When I was fist asked, now years ago, to address a small group of people to talk about a subject I have now been writing about for over 10 years, namely to talk about Gypsies, Roma as they are rightfully called now, a matronly lady piped up from the back row asking “aren’t those the ones that steal?” Not once, but interrupting my initially rather academic talk, over and over again, with “aren’t they the ones that steal?” Until, I finally stopped my neatly prepared little talk and rather sharply retorted, “Have they ever stolen from you, personally, Mrs……?” The lady blushed, and I continued with my talk.
The other day in the dog park, I was talking to an educated gentleman, a cosmopolitan European about the present persecutions of European Roma, when to my surprise he started telling me how “these people pick a village clean”. Taken aback, and at this point passionately involved in the Roma cause, I asked him, “please tell me what you have personally witnessed along those accusations toward the Gypsy people!” The next day he approached me and said, “I personally have not witnessed anything of the sort, I guess I have fallen into the trap of repeating prejudicial beliefs.”
Now I want to go over to other side. Imagine yourself being born Roma. Two very close friends of mine, both highly intelligent, both evangelical pastors, both of them had not been denied the privilege of formal education, both self-taught and intellectual by nature. They talked to me about the pain of being dismissed as inferior, even criminal by birth - declared criminal without any justification.
One person close to me actually was pick-pocketed by Gypsy kids in the streets of Rome. I had to explain to him the why. Gypsies in Italy arriving from the Baltic states where they have a history of slavery and severe marginalization, are denied all rights, all possibilities to earn an honest living. The children learn how to steal to survive, because they cannot be thrown into jail. If the parents get caught, leaving their children behind, they will starve to death.
As I have written before, during the war, when food and shelter meant survival, I knew not one person who did not steal. I did. Even the Catholic declared that “Mundraub”, stealing food for survival was not a sin.
Branding a Roma thief at birth is to inflict a deep and lasting wound, a handicap that is hard to overcome. Here in America we have about a million Roma. On a recent radio interview my host remarked “One doesn’t ever read about them in the papers over here,” meaning criminal activity. “That’s because,” I said, “given only the slightest chance they are like everybody else. They are Americans first, Roma by inherited culture; a beautiful culture which I am trying hard to give justice to.”
Prejudice is a dangerous phenomenon. Prejudice can kill, it is killing Roma in Europe as I am writing this. Do not be a silent by-stander, stand up for human rights for all.