Annual conference of Roma students

On July 2-3, 2013 annual conference of Roma students – recipients of scholarships from Roma educational fund was held in Saint Petersburg. More than 50 people from various regions of Russia, Moldova and the Ukraine had a chance to meet each other, report about their progress and discuss common problems. Since this year the conference was organized by ADC “Memorial”, the program featured lectures and seminars devoted to the problem of defending the rights of minorities, the rights of Roma people in Russia and other ex-USSR countries, as well as European and international standards in the field of human rights.

In this issue of the Bulletin we publish remarks of various Russian students who had received scholarships of the Roma educational fund regarding the situation of Roma people in Russia, discrimination and the possibilities for integration of Roma minority, as well as their own professional career.

Yekaterina Abalmas (Tula):

In order for the integration of Roma people to be successful, first of all its necessity should be understood by the people themselves. I say so because each day I witness rather unsuccessful experience of this integration. I live in Plekhanovo (Tula region), which has one of the largest Roma settlements in Russia. An average family in the settlement consists of a father, a mother and four children. Men are usually occupied with collecting scrap metal for further resale to recyclers, while women take care of the kids, clean the house, cook food, wash clothes. In the evening they can visit their relatives. Children are running around by themselves all day long.

The main holiday for our people is wedding. Marriages are made in Roma settlements at very early age. There are usually a lot of children in the family, and before they have even grown up – here comes another wedding! Wedding is a change in status, children start appearing and this goes on and on in circles. One has an impression that people who live in the Roma settlement are self-sufficient and that they have everything they need at hand. But they often forget that there is life outside the Roma settlement. What integration can we talk about in this case?

Roma people who don’t live in Roma settlements feel themselves very well in the Russian society. I don’t mean to say that they have fully assimilated – they still observe various customs and traditions. Ethnic originality of each people is very important, otherwise the whole world will wear the same clothes, listen to the same music and drink Coca-Cola. I’m part of the Chișinău ethnic group of Roma. My ancestors stopped settling collectively with other people from this group sometime in the 1920s. Many of my brothers and sisters now study. We are esteemed by Russians and we have esteem for them. We don’t have the same problems with integration as the people from Căldărari group (who make up most of the population in a local Roma settlement). Why is that so? How can we help them? Is the very fact of compact living in the settlement the source of the problem?

I think that we should look for explanation of the problem not somewhere far and in the abstract, but in people themselves. In order to solve the problem, it should be realized first. All the citizens of the Russian Federation have equal access to social services and education at all levels, same as equal possibilities for participating in the political life of the country, but somehow people from this Roma settlement have no interest in this. How can this interest be increased? Honestly, I don’t know. I try to show with my own example that to study means to open new horizons for oneself, to get to know the world, to feel oneself part of this world. And you should care about what goes one in your country in the same way you care about what happens in your family. One should participate in the elections because one’s vote can change the fate of the country. I work as a secretary for the polling station №150 – it is located in the “Roma school” [school where Roma kids study], right in the Roma settlement. I hope that all the adult dwellers of the settlement will participate in the elections of the mayor of Plekhanovo.

Einar Galey (Moscow):

It is very often that the issue of discrimination against Roma people is raised during various events of the Roma community. But I don’t like that the very people who raised this issue and spoke of various ways to solve the problem the next day lose their heart and don’t translate their words into action. Why does this happen?

That’s so because of the enormous fuss in our society, people are afraid to do anything but earning money. We see each other at some parties more often than when we get together in order to do something serious. We should look for informal leaders of our ethnic group, who are able to call people to grow, first of all in terms of personal growth. Unfortunately only a couple of Roma people in Russia do this and there are no young people among them. We need a leader with some moral authority – similar to Martin Luther King for Black Americans of his times. If they managed to get out of the hole of racism and discrimination, maybe we will be able to do the same, too. Our problems will not cease to exist by themselves.

As for myself, I only heard negative remarks about my ethnicity on a couple of occasions. And I always tried to point out that the stereotypes about Roma people are just that – stereotypes – and that our culture is much more vast than people imagine.

Unfortunately I often meet Roma people, who pretend that they are something else, for example that they are some people from the Caucasus. This can be explained by the fact that youth from Caucasus is more united than Roma youth, and that our youth looks forward to some support, which it doesn’t find among its own people. I know a lot of Ph.D.’s among Roma, they are wonderful people. But it seems that the majority of Roma people who manage to get a similar status don’t disclose their ethnic origin or even try to hide it. I think that this destroys the whole of the people and the very persons who act in such a way and change their own popular culture for the culture of other peoples. We begin to forget our songs and how to dance the Roma dance.

The rights of different people are equal according to the law in different countries. And if the rights of a Roma person are violated, it is the human rights in general that are violated. Roma people should know what the human rights are. Many of the problems that our ethnic group has at the moment are due to ignorance. There are very few well-educated people among us. Unfortunately it is all too often that 15-year old children already have to earn money for their families. I don’t deny the fact that practical life is more important than theories, but we, Roma students, have to show to young people that another way of life is possible.

Ramina Voytekhovskaya (Smolensk):

After finishing the art school with specialization in piano and the secondary school, I decided not to stop and tried to go further. “Why have I attended the musical school for seven years – in order for my certificate to gather dust somewhere?” – I told myself. Without thinking for too long, I decided to enter the vocal faculty of the musical school.

I successfully passed entrance exams, studied for four years and finally an important moment arrived – preparing for final exams. I listened to the recordings of the vocal parties that I chose times and times again, studied biographies of composers, watched videos, started acting and voice classes, to put it short, I tried my best. And then came the marvellous day when my teacher proposed that I take part in a competition.

I must say that I had visited such competitions on numerous occasions and I knew how they strengthen the singers. This was also an opportunity for me to make a “mock” exam and I agreed to do so. In January 2012 I became a laureate of the second festival competition “New Heights” in Nizhny Novgorod. Later I got the diploma cum laude after finishing the musical school. After successfully performing my program at the state exam, the teacher, who inspected us, offered to me to enter the Gnesin Russian Academy of Music in Moscow.

Although I’m in love with the arts, times and priorities change as time goes by. Now I dream of becoming a certified specialist in law and take part not in musical competitions, but scientific conferences devoted to legal issues.

Roma are people with their own traditions, culture, history, kitchen and, unfortunately, with a very low level of education and social integration in the countries where they live. What are the methods for solving our problems? I believe that the main reason why Roma people are often presented in other peoples’ eyes in some bad light is that Roma families often lead a very closed way of life, that some Roma parents prevent their children from playing with other kids, that they don’t let their children to enter kindergartens and schools, not to mention the possibility of getting higher education for Roma girls, which many people consider to be a serious violation of the Roma tradition.

People from other ethnic backgrounds who live side by side with Roma, are not aware of how Roma children are brought up, what are the lives of their parents, etc. “If you don’t behave yourself, I will give you to the Gypsies” – these are the words which are said in order to get the kids scared, make them behave themselves and prevent them from being in contact with Roma people. But this can be changed. In order to be accepted by the world, you have to make first step yourself, you have to open up to the world. Children should first go to the kindergarten, because it is there that the child’s psychology positively adapts to the upcoming changes. Adult Roma should be more active in public life of their town, quarter, the country as a whole – they should participate in elections, come to meet the elected officials, participate in public meetings devoted to various most important social issues. I think such a plan for action can put Roma people on the same level with other ethnic groups in terms of education and provide for equal access of Roma people to social services.

I don’t propose that Roma people forget about their roots, I only want that Roma, same as people of other ethnicities, could at the same time observe their traditions and not create obstacles for the development of their own people – at least in such an important field as getting education.