Growing Up Roma

When I was nine years old I realized I was different and did not know why. I had always been a happy child. I had many friends in school. But this all changed in the fifth grade.

In Bulgaria, like many parts of Eastern Europe, Roma children often don’t have access to quality education. Roma children in segregated schools graduate without knowing how to read or write. In my hometown, we have a segregated primary school up until the fourth grade. That school was only 100 meters from my house but my mother would not let me go there. She knew I would not receive a good education and so she enrolled me at the public school for Bulgarian students.

Her decision was not easy. The trip to and from school was difficult. Even my father and my grandparents did not agree with her decision. They did not understand why I should go to a school so far away from my home and be separated from my cousins. But my mother knew why. She knew that education was key. My mother tried to protect me from being mocked by the children at school. My parents agreed only to speak to me in Bulgarian so that I would not develop an accent. But they could only protect me so much.

When I was in the fifth grade, the Roma children from my neighborhood began attending my school. They were my friends from my neighborhood and so I spoke to them and played with them. But one by one my classmates drew back from me when they saw me interacting with the new Roma kids. They pointed to me and called me “gypsy.” I did not know why. Was it something bad? Why did they think I am different? I felt guilty, as if I had done something wrong.

From that point on I faced insults, humiliation, and aggressive behavior from my classmates and even from some teachers. I never told my parents or shared with anyone what was happening at school. I felt ashamed.

Despite these difficult years I always had my mother encouraging me to continue my education. I graduated high school and began studying journalism at Sophia University. But even at the university I could not escape people’s prejudices. At my very first lecture the students began discussing “stinky gypsies.” For a moment I worried that I had been recognized. But they did not know I am Roma. It never crossed their minds that there would be a Roma student attending school with them.

It was at the university that I became interested in the history, language, and culture of Roma people. I read books about Roma history, and I had the chance to meet other students, teachers, journalists, and intellectuals of Roma origin. After I graduated, I began working as a reporter for the Roma newspaper Drom Dromendar. Soon I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of. I am a Roma woman, and I am proud of who I am.

Many of my peers do not share this view. Many young Roma today grow up without ever learning about their history or who they really are. Many successful Roma hide from their true identity. They hide just like I did. Deeply rooted stereotypes in our society made us feel like second-class citizens; like we are not part of society and that we only belong in ghettos and mahalas.

The Roma are Europe’s larges minority group. They suffer from high rates of illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty. Yet we do not have a targeted or coordinated approach to deal with this problem. Europe cannot ignore the Roma any longer.

Europe needs to provide access to quality education for all children. Despite rulings ordering reform by the European Court of Human Rights against the Czech Republic, Greece, and, just last month, Croatia, Roma are regularly denied equal access to education. Europe must begin challenging issues of identity—making sure that schoolchildren learn about each other, about their differences, and about the fact that diversity is not bad. On the contrary, diversity is something that enriches everyone.

My mother’s decision to send me to the public school changed my life. Now I work to help change the lives of other young Roma. At the Open Society Institute I help young Roma from Central and Eastern Europe obtain internships and educational training. These opportunities teach young Roma how to become their own best advocates and better their community.

But we can’t do this alone. Europe together with us must be committed to ensuring that all Roma have equal access to quality education—and expand and consolidate a new generation of Roma women and men who will lead their community to a real change in all public spheres of their life.

45 Comments

Violeta, I admire your courage.

Best of luck!
Bisser

Dear Violeta,

Thank you for sharing this account. We need to see that all persons in the world access education. Its the primary purpose for people to learn how to relate and development themselves. They can only do this through education!

Barry-Sign Language interpreter

Great blog. Violeta, you and I are fighting the same injustice. I am in America. I am a writer. In my book, Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies, coming out this September, I am trying to convey the reality and beauty of true Romani life. A major part of the problem is that both sides are ignorant of each other. Gadje children are brainwashed from early on about Roma, but they have no idea who Roma are. They only know the prejudice. Please read some of my earlier blogs. The latest ones are about Writing. But today I will post another one about the truth behind the eduction of Roma children. The terrible neglect in Europe of an intelligent and warm ethnic minority. Please stay in touch, Sonia Meyer

Tell me where your book is coming out? I spent time with Russian performing gypsies in moscow - fascinated by their perspectives and history. I am not Roma - but a writer as well.

Dear Sonia, can you help me to found your blogs on Roma? Best, Violeta

Dier Violeta , I am very proud that I met you and I hope that I have you as my friend , so braif and kinde , I wish to you all The best, because , you are so unic !

Dear Kansuela,
Thanks for the nice comment :) I hope we will meet again. Do you have facebook? Let's find each other? Greets, Violeta

Congrats Violeta! You're giving to all Roma , men or woman, the best example to be followed. Education is the unique and best key for resolution of all Roma ( and Calé ) problems.
Tie o Del sastes tú

Thank you all for the nice comments. I have not expected an immediate reaction. I have to admit that is not easy to share and it took me some time to do this. However, here it is. I believe any of use has a lot to share and we can learn from our personal stories a great deal.
With kindest regards,
Violeta

Dear Violeta and all in the YouTube "I'm A European Roma Woman",
I teach at Rider University in New Jersey, U.S.A. Last semester my students and I videoconferenced with Babes-Bolyai University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania)on the subject of racism, classism, sexism in the U.S. and in Romania. Although access to equal education for Roma children is urgent, equally urgent is education of non-Roma to unlearn or not learn their prejudices. The statements and policies being reported of late are frightening. If there is anyone who would consider videoconferencing as a resource for educating and organizing, sharing our ideas, please let me know. We are mostly non-Roma;we videoconference by the internet and it costs virtually nothing. All that is needed is the broadband connectivity. Good luck to you all. Sincerely, Dr. Fiske-Rusciano

Dr. Fiske-Rusciano,

Your video-conferencing idea is interesting. Are you interested in student-to-student conferencing only? While researching educational policy in Slovakia, I learned that diversity training is optional for student-teachers and those currently teaching. It might be a powerful exchange to engage students--white European and Roma--who are teachers in training about these issues. Video is a great format because it allows for deeper reflection when recorded and reviewed.

Best wishes,
Kelly

Dear Kelly,
I've just now re-found this site and your note. Please also review my note to Violeta. I've been using videoconferencing as a means of learning about 'the Other', and for students to have ongoing, often difficult discussions, with people all over the world. This year has been Iraq and Romania (Fall, 2009). If you are particularly interested in training future teachers this could be designed especially for that. It must be a mix of Roma and non-Roma of course, and if you can use American education majors that probably could be arranged. Although most are not aware of the dangerous prejudice towards Roma in Europe, they certainly are familiar with ethnic prejudices, and would want to ask very straightforward questions. Videoconferencing is a multisensory experience and often very transforming for those who go through a course of this kind. My method is largely generated by the students, called The Student Global Village. Yours, Roberta

Dear Dr. Roberta Fiske-Rusciano,

Thank you for the nice comment. The idea about videoconferencing as a resource for educating and organizing, sharing our ideas is great. We should definatelly follop up on it. Can you share more in details about your idea? With whom do want to videoconference (any target grou) ? Do you want to educate non Roma about Roma or vice-versa? Let's ellaborate on that more so we can make it happen. I really like the idea.

I am looking forward to your answer,
Best regards,
Violeta

Dear Violeta,
I've just now found your comment; excuse me. I have no specific plans but do have access to videoconferencing technology. Most Americans are not aware of the extreme prejudice towards the Roma communities in many countries of Europe, nor do they know of its consequences. I would like them to know. A weekly session via videoconferencing with teachers, students, student-teachers, Roma and non-Roma, any combination of people could be beneficial. Certainly future or present politicians need it. What would be your ideal mix of people for the purpose of confronting, discussing public policies for creating a civil society, and creating a culture of respect? All the best, Roberta

Hi, Violeta,

Thank you for telling your story here. Violeta, I am traveling to Eastern Europe this summer to take a Slovak language immersion (I will be staying with my in-laws) and visit various educational institutions in the region. I would love to meet with you and exchange ideas. Are you based in Budapest these days? I'll be traveling through Vienna so I can catch the Danica Dakic "Role-making Role-Taking" exhibit. Perhaps we can exchange ideas and collaborate on some projects.

Take care,
Kelly

Dear Kelly,

Sure we can meet. Yes for the moment I am based in Budapest but at the end of Apil I will be based in the OSI Brussels' office for 6 months. I really would like to meet you and exchange ideas.

I am looking forward to your answer,
Best regards,
Violeta

Hi, Violeta,

I'm sorry for my delay in responding to your kind message--I just now found your response. Let's certainly keep in touch and when you are back in Eastern Europe we can meet up and brainstorm. My plans have changed slightly: I'll be arriving in Slovakia mid-July but plan to stay for at least one year. Please feel free to contact me at my university address (kmj47 at drexel.edu) or my gmail address included above.

Take care and enjoy your time in Brussels.

Kelly

Romane are the oldest nation, which still keep the roots and traditions which were forgotten and neglected by christian europe. For being different and traditionalists they were hated by society of people, for who romans are ancestors (as keepers of antique ways of indo-european group). Its strange today how national groups with the most deep and never brocken traditions like Kurds, Iezidi, Afghans, Abkhazians are in te most fiddicult situation today. Maybe there is some system in it.

Violeta,

I was fascinated to read your story, especially now when the call for Roma stories is being heard across the globe with the recent Rom Summit in Spain on World Roma Day. Your story is another that gives me strength to carry out a similar mission here in the U.S.A. as an American Finnish Rom and an educator. Thank you!

Dear Tina,
I would love to know about your mission in US. Can you write me more about it? It is good to share as it is inspiring and educational.

I am looking forward to your answer,
Best regards,
Violeta

Hi Violeta,

I hope all is well in your neck of the woods! I apologize I am only now just responding to you. Since I decided to pursue my Gypsy Roma project I left public education last summer (and a regular paycheck)...And this April I had to finally earn a dollar; I got caught up in US Census 2010 work. All of that to say, I missed seeing your message until now.

I know I have to help out in the mission to help Roma worldwide live the life they were born to live, with pride and honor and integrity. I am trying to work out the details of what that looks like, as in, how can I, raised American but with Gypsy Roma roots, add to the efforts that already exist. In other words, what could I do that would be useful to the Gypsy Roma community?

I have a feeling it is something along the lines of mirroring 10,000 Million Roma = 10,000 Roma Stories push, but instead of getting Eurpean stories, of course, mine would be American... maybe adult international adoptees like me...

I know you are superbusy, but any thoughts you had would be fabulous!

regards,
Tina

Dear Tina,

I am very happy you want to help for the cause :) I very much appreciate that you raise the question of how can you raise an American with Roma roots. I am working currently on a paper how to build pride and committment of Roma youth and it is extremely difficult. I realize more and more that majority young educated Roma have very low self confidence of their identity. They do not know their history, their achievments, their language and often culture and traditions. They lost them somewhere on the way. And we can't blame blame them because is not their fault. That is why I strongly believe that we need to work on that - how do we make Roma proud of who they are? We need to teach them about the Roma struggle trough the centuries, how Roma were always persecuted on their long journey from India to Europe and futher. How Roma were slaves and also killed during the Holocaust. And yet Roma are here! They are allive, the survived even though thei suffered a lot. We have Roma that we should be really proud with, we just need to publish our stories and let the Roma and non Roma know about this. I really like the idea of 10,000 Million Roma = 10,000 Roma Stories! I think we should further elaborate on that and see whether and how many stories we can get from US, from Europe and why not from other continents as well. Roma are eveywhere :)

With warm regards, Violeta

Hi Violetta:Thanks for sharing your story. I would like to meet you and interview you (if possible) one of these days.
I have started doing my research on Roma's cultural expressions and any help with books, sharing personal stories, any songs, any info about dances would be of a great help to me. Please do get in touch and please let me know your thoughts on my area of research. Thank. Best wishes.Anna

Hello Tina Burbank! I was just reading Violeta Naydenova's article 'Growing Up Roma' and saw your responses. I too, am American with Roma roots. 10,000 Million Roma, 10,000 Roma Stories!! Great idea!
I also have wondered what I can do to contribute.I think, in America, just more information that we are here. My Grandmother always wanted us to hide who we are, but now, more that ever, a knowledge that we exist alongside them is key. Accurate information about our heritage is necessary to break stereotypes. But how to connect??? I would like to know your ideas as I feel stuck on getting our Roma voices heard.

Sincerely,
Kristie

Violeta & Tina,
I am currently a student midwife, in Washington State, U.S.A. I too would like to spread the word about the Romani culture and discriminations. I am also very interested in meeting other Roma and I am specifically interested in traditional Romani childbirth practices.

Dear Adria, Do you havey any chance to travel to Europe? It will be great if we can meet so I can explain more and show you more. Currently I am living in Brussels. With kind regards, Violeta

Hey Adria,

I don't have much to say on the specific Roma topic you are looking for, but won't it be great when you connect with Violeta to learn more!

Regards,
Tina

Dear All,

Thank you so much again about your sincere and inspiring comments. It is amazing to see all your writings and suggestions. I will write you personally to make sure we follop up on your ideas and sugestions.

Thank you again!
Sincerely, Violeta

Hi Violeta,

My name is Sarika. My family is originally from India, but immigrated to the United States many years ago. I'm very interested in the Roma. I loved reading your article. Thank you so much for sharing it on the internet. I wanted to know--are you on Facebook? I would like to get to know you and your organization better.

Take care,
Sarika

Thanks Laura,

I just added that on Facebook. I hope to keep in touch with your organization that way.

Please feel free to add me, as well. I'm "Sarika Singh" on Facebook.

Take care,
Sarika

Dear Sarika, thanks for your nice comment. You can find me in facebook under the following name: Violeta Bogdanova Naydenova. Perhaps you know we have a lot in common and I am sure we have a lot to share.
I am looking forward to our conversation in facebook.
Greetings, Violeta

Dear Violeta,

I appreciate your blog very much.
We have so much in common- I'm Roma girl too (from Croatia) and I know very well what does it mean to feel ashamed and humiliated just because we are Roma.
I wanted to do something about it , but as you said I kept all the sadness in me. And since I gratuated from high school I wanted to change this injustice and I wanted to prove that poor Roma kids can and do suceed if they were given the equal chance. So I founded a non-profit organisation with a mission to support inclusion of Roma children in to the mainstream education system, decrease dropout rate, and to improve school attendance and performance.
Depends on the grants we'll receive, I hope we should start soon with an ESL learning e-lab practice where Roma children can practise phonics, vocabulary, writing and reading and After school Project, as well. We'll concentrate to help them develop the skills and talents that make them well-rounded, involved, and healthy citizens.
That's my vision and my dream- please, wish me luck to make it real!

Warmest regards,
Te ave bahtali te sasti,
Nitta

Dear Nitta,
Thanks for your story as well. It is so nice to see that you went trough the same experience. From which city in Croatia you are working with Roma kids? Perhaps we can collaborate or talk sometimes and tell me more what you do.
Do you have facebook or skype?
I am looking forward to your answer,
Best, Violeta

Thank you for the article.
I went to a Catholic grade school with children who were called Gypsies, they lived on my street, and I liked them, however unfortunately they did not stay in the neighborhood or the school where they did well.
Never knew what happened to them.

Dear All,
Thank you ones again for the incredible comments you left under my article. The problems are many and we need to act and find out a solution. I believe in change and I know is possible if we work together in order to attain it.
I wish I could meet you all one day so we can exchange experience and get to know each other.
With kindest regards,
Violeta

It is good to hear some positive experiences and comforting to know that now you are working for the Roma. Here in Italy very few achieve high level of education and when they do they forget about their people. I would like to express my admiration for your wise and strong mother, I have seen other women try this but it is so difficult to sustain over 13 years when you get so little support all around you.

Zdraveyte Violeta,

I'm so glad I found your article here. I'm amazed and motivated by the strength and courage you have shown throughout your life in Bulgaria. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Vratsa region (Byala Slatina) for two years from 2007-2009 and taught in a primary school with Roma children, who were some of the brightest and loveliest children I've met. I know my students will appreciate having a role model like yourself. I'm going back this summer to intern with the American Embassy in Sofia. If you're in Bulgaria this summer, I would love to meet you. I'm currently at graduate student in international public policy and management at NYU in New York and researching the Decade of Roma Inclusion Initiative and involved with NGOs in Bulgaria.

Fsichko nai-hubavo,
Sehee

Zdraveite Sehee,

I am pleased to see you know Bulgarian. Actually I will be living in Brussels for the next 6 months but I am sure we can arrange a travel to Bulgaria for this purpose. Let's keep in touch and we can agree once you arrive in Bulgaria what is the best timing for me to come to Bulgaria and do that. It would be great for me and the children.

Vsichko naj hubavo :)
Violeta

Violetta, the article I liked very much. Many years ago I had the same problem with non-Roma pupils in schools, even insulting me in front of the teachers. I was the only student of Roma between 1300 non-Roma, but I learned a lot about them to prove that the Roma are smart and can learn, not lazy and thieving.
Well done

Dear Asen, Thank you for the comment. What are you doing at moment? What was the thing that drived to continue even the many insults? Bests, Violeta

Returning to this blog after a few months I see that you have so many stories (if you all write them down)that could be edited into a book. Also consider a storyline for a children's book, as well, with wonderful illustrations--perhaps there could be a Roma version of a happy, strong, little girl who resembles Dora in her outlook on life--or something like that. A book for adults could be a combination of traditional medical knowledge (such as Romani mid-wivery), as well as testimonies. Violeta, thank you for videoconferencing with us. If you and the students like we can continue with urgent themes that need to be explored. Yours, Roberta Fiske-Rusciano

Dear Sonia Meyer,
I just sent an email to Jennifer Mayer, in hopes that she might connect me with you. Then, I was watching this video and saw your post. I, too, am writing a book...the first of a 4-book series. And, I am also hoping to convey the beauty and reality of true Romani life. Unfortunately, I am not Romani by birth, and this means that I am coming to the Romani community as an outsider. I believe in the power of fiction to get under the skin of its readers...and to lodge permanently in their hearts. My books are designed to instill hope and faith in the young people who are coming into their adulthood right now...with a goal of inspiring them to stay involved in their communities...to believe they have a role to play...to understand that they matter. Several misunderstood and persecuted minority groups (recognized officially or not) are involved in this story, and it is through the kind, family-oriented, honest and committed actions of these people (who are so often maligned in common media) that - essentially - the world remains salvageable. Anyway, if you have time to talk, I would love a chance to hear what you believe needs saying and sharing about the Romani culture. My goals are accuracy and compassion. Sincerely, March

Dear Violeta,

Thank you for your post. I am an Entrepreneurship student at the Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands). I am researching for my master thesis which will seek to answer the question: "Is entrepreneurship a better cultural fit for Roma than wage-employment?" It will look at existing literature on immigrant entrepreneurship, necessity entrepreneurship, the role of institutions, the role of culture, etc, and apply it to specific idiosyncratic cultural and historical attributes of the Roma.

My research so far - whether related to policy or history - seems to come from an outsider's perspective. Where is the Roma voice? I am not Roma, nor European, however I am fairly convinced that attention to ingrained cultural values, norms, traditions, etc, is lacking from European efforts to 'include' Roma economically.

If possible, would you be open to sharing your 'insider' perspective and perhaps sharing resources?

Thank you for the work you are doing, and I wish you the very best.

Brittany Richardson

Sar San. Many know me as Gypsy Joe. This because I was taught never to be ashamed of who or what I am. My Mother was Blood Gypsy and my Father was Gypsy and Hebrew both by Blood. Father met Mother in Berlin where she, and two others of our familia had managed to escape to from Bucharest at top speed because, according to my Mother and Father, the Rrom were being slaughtered out of hand mostly by the Rumanians, not to mention the Nazis'.and others who hated us. My Father met Mother in the underground places they moved to regularly to avoid being murdered by the Nazis, until arrangements could be made for their escape from Germany...Thus, they met and fell in love...Mother was quite the looker and had the Gypsy spirit alive within her...which she never lost...and which she and Father drove deeply into me,over time. Our tradition of secrecy was paramount during my childhood...as well as our cultural inheritances. I am Drabarni. While the gaje in our neighborhood played with toys and stick ball in the street, I was learning and being empowered with the skills they passed on to me so that, eventually the Natsia and the King of our race declared Drabarni as was my Father and his Father before him and His Father before him as far back as the 9th century. B ut that is a much longer story my Ghel. Which, one day, I shall put to pen and paper. And share it with any other of Rrom blood like myself. Much, as you must know, of our culture and trdition is now for the ears of the gaje. Some of our powers are, whats a good word?..Sacrosanct. I may be known as a Gypsy, but those who call me that do not know it all...nor shall they. In this note it is sufficient for whomever reads it to know we are alive and well in spite of all that has happened to our people. You, as a Gypsy know I am unable to speak of "spells", "curses," or other things many would consider 'Magic.' At present I am still a Licensed Registered Nurse, which was a way for me to practice the healer part of me...always successful, I might add, mostly due to the powers given me through my genetic makeup. I continue to learn, as is our way. Currently I am in a local college studying, of all things, Law. I cannot stop because it is my heritage, my culture, our traditions, to continue to learn and polish my given powers the best I can. I am the oldest student in the school. And beside being a healer and speaker of fortunes, I am also an enhancer. That is not a new word in our vocabulary...believe me. We make things happen...not always for the best, but mostly so. As a Traveler I always try to leave the places I have been better for my having been there. Many Gypsies do this without even realizing they are doing so. What the gaje see is what they have been taought to see...not always what really is, or was. If I heal someone, make them better, fix their wounds, all the gaje see is the dirty bandage left behind. It has always been like that for the Gypsy. We, many of us old ones, have learned to leave no trace of our having been there. Safer that way. Now? The young ones have been so polluted by the outsiders, trying so hard to be like them, that they once again are polluting the Natsia, the world, if you will, just like the gaje have always done!!! I have no more space for this Hmmm, diatribe? Must close. I wish al of those of our tribes a prosperous and healthy future. Sincerely Gypsy Joe

Add your voice