No matter where you go in Dublin’s city center, and many large cities, you’ll almost always find people sitting on the street begging for their keep. You’ll see young runaways, sullen addicts, and Roma people, often referred to as gypsies.
Despite the fact that the Roma usually don’t exhibit addictions, have children with them, and maintain distinctly tidy appearances despite their meager means, it’s always the Roma people I hear my Irish friends and neighbors complaining about.
As France officially began deporting hundreds of Roma families this week, I took part in more than a few interesting conversations about this blatantly discriminatory new policy. Several of my friends were, like me, horrified, but I was surprised to see how many people fiercely supported the measure.
One friend launched into a tirade about the horrors of “the gypos.” When I pressed him to explain where his decidedly pejorative frame of mind about the Roma came from(perhaps personal experience?), he merely offered the usual, “they’re just rude, and so ignorant.”
In order to justify his bigotry, he offered, “They hurt their children to help their chances of getting more money from begging.” Did he have any proof to support such a horrid accusation? None.
It seems to me, from a purely logistical standpoint, that it would require a much more parenting to raise a disabled child on the street, rather than a perfectly healthy one. And for that matter, wouldn’t it cost more in medical bills throughout a child’s life than his parent could ever hope to earn from begging for change?
Even if that one didn’t make the most sense, he had another reason for his prejudice against them. “When you give them money, they pool it all together from all of their posts around the city and then when they get back to their camp, they divide it up.”
Well to me, that just sounds like an example of business savvy and good sharing, and certainly does not constitute evidence of crookery and inherent dishonesty, as he would have me believe.
As it so happens, I spent time with Roma people a few months ago while working on a documentary. My co-producer and I traveled around Hungary, to some of the most destitute and hopelessly impoverished slums I have ever seen. And yet I’ve never meet people as eager to open up their homes and hearts, as the Roma people in those neighborhoods.
All of the families we visited gave us three kisses on the cheeks – a Hungarian custom – and offered us coffee and literally every single scrap of food that they had.
One older woman spoke about having barely enough money to buy loaves of bread for her family members. She then laughed at the absurdity of being able to afford meat to put on those loaves. It was an awkward silence, full of shame and sorrow, that followed.
The Roma are not just poor people. They live in homes without proper heating, electricity, or sanitation.
They live in conditions that no human should have to endure, and if they were anything but Europe’s scapegoat for all of its financial problems, they wouldn’t be allowed to.
I spoke with Prof. Jack Greenberg, a civil rights attorney who spent time in South Africa during apartheid, and traveled through several Roma camps and neighborhoods. He said that the Roma living conditions were worse, by far, than any of what he saw in the South African shanty towns.
The lucky ones get out of the places where they’ve historically suffered from slavery, genocide, discrimination, and marginalization, to start anew in places like France, or Ireland.
And when they get here, they fight for every dime they get. Yes, I have had a few unpleasant experiences with Roma people aggressively begging on the street, but at the end of the day, if I had to rely on the charity of other people to feed my children, I’d fight tooth and nail to get any money I could out of our ungenerous citizenry.
A few days ago, I met had a chance meeting with a Hungarian living in Ireland. So I excitedly told him that I had traveled all around his country, documenting the plight of the Roma people. His facial expression turned from one of delight to disgust. “The Roma people?” he offered with a condescending snort.
“Have you been to any of the jails?” Well, no. “They’re full of Roma people.”
Interesting. I spoke about how a legacy of poverty and endless discrimination and marginalization leads to hopelessness, and often, in turn, crime. He cut me off, “The police over there, they are afraid to arrest anybody because they’ll say, hey you’re just doing it because I’m Roma.” He finished this last bit with a satisfied imitation of someone playing the “poor me” card.
I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized that didn’t make any sense.
“Well,” I asked, “are the jails full of Roma people, or are the cops afraid to arrest them? It can’t be both.”
He had no answer for this. He, like millions of others all around the world, had been fed a bunch of tripe about people that are different, and being inclined to dislike what it unfamiliar, he agreed to allow every reason he was given, to support his theory. Even if they were literally contradictory and illogical.
Discrimination is never logical. Nor is it permissible.