Gypsies are Roma. But Roma are not from Romania. Roma or Gypsies leave north India in the early Middle Ages. They travel and settle throughout Europe. Here they adapt, and adopt local religions and languages.
Gypsies are Europe’s largest minority group with 11 million people. They endure centuries of discrimination. It culminates in WW2 when Hitler tries to exterminate them. The EU estimates 34% are unemployed, 20% have no health insurance and 80% live below the poverty line. Today, Europe’s far-right parties again appeal to local prejudices. Verbal attacks against Gypsies are common.
Gypsies make up 8% of the Romanian population. So we see them. Often! We see them on the outskirts of every town and village. We see them in makeshift dwellings and abandoned buildings. Where children play, chickens scratch and laundry flaps in the wind. Where bits and pieces of metal, sheet, wood, plastic and cloth, keeps in stacks and heaps. Where, everything is precious. They are so apart and so poor. Here, there and everywhere in Europe.
We wonder why? How can we not wonder why!
We ask the landlady, the waiter, the woman at the market, the guy at the bar. “They prefer to beg than to work.” “Be careful they throw stones and scratch cars.” “They refuse to pay for anything.” “They are so lazy.” “They only care for satellite TV, cars, sex and cigarettes.”
Our questions lead us to Gabriel. He runs a guided outreach programme. It is a simple matter. We buy and bring groceries to a willing Roma family.
We are uncomfortable Samaritans! But we go!
And our experience, albeit single, flies in the face of all that plenty of prejudice.
Gabriel is a seasoned shopper. So, in no time at all we carry bags of potatoes, celeriac, turnips, beetroot, onions, garlic and coriander; flour, pasta, soup powders, meatloaf, coffee, cool-drink, biscuits and sweets.
Now we are ready to pay a visit to the family of Ural & Herena. They live in a Gypsy settlement, near Viscre, for 18 years. And around us we see the labours of those 18 years. A home with two rooms, a storeroom, an outside pit latrine, two sheds, one for the horse and pigs and the other for a handful of sheep, a hen house, a dog kennel and plans for the future. They have no title to the land.
Ural and Herena are both 40 and have 3 children; two daughters and a son. The eldest daughter is 8 months pregnant. When we arrive, her husband meticulously cleans a carcass. The slaughter of this sheep marks the end of the Eastern Orthodox Lent and tomorrow’s Easter Sunday feast. A little later the son and younger daughter arrive. Her English is excellent!
Ural, during his compulsory military service, is a fire-fighter for the army. He doesn’t retain this job, after his service, as school education becomes a requirement. He now gets odd jobs shepherding. The elder daughter’s husband recently loses his job. They live in a one roomed shack nearby and worry sits on their faces. The young son struts and younger daughter smiles, confidently. She has a job at an airbag company and doesn’t want a baby yet. He teases her; a woman’s work is in the kitchen.
We have coffee; syrupy sweet. And a sip from a ladle of soup, that simmers on a wood stove.
They tell of the bitter winter. We tell of our dry South African summer. They show an album with photos of family celebrations, weddings and birthdays. We show photos of a recent visit to Addo Elephant Park. It’s an easy hour.
It’s clear, it’s a poor life. And its power across generations stifles us all in the room.
Our mother of the home, Herena, doesn’t smile. She is kind and giving, but doesn’t smile. I work hard, with compliments, jokes and good wishes. Her lips turn up slightly but never reach her eyes.
I grasp that the measure of your smile is a measure of your cares. They have many. Harry and I have none. We smile broadly, they don’t.
We say our goodbyes warmly. And Gabriel slips the grocery bags in, discreetly.