The Roma! Few people in the world divide public opinion as they do.
Broadly speaking, there are two views. The first sees the Roma as a parasitic underclass from eastern Europe, incapable of and uninterested in any kind of lawful gain; they scrounge a few coppers on street corners and thousands of pounds from the UK tax system, in a cynical ploy to build mansions back in Romania.
In the second, they are an abominably treated ethnic minority, victims of the Nazi holocaust and grindingly poor, who, despite their attempts to improve their situation, face a daily barrage of prejudice and discrimination from those best placed to help them.
Now, in my experience, both of these views have something in common, and that something is arms-length distance.
If the first view comes from some media images and tabloid headlines, and the second from an attempt at fair-mindedness and historical research, both normally stem from people who have never shaken a Roma hand, sat in a Roma home or visited a Roma village. But the real picture is far more complicated.
It’s a tapestry woven from very diverse threads. It was Vaclav Havel, the ex-Czech prime minister, who said that the way in which a country treats the Roma is the test of its claim to be a civilised nation. Quite so, but such civilised treatment will be both misguided and short-lived unless it bases itself on a realistic understanding of who the Roma are.
As someone who has worked with them and loves them today, I’ll start with their origins. These, historically, have been subject to much speculation. Years ago in England it was believed that Egypt was the Roma homeland (hence the term ‘gypsy’). I was once told by a Romanian Christian that Roma were the descendants of Cain, sharing as they do the music-making and metal-working skills of Genesis 4.
Their real origin, however, was only identified in 1760 when a Hungarian theology student recognised some words of the Indian language as very similar to terms used by the Roma who worked on his family’s estate.
It is important, however, not to misunderstand this. While their origin in India is a basic fact of history, it is an error to say the Roma have a homeland. No nation on earth recognises them as their own.
They are outcasts across the world, bereft of their own land and place — a people in constant flux and migration, eternal outsiders. Bury me standing was the title of one Roma work, indicative of the nomadic nature of their lives.
And then consider the holocaust. While the term Porajmos (meaning ‘The devouring’) was invented for the holocaust by modern Roma academics, no Roma person I’ve met has ever mentioned this word or indeed the event itself.
It seems erased from their memories, and perhaps just as well. Some have estimated that 1.5 million Roma were killed, often in their own villages, by Nazi death squads. The devilish interest of Dr Jozef Mengele in the Roma and his hideous experimentation upon them in Auschwitz are well documented.
Curiously, the Roma have never sought recompense for this or expressed outrage, due, some have suggested, to the fact that few had any interest in listening to them.
And then, thirdly, slavery. This evil practice was not simply restricted to people of African origin until its abolition in 1833. Until the 1850s, Roma had been enslaved in Romania for hundreds of years.
Owned by both local lords and monasteries, they were allocated as copper-workers, instrument-players, spoon-makers and bear-handlers, as well as commanded to work in salt mines.
Their price was cheap, as in 1822 there is an account of 30 being exchanged in return for a carriage. Exact numbers are unknown, but the Romanian census of 1859 sets the total number emancipated at 250,000.
And so to the Roma of today. Far from being situated solely in Romania, gypsy populations are found in countries as diverse as Brazil, Australia, Afghanistan and Chile. There, to those who know them, they are often remarkable for their fine features.
Isabella Fonseca, wife of writer Martin Amis, wrote that every gypsy village possesses at least one individual whose preternatural beauty would grace any magazine cover in the world. This is probably true. And yet their days start and end (prematurely, with a life expectancy 20 years less than many Westerners) in a world far apart from such glitz and glamour.
And yet, ask some careful observers, do they really? Sensational images of palatial Roma homes are common today, and it is certainly true that they exist.
One comment I would make in relation to the tabloid pictures is that they are certainly not the most extravagant properties. They are vast piles of expensive stonework and massive columns, finished with every kind of garish touch. Forget about modern, five-bedroom dwellings, and fill your mind with the scale and designs of Chatsworth House, and you’ll be closer to the truth.
And the number of such properties is undoubtedly increasing. We counted eight such residences in the process of construction on a single street, during a recent trip to Romania.
It is said by many that once built, they are seldom inhabited, the families preferring to live overseas or even (some say) behind the house in a caravan in the garden. But such monuments to vanity seem to be, at least subconsciously, a mega-statement against the vagrancy of previous centuries and, as such, a tragic waste of resources.
Come with me, for a moment, to a very different location, if you wish to see the truth for most Roma in Romania today. As we approach, we’ll bear in mind that 40 per cent of Roma children claim to feel hungry all the time. We’ll remember the statement of the World Bank that many Roma live in conditions below those deemed minimal for survival. And we’ll note, as we walk through the gypsy village of Batar, that it seems to have more the feel of a landfill site than a place of human habitation.
We come to the house of a couple I know well. It’s a one-roomed, mud-walled dwelling. It is the accommodation for nine, as there are seven children.
The stove, powered by burning the kernels of corn on the cob, is the only source of heat in winter. During the harvest period, Dad and his children trawl the fields to find individual grains of sweetcorn, and bring them home for a family meal. Life is unvaryingly difficult, but the Lord is near — Mum was baptised in the local Baptist church this summer.
Seeing the living conditions, one suddenly understands the Roma exodus to the UK. In Romania, many have nothing; in England, they have nothing as well, but it’s nothing with some vague hope attached — and therein lies the difference.
And here in the UK, it has been my privilege, joy and daily frustration to have worked with the Roma for almost six years now. Many come from the notorious Romanian towns of Tanderei and Fetest, and yet, I will say, it is these before all other Roma who are the most enthusiastic in attending church.
Preaching in their meetings can be quite an experience. In our polite, Reformed gatherings, we’ve all seen the occasional rough looking person enter and sit on the edge of the congregation, the ladies suddenly guarding their handbags. In Roma churches, this is the only sort of person there is.
Burly, 18-stone men with shaved heads will expect to hear the Bible preached. A visiting 18-stoner, just the same as the others but wearing a suit, will thunder that insincere professions of faith will take people to nowhere but hell.
An equally thunderous ‘Amen!’ will result from some, with sage nods of the head from others. There is real gratitude for the person of our Lord Jesus, and it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been at work amongst these people.
And yet, as is so often the case, the old nature remains. I guess old habits die hard. Let’s talk about dishonesty. Lying amongst the Roma can only be described as a cultural norm. It’s endemic in their children, and also the adults. Many Roma Christians have a battle in their consciences over it, but find it hard to break away from something they consider a survival necessity.
I once spoke with a Roma pastor about this, an intelligent, good man, and his response was revealing. With something of an apologetic smile, he differentiated between lying as a way of life and lying in order to continue life, giving me clear chapter and verse (Exodus and the midwives!). The discussion continues…
Suffering remains all too common among the Roma in the UK. For example, I remember a young boy whose parents, in typical Roma fashion, had named him after a large telecommunications company. His father, a non Christian and a rogue, had been killed in car crash entirely of his own making.
In a tragic and yet curious twist, I was later told that this man’s shoes had been stolen from his dead body before the emergency services arrived at the scene. Anyway, I was very surprised to see that the man’s death appeared to have had almost no effect upon his nine-year-old son.
He continued much as normal, with the exception of one notable occasion, when despite a touch of flu he insisted on coming with us and the other children to the park, on our regular Thursday outing. Still feeling unwell, he stayed on the minibus, where he finally broke down and sobbed continuously for two hours.
It was a pitiful, painful scene, a sorrow too deep to be shared, and heartbreaking to see. When I later took him home, he went straight to bed and, as far as I know, never spoke to anyone about the incident or showed signs of sadness again.
Sent to live with an uncle when his mother remarried, he was later badly bullied at school, some other children making a game of strangling him. Outraged, I insisted on an appointment with senior staff, only for them to end up being extremely defensive and doing nothing.
And this sums up my experience of the Roma. As a British Christian, working among them, you never quite know how they see you. Doubtless, I may be something of a friend, but I’m also a means of survival, an English voice for telephone calls and an English pen for the completion of forms.
My response when aware of this aspect? Well, sometimes slight hurt, but in the final analysis, who cares? I am convinced that, were our Lord Jesus here in bodily form today, he would have much time for the Roma.
He came not for the righteous, but to bring sinners to repentance. Those least precious in the world’s eyes were often most sought after by him. The Bible strikes a simple note and tells us he seeks lost sheep until he finds them. His servants, hearing his voice, must do the same.