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. There are the young runaways, the sullen addicts, and then there are 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 the Roma I hear my Irish friends and neighbors complaining about the most.
Since France officially began deporting hundreds of Roma families this week, I’ve taken part in more than a few interesting conversations. Several of my friends were, like me, horrified by the measure, but I was surprised to find that many people wholly supported the idea of involuntary deportations.
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.”
Besides, he explained, “They hurt their children to help their chances of getting more money from begging.”
Did he have any proof to support such an accusation? None.
It seems to me that it would logically require 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 his parents more in lifelong medical treatments than they could ever hope to earn begging for change?
Even if that one didn’t make the most sense, he had another reason for his prejudice. “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, that just sounded like an example of business savvy, or good sharing at least; hardly evidence of crookery and inherent dishonesty, as he would have me believe.
I spent time with Roma people a few months ago while working on a documentary about them. 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 more eager to open up their homes and hearts to me, a perfect stranger with a video camera, than the Roma 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 piece of food they had in their cubboards.
One older woman spoke about having barely enough money to buy loaves of bread to feed her family, and then laughed at the idea of being able to buy meat to put on those loaves. It was an awkward silence, full of shame and sorrow on my and my colleagues’ part, that followed. We had eat sandwiches for lunch, and the likes of big chicken dinners, every night that week.
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 a convenient scapegoat for Europe’s 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; he had also traveled through several Roma camps and neighborhoods in recent years. He described the living conditions in Roma camps and neighborhoods as worse than anything he had seen 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, many are agressive when it comes to asking for money or food. I have had a few unpleasant experiences with Roma people pushing too far when begging or responding to my donations with ingratitude, but I often wonder how pushy I would be if I had to rely on the charity of other people to feed my children.
I bet I’d fight tooth and nail to get any money I could out of my fellow man. Maybe I wouldn’t be so polite if I saw people all around me wasting food and wearing pricey clothes while I spent my days worrying whether my family would end up going to bed hungry.
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.”
I started to speak 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 a person 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 is 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.