Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Identity in Question: Ponderings of an American College Student on the Roma in Europe

Source: http://www.caglecartoons.com/viewimage.asp?ID=%7b510400C0-F140-4533-8032-F958953E3670%7d
Did you know that the Roma/Gypsies are from India? Neither did I, until recently. It never ceases to amaze me how often I find that studying at a university often proves how much more I still have to learn. Some of my favorite points in my University experience have been the moments when phenomena have suddenly made sense: facts learned about history have clarified world events; studying a communication action I had taken for granted demonstrated how complex our human interactions really are; meeting someone with a certain group identity caused that group to no longer be an “other”, but instead a personal contact, or even a friend.

On October 20, 2011 through the EU Lecture series I experienced one of these wonderful “learning moments” while attending a lecture on the Roma. I attended because I had briefly heard of the Roma while studying abroad. Due to my interest in the human experience in an intercultural context, I wanted to learn more about the situation of this particular group of people. The speaker, Gabor Daróczi (director of the Romaversitas Foundation), caught my attention with a new fact right at the start: the Roma are believed to have come from India. My perspective on the Roma instantly evolved from being a vague idea about a small group of people I believed I had heard about in eastern Europe, to a real life representative in front of me, to an expanded idea of a broad group of people who were not simply European, but could trace their roots to another continent, and even now are described as having no common European home.

Mr. Daróczi explained the Roma are an “ethnic minority”, or a group of people who have no single common homeland. He explained that the Roma have homelands all over Europe, and that migration plays a role in the group’s historical and present day customs as well. With some groups of the Roma also known as Gypsies, I was interested to understand the variations among groups of Roma, mentioned by Mr. Daróczi, as differentiated by factors such as language, religion and trade. 

It was interesting to learn that the concerns the Roma have are similar to concerns of minorities within the US. Recent events show that, as seen from the experiences of minority groups in America as well, inter-ethnic or inter-racial relations can become easily heated. Recently, the French government decided to send thousands of Romani, who were found to be living illegally in France, back to the lands from which they appear to have emigrated, namely Romania and Bulgaria, after a series of unfortunate events. These events included clashes with police and findings of prostitution and illegal trafficking in illegal Roma camps, according to a BBC news article in October 2010. The European Union voiced disagreement with France’s decision, citing not only basic discrimination but also the European Union’s commitment to allow free movement of people between member states. The situation remains difficult, due to uncertainty about whether the French government is sending these people out of the country simply because they are living there illegally or whether the government is specifically targeting those who identify as Roma, as explained in the same BBC article. The situation becomes even more intense when considered through a historical lens, which challenges us to remember the Roma as another ethnic group deported to concentration camps and murdered by the Nazis during World War II, as discussed by Mr. Daróczi. Obviously, as in any racial or ethnic situation, the debate is complex and perplexing, leaving a student such as myself with even more questions for which to seek out answers.

With one more excellent “college moment” to add to my experience, I left Mr. Daróczi’s presentation with a better awareness of another group of people, as well as even more questions to continue on my path of a lifetime of learning.

Additional Resources:

BBC News. (19. Oct. 2010). “Q & A: France Roma expulsions”.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11027288

EU Observer.com (30. Sept. 2011). “EU executive leaves Roma problem to France”. http://euobserver.com/22/113779

EUROPA Website (n.d.). “Basic information on the European Union”. http://europa.eu/about-eu/basic-information/index_en.htm

EUROPA Website. (02. July 2008) Memo. “EU instruments and policies for Roma inclusion” http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/08/462&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en

Laura Gallant is completing her M.A. degree in Communication, with an emphasis on International and Intercultural Communication, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She graduated with her B.A. in Communication and in German-Commercial Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December 2010. During the academic year 2008-2009 she studied abroad with the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program in Vienna, Austria, completing courses at the University of Vienna and the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Her research interests include communication between universities and international students. 

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