Roma Culture and Discrimination in Greece

The past week has been one of the most academically and emotionally challenging weeks of my life.  Monday through Thursday were packed with a full daily agenda that included debriefs, interviews, visits, discussions and mediation.  We spoke with lawyers, government officials, police chiefs, prosecutors, business owners, teachers and professors from the non-Roma community.  We also spoke with Roma from the Roma Association in Nafplio and a Roma camp near Athens.

As our study of discrimination got started with a seminar at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies the previous Friday, I became concerned that we may not hear from the Roma side at all.  The speakers were from the local non-Roma community and painted a picture of the Roma that made them sound like they wanted nothing to do anyone outside of their community.  Indeed, it was unclear from our program director how much time we would be spending with the Roma or if we would hear from them at all.

The voices we heard described the Roma as coming from a culture very different than what the non-Roma Greeks and other Western societies were used to.  Stealing was described as part of their culture, as was not wearing shoes and living in tents.  Some speakers went so far as to claim that the Roma had tons of money and received additional funding from the government.  It was hard to believe what they were telling us, and the story got odder and odder with each speaker.  There was even talk of child abuse: not letting children go to school, not giving them proper clothing and health care, etc.  These discussions left me perturbed with the entire program, I didn’t want to come here and change their culture.  Furthermore, I didn’t want to meddle in their affairs uninvited.  If they didn’t want to see me, who am I to barge in?

Toward the end of the week, we began hearing the other side of the story and learning that a lot of what we heard previously was either entirely or at least partially untrue.  I was reminded of the current ‘Fake News’ epidemic in America.  We went to schools that Roma children attended, spoke with their teachers and also met with a group from the Roma Association.  What I saw was not a culture of isolation and distain for popular Greek values, but the life of the very poor and marginalized.  These were not people basking in wealth and uninterested in jobs or education.  The parents wanted their children to go to school, but struggled to put shoes on their feet and food in their bellies.  Government aid was non-existent.  There were no school busses serving Roma camps and most families lacked cars or money to put gas in them.  If they had the opportunity to live in a house instead of a tent, they took it – but most didn’t have that choice.

Of course, there are criminals and drug addicts in the Roma community, but that is not their culture – it’s just as much a problem in non-Roma Greek society as it is among the Roma.  The only significant cultural difference I noticed was the practice of wedding at a young age and having children.  Seen from the Western eye, this is strange and problematic.  Children are frequently wed at age 15 and immediately begin forming a family.  At the same time, they stop attending school if they were lucky enough to be going to one in the first place.  Some parents told us they have their children wait until they are 20 to be married so that they are able to receive a better education.  Of course, being poor and having children exacerbates financial strain, but I struggle to accept the solution being that they stop having children.

As for the other things claimed by the non-Roma Greeks to be part of Roma culture, I see these as no more than a way to mask intensive institutional racism.  The non-Roma Greeks use this narrative of a culture that rejects Western values to justify discrimination.  Being poor and unable to clothe and feed their children is not ‘cultural’ at all, it’s living in poverty.  Having a government that creates laws so that Roma do not have the same opportunities for education and employment as non-Roma is institutional racism.  The situation in Greece makes me both sad and angry.  I heard from non-Roma Greeks about how exotic they thought Roma culture was and how they envied the “free people.”  In reality, what they envied was a fantasy in their heads.  The Roma themselves have the same basic needs as every other human and the non-Roma Greeks need to get their heads out of the clouds and realize how their self-induced fantasy is perpetuating a system of discrimination.

Our program concluded with a visit to a Roma camp that had me holding back tears the entire time.  How can you not walk among these people and see the inescapable poverty that comprises their daily lives?  Yes, Greece is suffering a tremendous economic depression, but that is not justification for institutional racism.  The people we saw had nothing more than clothes on their backs and makeshift shelters.  They try to get electricity, but the government calls it illegal and cuts the wiring.  They apply for legal electricity service, but the government says their houses don’t meet code so they can’t receive it.  We literally saw a school bus drive through their camp with non-Roma children, that didn’t stop for the Roma kids.  The community leader was welcoming but clear about his disdain for the way that the Greek government treats them, acting with the goal of exterminating them rather than helping them.  The children were the most uplifting, but also the reason why I was holding back tears.  They had so much energy and joy, they loved to see us, play with us and tell us (through translation) that they can’t understand what we’re saying.  Their eyes are filled with love and hope.

It was difficult to see all of this and know that there was very little I could do to change anything.  One question I tried to ask as often as I could from the Roma was “How can we help you?”  The answer was consistently “Share what you learn here back in America.”  And so this blog post is the first of my efforts to do just that.  I think we always need to be careful when we hear people speak about “cultural difference” and make sure they aren’t using it as a mask for racism.  I also think that expecting those living in destitute poverty to pull themselves up the economic ladder is unrealistic, especially when their own government is working hard to prevent them from moving up.  Both Roma children and adults must be given access to education, basic health services and work opportunities so they can put food on the table and have reasonable living conditions.  When looking at the budget of the Greek government, the cost of providing these basic services takes up a miniscule percentage.  There is no good excuse for allowing the Roma to continue suffering.

Our program co-directors, Dr. Taso Lagos and Dr. Nektaria Klapaki from the Jackson School of International Studies, are working to develop one or more legacy projects in addition to their ongoing research on discrimination in Greece.  When considering how I might contribute to a legacy project, I was particularly inspired by the discussion of how important poetry and music are to the Roma.  One member of the Roma community told us that his uncle taught himself to read and write in Greek and hopes to soon publish his first book of poems.  He also told us that the Roma Association is working with the Municipality of Nafplio to organize a summer music festival featuring Roma singers.  I am hopeful that I can find a way to help amplify the voice of the Roma through their art, both in Greece and in America.  I’m looking forward to working with Dr. Lagos and Dr. Klapaki on this project.

My experience with the ten-day study abroad program in Greece has been truly life-changing.  The opportunity to travel, see the beautiful places and historic sites as well as meet the people was unique and wonderful on its own, but what made the experience life-changing was the hands-on academic component studying discrimination.  This program has left me with thoughts and ideas I never could have gained in a classroom.  I hope that my story helps inspire others to incorporate study abroad into their education.

Our group with a Roma community outside of Athens.

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