well. It’s our responsibility to ensure that ALL children achieve their potential.
The Roma children in these pages have been systematically denied access to a decent education. They don’t have a home. Many don’t even have shoes. And they will continue to be marginalised, ignored and shunned throughout their lives. We will never see them in the public domain. Never hear what they have to say. We will never even know their names since many are changed according to the country they live in so as to avoid further discrimination, if that is possible?
I still look for the children I met. I look at the faces of the Roma I see on the streets, hoping to see one of the people I photographed. What I would say is not important. What is important to me is that I met them and that I remember them. This is not about some idealised idea of the “romantic wandering gypsy”. I have been genuinely moved by the desperation of their lives and I am disgusted that I live in a Europe that allows them to live in such conditions, right on my doorstep, while priding itself on its modern and progressive attitudes.
So this series does not have a happy ending. In fact, this series has no ending, no conclusion. It is just one small step that I took, to look at the reality of the Roma living here in Athens. To see a community that has always been unknown to me.
Thank you to Panayote Dimitras of the Greek Helsinki Monitor who invited me to visit the Roma communities in the first place and for his unfailing support of my writing and my blog.
Many thanks to my blog guru, vegankid, who helped me set up my own domain and has given me technical support and friendship over years.
My love and thanks to the love of my life who designed the book cover (which I hope will be finished and published one day) and who has been by my side from the beginning.
A thanks is really not adequate to express my gratitude to everyone who has supported me in this project. From the faithful readers of my blog who have offered me genuine friendship and love to all those in my offline life who have encouraged me to get this project done. I could never have done this without you.
And last, but most importantly, a heartfelt thanks to all the people who welcomed me into their homes and talked to me about their lives. And especially to all the children I have met and photographed over the years. You will be with me always.