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Knowing Our History and Culture Helps Us Build a Sense of Pride

  • Drawing of Romani flag.
    The 2nd Roma Pride Summer Camp for young Roma from Central and Eastern Europe at Szentendre Island near Budapest, Hungary. A participant looks at their version of the Romani flag, the international flag of Roma people. The flag was created by the General Union of the Roma of Romania in 1933, and approved by international representatives at the First World Romani Congress in 1971, held in London, United Kingdom. The flag consists of a background of blue and green, representing the heavens and earth. The flag also contains a 16-spoke red chakra, or spoked wheel, in the center, representing movement and progress. © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman holding microphone, speaking to a group of Barvalipe participants.
    Evaluation meeting of the Barvalipe participants and their supervisors. Many participants expressed the desire to share what they had learned at Barvalipe with Roma and non-Roma in their home country: “Now I can disseminate more information about Roma culture and history than before; I can help people to recognize easier the Roma identity without fear and shame.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Female Barvalipe participant speaking to two men.
    Three participants discuss their experience at Barvalipe during the evaluation. Reflecting on the journey they had taken since the start of Barvalipe, one participant shared, “I must confess that I had some stereotypes about Roma and sometimes I felt shy to declare myself Roma but now I feel stronger, here I learned to not be ashamed of it. The most important for me was that I met young Roma people who are educated, intelligent and made me proud. I never felt proud of being Roma but now I changed my opinion. For the first time in my life I can say ‘I’m Roma’ and I’m not ashamed for this. Barvalipe has a big influence on me.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Note that reads, “Find your balance! I'm glad I've known you here.”
    A participant reflects on the connections they have made at Barvalipe. For many, the opportunity Barvalipe offers to meet like-minded young Roma, share experiences and build solidarity, is a highlight: “The most powerful aspect of the camp was that I got to know many good people committed to the same purpose from the same region.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Two men hugging in a classroom while others cheer.
    For some participants, the challenges they confront at Barvalipe can be difficult: “I had a hard time but at the end I can say that I am more sure about my Roma identity and I really do not struggle so much about it.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Barvalipe participants holding hands and dancing.
    Participants relax at the end of their evaluation session. Among suggestions for future additions to Barvalipe, one participant recommended, “I would like to hear more about the future Roma movement in different countries, to discuss more about this idea and to learn from others.” Another reflected, “I wanted to learn more about how we can organize ourself, and we need more time for this session.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Barvalipe participants sitting at tables.
    Participants working at the identity tent. A crucial part of Barvalipe is allowing participants to explore their Roma identity and build a sense of Roma pride. One participant summed up that after her experience at Barvalipe, “I will be able to go in my community and tell that I am a Roma woman and convince other Roma people to fight for their rights and for a better life.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Girls sitting on the floor holding their hair.
    A group of Roma children from Macedonia rehearsing for their evening surprise performance. While culture and tradition plays an important role in Barvalipe, participants also learn about Roma economics, politics, and community organization—issues often marginalized in the Roma debate. © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Woman holding a sign that reads, “Even if times change, in silence I am a Roma.”
    Participants playing their evening performance, Roma Congress. The first World Romani Congress was organized in 1971 in Orpington near London and was attended by 23 representatives from nine nations (Czechoslovakia, Finland, Norway, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Spain, and Yugoslavia) and observers from Belgium, Canada, India, and the United States. At the congress, the green and blue flag from the 1933 conference of the General Association of the Gypsies of Romania, embellished with the red, 16-spoked chakra, was reaffirmed as the national emblem of the Roma people, and the song “Gelem, Gelem” was adopted as the Roma anthem. © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Roma children performing a play.
    A group of Roma children from Macedonia performing their surprise evening play for the participants. “To be Roma, it means to be different,” reflected one participant when asked what Roma pride was. “You will be discriminated against but this makes you stronger and do not give up; Roma pride means to accept your identity and to be proud of your culture, history, and unique language.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Boy wearing sunglasses holds his hand out to another boy's face.
    A group of Roma children from Macedonia performing their surprise evening play for the participants. Many participants were enthusiastic about sharing the knowledge they had gained at Barvalipe: “I will organize a workshop with at least 10 young Roma where I will share the information on Romani language and culture.” © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Barvalipe participants dancing and clapping.
    Participants celebrating after playing their evening performance Roma Congress. Barvalipe is an opportunity to build close ties between Roma activists and future leaders. “I really felt myself like I was with my family,” one participant summed up. © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations
  • Group photo of Barvalipe participants.
    Group photograph of the camp participants at the beginning of the final evening celebration. The majority of participants committed to returning to Barvalipe next year as volunteers to share their knowledge and experience, and help any way they can with 2013’s participants. © Bjoern Steinz/Panos Pictures for the Open Society Foundations

Understanding who we are is maybe one of life’s biggest questions. For young Roma who can face prejudice and stigma, feel shame and inferiority or are unaware of the depth of their culture and history, answering this question is not easy. In July this year, the second ever Barvalipe Roma Summer camp took place in Hungary. Young Roma between the age of 18 and 30 years old from Spain, Romania, Macedonia, Turkey, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Albania came to take part.

Barvalipe is about building Roma identity; Barvalipe is encouraging commitment by Roma for Roma; Barvalipe is learning Roma history and language; Barvalipe is forging ties between tomorrow’s Roma leaders; Barvalipe is nurturing civic duty and social responsibility; Barvalipe is discovering Roma achievements and role models. Barvalipe is Roma pride.

In this interview, Albert Memeti, originally from a village near Tetovo in north-western Macedonia and soon beginning a Masters in Economic Policy in Global Markets in the Central European University in Budapest, discusses his experience at Barvalipe.

What did you expect from Barvalipe?

I hoped myself and the other Roma participants could overcome our own stereotypes about ourselves. I’m from Macedonia, and there we have built a strong identity, we declare ourselves openly as Roma, we have good laws, well institutionalized programs for Roma, we identify as Roma. And yet we have our own stereotypes about other Roma; someone who is half Roma for example, or Roma from a different religion.

My motivation in coming here was to show other groups that we have to first get rid of the stereotypes amongst ourselves, to build stronger relations among us. Only then can we educate other non–Roma and show them who the Roma really are, to put forward our own “image” rather than let others speak for us or about us. Every human being is viewed through the prism of stereotypes; Roma are not immune from doing this as well, consciously or subconsciously.

A sense of unity amongst Roma in Europe is so important. At Barvalipe we have Roma people from Albania, Romania, Spain, Turkey, Macedonia and many other countries. Here we are 30 different characters speaking about Roma. Now at the end of Barvalipe we are the same 30 different people but speaking with one voice.

I am proud to be Roma, and I think that each of us now is richer with one new chapter to his or her identity.

What has been your most memorable part of Barvalipe so far?

Our trip to Auschwitz has been the most memorable part so far. I was taught about Auschwitz in history, I read about it, almost like it was a story. But when I was there and I saw it with my eyes, I was conflicted. In the field of history, I was so proud I had learned about the history of Macedonia and world history. But I never had the opportunity to learn about Roma history because in the official history sections, Roma are not mentioned at all.

Coming here to Barvalipe and visiting Auschwitz, I learned a new chapter of Roma history. This chapter might be the most important one because it seems that the history of Roma could be repeated again. Not so many people know about the Roma holocaust during World War II. It’s our responsibility to teach our younger generation and others about Auschwitz.

Going to Auschwitz is not just to know who you are but to feel who you are and what happened to Roma; it’s not about the knowledge, it’s about the feeling and what we must do so that history is not repeated.

Why is it important to know about your history and culture?

One of the most important things is coming here and hearing about our history, our language and our roots; because getting to know yourself means you start to discover new things; you realize who you really are. You realize that Roma have a rich history, rich culture, “barvale” (rich in Romanes) Roma role models who guide us. Knowing our history and culture helps us construct our identity and build a sense of pride around being part of the Roma nation. It gives us an opportunity to speak in one language and to have one vision about our future.

How will you use this experience at Barvalipe in the future?

What will we do after these ten days? We must take responsibility for the next generation who don’t know about Roma history, Roma language, culture; responsibility not just to educate ourselves but to organize ourselves in making our own history and future. This experience here will guide me to the future path of my career and help me lend a hand to others in understanding what Romanipen means to them, in educating them and helping them in their future plans. 

In the end, who are you if you don’t know anything about where you come from, about your origins, your family, your language, your own culture? In some cases, when others try to assimilate us or when we “integrate” too much into mainstream society we lose these unique elements. We should be open to learning about these elements of our identity, building on them and ending any shame about being Roma.

I want to spread a message for Roma all around the world. Maybe you are half Roma or 100% or 20% Roma but in the end, it’s not really important; it’s important that you are Roma and you make an individual choice to affirm that. Barvalipe needs to happen around the world, so that people can shout in the streets, “I’m proud to be Roma.”

In the end, who are you if you don’t know anything about where you come from, about your origins, your family, your language, your own culture?

A sense of unity amongst Roma in Europe is so important.

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