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Barvalipe: Building Roma Pride

Participants in the Barvalipe Roma Pride Summer Camp add spices to a pot
Participants in the Barvalipe Roma Pride Summer Camp add spices to the pot during a traditional Roma cuisine cooking lesson outdoors over open fires. Pamela Chen/Open Society Foundations

For decades, we at the Open Society Foundations have been committed to bringing about real change for Europe’s Roma. As part of this commitment, we have invested in the next generation of Roma: supporting thousands of scholarships through the Roma Education Fund; securing more than a hundred internships and training opportunities at institutions such as the European Commission, European Parliament, and Council of Europe; and providing intensive English-language training for university students. Due to this support, over the years a new Roma elite has emerged in Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo,  Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia.

However, an increase in the number of Roma who have benefited from these opportunities has not necessarily brought about quality in terms of commitment and giving back to the Roma community. Our experience with the internship and scholarship programs has shown us that some young Roma lack motivation to work on Roma issues and even some of them hide their Roma origin. There are big reasons for that.

Once young Roma acquire knowledge and skills that make them more competitive in the labor market, social stigmas maintain feelings of shame and inferiority, and contribute to their reluctance to declare their ethnic origin. These young Roma do not know their history, the achievements of their community, or have role models that they can look up to—all things that they should be proud of—or have the opportunity to do anything related with their identity.

But this is not just a problem of social stigmas and a lack of knowledge of the history and achievements that add negatively to their self-confidence and commitment to take responsibility and bring about change in their communities. It is also the discrimination, hate speech, and violent attacks against Roma and the inadequate response from European politicians and mass media that combines to reinforce and perpetuate the inferiority of Roma. These everyday experiences cause the low self-esteem of young Roma and their belief that nothing can be changed in their communities.

The issue of contributing to the cause is not only peculiar to Roma youth. Last summer, I, along with a group of young Roma, visited the U.S. and met with leaders of several prominent African American organizations. During the trip we saw a similar struggle underway. All the leaders and activists emphasized that cultivating a spirit of commitment to the cause among African American youth has been an ongoing challenge. Yet, they stressed to us that they do not just provide opportunities for knowledge and skill-building, but that they create a sense of pride that includes identity, culture, history, and achievements. They infuse just as much energy into celebrating the important sources of pride and progress of African Americans.

Too many young Roma today do know enough about their own history, achievements, and identity to develop a sense of pride regarding their heritage. Few schools currently teach Roma history and language. On top of this, mainstream society—supported by the educational system—focuses on assimilation, denying young Roma the opportunity to explore their own ethnicity and creating an environment that rewards them for suppressing their heritage. It has to be mentioned that pride does not come only with knowing your language and history but also knowing other people you can identify yourself with. Outside of their families and communities, many young Roma do not often have many Roma role models to look up to. This is also a big reason why many of them are not part of the Roma cause.

It was with this understanding that the Open Society Foundations launched Barvalipe, the first-ever Roma Pride Summer Camp. For ten days this past August in Budapest, 28 young Roma—most of whom had previously participated in Open Society-supported academic, internship, and scholarship programs—came together to learn about their culture, history, and achievements, in the hopes of encouraging a sense of civic duty and social responsibility.

Participants between the age of 17 to 29 years old learned the basics of Romani language and history participating in Romani language classes for advanced and beginners taught by Marcel Courthiade and Saimir Mile, experts in the field from the National institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures in Paris. They heard from University of Texas Professor Ian Hancock, one of the foremost scholars in the field, about Roma history and the development of Romaphobia. Camp participants took part in two days of debate training, arguing over whether or not integration is a threat to Roma identity, and learned about the history of Roma during the Holocaust through a one-day study trip to Auschwitz where some 20,000 Roma died at the hands of the Nazis.

Participants had the opportunity to hear the life stories of prominent Roma such as Agnes Osztolykan, the only Roma Member of the Hungarian Parliament who in March received the International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Petric? Dulgheru, a chemist and Manager of Catalyst Research at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. They discussed what youth activism means and how one can have multiple identities as a Roma. Barvalipe members explored their culture and identity: learning how to tell their own story through recording one another. The also participated in a guided cooking workshop where they made the traditional Roma-Hungarian dish, Romano porkoltot shukline paprikencar. During the last evening of the camp the participants put on a two-hour performance that included spoken word, plays, and both traditional and modern songs and dances.

During the camp participants also gave back to the community. They used their €20 camp fee to purchase two sewing machines for a place that serves Roma women and children from Dzsumbuj slum in Budapest and bought twenty sets of school supplies for first grades pupils in eastern Hungary, one of poorest regions in the country. Through their donations participants experienced how it feels to help one’s own community with personal resources. I was honored to read in their camp evaluations that this action was one of the most liked, following the Roma history and language classes, debate sessions, and trip to Auschwitz. It proved that once people are given the possibility to learn about their heritage many people embrace it, like it, and feel proud about it.

I realized that the time at Barvalipe was precious due to its unique opportunity allowing participants to talk freely about what it means to be a Roma, and to learn about the untold Roma struggle and the achievements of their communities. The young people understood that Roma can have many different identities, and that pride is essential for contributing to the cause and having a sense of civic duty and social responsibility toward your own community.

All in all, Barvalipe was an unforgettable experience for all participants, trainers, speakers, and for me. It is an opportunity that we hope to expand and continue to give more young Roma the possibility to learn about Roma struggles, achievements, language, and last but not least the importance of the Roma commitment toward their own people and communities.

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