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Getting Personal with Roma Communities

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Erin Clowes remembers being troubled by the poor treatment of Roma people (more commonly known as Gypsies) during a visit to Italy 18 years ago.  She had a similar reaction while leading a UW program in Rome in 2012, and vowed that she would one day teach a course focused on Roma identity.

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UW students and members of the local Roma community came together for a special exhibition and dinner in Rome. Media credit: Marco Baroncini

She didn’t have long to wait.

This winter, Clowes offered  CHID 470: Deconstructing Identities: Roma Identity Discourse as part of a study abroad program in Rome, Budapest, and Prague.  UW Italian Studies Professor Ruggero Taradel taught the program’s other two courses, which explored the various empires that had ruled the region throughout history. “When I learned that Ruggero was planning to visit three cities with significant Roma populations, I saw an opportunity to add this component of identity,” says Clowes, part-time lecturer in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID)program, which offered the study abroad opportunity.

Throughout the quarter Clowes assigned academic articles about Roma identity, but she also wanted  students to have firsthand contact with the Roma community. “In previous trips to Rome, I saw how easily my students absorbed the racism against the Roma population,” she explains. “They bought into it because it is the dominant discourse among Italians. In Rome, it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say anything derogatory about Roma people without being questioned. I wanted my students to duck under the labels assigned to the Roma community and get to know the people themselves.” 

Connecting with Roma Youth through Art

Thanks to professors Marco Brazzoduro and Adriana Goni Mazzitelli in Rome, Clowes was able to bring together UW students and the Roma community—as well as a handful of non-Roma Italians—on several occasions, starting with a collaborative art project at the UW’s Rome Center.  Using cameras and a printer donated by the UW Pipeline Project, 12 Roma children, 4 non-Roma youth, and the UW’s 24 students snapped photos of each other, then created artworks that reflected their individual dreams for the future. 

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UW students work on an art project with Roma and non-Roma youth at the UW's Rome Center. Media credit: Marco Baroncini

English-Italian translators were on hand during the visit, but some Roma youth did not speak Italian, complicating matters. “We did a lot of miming,” says Clowes.  UW history majors Alison Roth and Will Holland found another way to foster communication: they invited Roma kids to kick a soccer ball around. “Playing soccer with the kids was my favorite moment from the course,” says Holland. “We didn’t need language—just a ball and an area for a goal. I have a belief that sporting events can have a huge impact on lives, and can really bring people together. It was neat to examine this idea and then watch it take flight as I was able to connect with the kids without the use of language.”

The following week the UW students visited several Roma camps where the children lived. Rather than charter a bus, Clowes had them take public transportation, followed by a long walk, to reach the camps. “I wanted them to experience what it means to be on the periphery, to be pushed completely out of society,” explains Clowes. “The students were exhausted by the time we got there.”

I wanted my students to duck under the labels assigned to the Roma community and get to know the people themselves.

And nervous. They knew the Roma were desperately poor, and worried how that would translate to their physical surroundings.  The visit did not ease their minds. “Visiting their community was definitely hard,” says Roth. “You could tell that it was not a safe or proper living environment for people, especially the children. Large stray dogs roamed the camp . There were parts that were deemed ‘unsafe’ to visit by our hosts. The trash struck me the most—huge piles of it everywhere."

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At the dinner and exhibition in Rome, UW student Mackenzie Teddy, far right, serves a meal that she and other students prepared with Roma women. Media credit: Marco Baroncini

Despite the conditions, the Roma were gracious hosts, with the grandmother of one Roma girl serving everyone coffee.  “It was a really humbling moment for the students, to be in the home of someone who was barely getting by but whose generosity was so obvious,” says Clowes.

The Rome portion of the course wrapped up with an exhibition of the artworks created by the Roma and non-Roma youth and the UW students. The event, held at a community center near the Roma camps, featured a meal prepared by UW and Roma volunteers, with Roma musicians providing entertainment.   “I loved the dinner and exhibit,” says Roth. “While our cultures, backgrounds, and standards of living may be different, it gave us a chance to set those differences aside and just enjoy being in each others’ presence.”

A Different Life: Roma Intellectuals

When the program moved on to Budapest, a city in which Roma are the largest minority, the UW students discovered a very different Roma experience—a community of university-educated Roma intellectuals. With the help of Hungarian Roma art historian Timea Junghaus, Clowes organized a gathering that brought together UW and Roma graduate students to share stories about their lives.

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In Budapest, Roma activist and art historian Timea Junghaus, left, shares her life story with UW students. Media credit: Erin Clowes

“In Italy, we were connecting with the very impoverished and marginalized Roma community,” says Clowes. “In Budapest, we were connecting with a more educated demographic. I felt this was important, to show the students that the whole idea of defining a Roma identity is problematic, that our labels are fiction.” Clowes is quick to point out that despite the presence of an educated Roma population in Budapest (thanks to the Roma Access Programs at the Central European University), segregation remains common in Hungarian schools and Hungarian Roma face a 90 percent unemployment rate.

Holland remembers being surprised during the Budapest visit. “The Roma we met in Budapest had very different lives than those in Rome,” he says. “They seemed more interested in getting an education—an ideal I didn’t see too often in Rome. I no longer had a single view of what it means to be Roma.”

The program wrapped up with a short visit in Prague, where the students met Tomas Rafa, an activist artist who—though not Roma himself—challenges the negative discourse about the Roma people through his art, emphasizing the need for dialogue between the majority population and the Roma minority. Rafa’s recent work, which integrates the Roma wheel symbol into the Czech flag as a statement of inclusion, has sparked controversy: the right wing party in Prague filed a motion against Rafa that led to charges of defamation of the flag.

Identity and Prejudice Reconsidered

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Alessandra Furnari, facilitator and translator for the UW group in Rome, displays art with Roma participant Marta Sejdovic. UW student Morgan Lee, far right, displays another artwork. Media credit: Marco Baroncini

All of these visits, coupled with assigned readings by Roma academics and activists, not only introduced students to the complexity of Roma identity but also broadened their perspectives on identity and prejudice closer to home. “They were recognizing their own privilege in ways they hadn’t before,” says Clowes. “In the discussions they led each week, based on our readings and experiences, they began to see multiple layers in the stereotyping of Roma people and then gracefully translate that to the stereotyping we do at home.”

Clowes was consistently impressed with the students, whose majors ranged from business to economics to communication to CHID.  There were many unknowns with the new course (which will be offered again during Winter Quarter 2015), but Clowes found that the students “were always game” despite last minute changes and difficult situations. “With the communities we were working with, things tended to be very fluid,” she says. “There were changes in the agenda almost daily, and the students were willing to just roll with it. I will be forever grateful.”

The feeling is mutual. “I’m so grateful to Erin for setting up these experiences for us to have,” says Holland. “This course was one of the more amazing things I have ever done.”

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Several UW students are working with Roman translator Alessandra Furnari to help fund a re-use market from donated materials for the Roma community in Rome. For more information, visit the campaign’s fundraising site on Indiegogo.com.