by Ben Judah
A bedraggled six-year-old boy races toward me, palms open, as I climb out of my car. “Give me two dollars or I will piss on your car,” he shouts. Such is my introduction to the Roma village of Barbulesti, just 35 miles from the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Except for the occasional vehicle, Barbulesti resembles Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of 16th-century peasant life: Animals and humans wander along rutted dirt streets lined with wood and stone houses. It is in these impoverished, tucked-away places that the Roma are most often found.
“I do not know why it happened, but we are not in the same line as the rest of the world,” says Dorel in a hoarse voice. He’s one of several men milling around the gates of an old school on this cold, clear day. He is an unshaven Roma in his fifties, with eyes prematurely filmed over by thick, milky cataracts. “I do not know what made us, where we came from or who we are—only that we are gypsies in Barbulesti,” he says. He uses, as do most of the Roma I meet, the old pejorative, which is associated with the Greek atsinganoi for “untouchable” as opposed to the more politically correct Roma, the Romani plural of rom, meaning man or husband.
Tied together through Romani, their mother tongue, and loosely organized in insular tribes, the Roma have traditionally served as craftsmen, musicians or seasonal hired hands, and have a reputation throughout Europe as thieves and swindlers. Believed to have left India for Persia in the 5th century, they have been part of the backdrop of Europe since at least the 14th century. Whether nomadic or settled in communities such as Barbulesti throughout southern and eastern Europe, largely in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece, they often go unseen or ignored by the rest of society.
This cloak of near invisibility has dropped over the past decade. In an era when Europe’s birth rates have fallen to record lows, Roma numbers are exploding: There are an estimated 11 million Roma today, more than the population of Sweden or Austria. Europe’s changing political tableau—in particular, the integration of the former Soviet bloc nations into the European Union—has also drawn attention to the Roma. Like many other new EU citizens, the Roma have migrated westward to countries such as France and Italy in search of better opportunities. There, they congregate in camps, living in trailers and tents, sustaining themselves and their families through farm work or begging.
The creation of the European Union brought new programs and protections for Europe’s minorities, but the long recession has rendered E.U. institutions increasingly fragile; Brussels, Schengen, Maastrich and Strasbourg are all struggling. As the currency crisis, unemployment and stagnant economic growth cast shadows of gloom, persecution of—and even violent attacks against—the Roma have increased, and individual nations have been emboldened to take unilateral action. In a move condemned by the European Commission, the Vatican and the United Nations, French President Nicolas Sarkozy exploited a legal loophole in 2010 to begin rounding up and deporting Roma who are not French citizens to the new member states in Eastern Europe, giving deportees 300 euro (about $430) to return to their country of origin. Sarkozy is not alone. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi clamped down on the Roma as well, demolishing shanties in Rome in an effort to push them out of the city.
They have nowhere to go but back to places like Barbulesti. There, Dorel leads me to some of the young men who have just been deported from France. We bounce along the poorly paved road to their village. “Here in the village our tribe is the Ursari,” Dorel says. “My grandparents used to be with the dancing bears.” He smiles at the distant memory of the old Roma tradition of leading bears on their hind legs and forcing them to shake or “dance.” “They would wander for a few days and come back. But the bears were stopped by the Communists in the 1960s. That was when our traditional skill was taken away.”
A gang of leather-jacketed young men—mostly teenagers—smoking and loitering outside a bus station comes into view. Dorel waves. The gang—maybe 12 or 15—rushes to the car, clamoring to tell their stories. The eldest, Nicolae Chelu, a professional beggar in his twenties, exhorts: “I was expelled from France the day Sarkozy came to power. The police came and said, ‘Gypsy out!’ I am now banned from France. They sent me back on a plane. As it took off I sat there thinking—now I am going back to poverty.”
As he speaks, a horse and cart pass, and I hear the word gadjo—the Roma word for a non-Roma, similar to the Yiddish-Hebrew term goy—hurled at me. Another teenager emerges from the pack. “Sarkozy is a racist,” he begins. His name is Gheorge Daniel and he too came back after the great roundup. “The police were chasing us from the squares, so I enlisted to be sent back,” he says. “Otherwise they’d have caught me anyway. I want to go back as soon as possible. Not all French people are racist. There is a good life there for a gypsy.”
There are smirks and grins among the members of the gang. I get back into the car but young Gheorge follows me, mournfully blurting out: “Parlez vous Francais?”
Gheorge, and most of these teenagers, not to mention the six-year-old who threatened to urinate on my car, should have been in school, but parents, I learn, regularly pull their children out of school to work. As a result, a large number of Roma are illiterate. “Our value system as Roma is negative toward education,” says Elena Ion, a Roma woman who has attended university and has come back to the village to teach at the school, which has no central heat and paint peeling off its walls. Dressed in city clothes, she is one of the few Roma women I talk to who does not seem beaten down by the Romas’ patriarchal society. “School is the only way out of poverty, but Roma do not understand why they should study,” she says. One UNESCO report puts the illiteracy rate at a staggering 30 percent, as compared to near total literacy rates among the general Romanian public. “They think since there are no jobs and no place for a Roma here or in France—why bother? There is nothing and nowhere for us.” She looks out the school window at the men on the street. “When you are Roma there is always…this loneliness feeling.”