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Why We Are Setting Up a European Roma Institute

Female violin players
Musicians perform at the annual festival celebrating Saint Sarah in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France. Chuck Sudetic/Open Society Foundations

For more than four decades Europe’s Roma community have wanted to establish an institution that would give their music, art, and unique traditions their own stage. Across the continent, such bodies exist to celebrate an array of cultures, nationalities, and identities. Yet there is nothing of this kind for Roma. Many feel this absence, particularly among Romani campaigners, educators, and intellectuals. It compounds a sense of exclusion and denies all of us the opportunity to celebrate the Roma influence on our shared cultural life. We are joining forces to help put this right.

Europe’s 12 million Roma remain the continent’s largest minority—and its most resilient. The vast majority continues to live segregated from mainstream society, in many cases set apart by a wall of prejudice and mistrust. This centuries-old intolerance has no place in an open and modern Europe. We believe a new European Roma Institute can help.

First, it would have the power to educate, chipping away at the negative stereotypes which still pervade across the continent. Second, a fully fledged European Roma Institute would, we believe, become a powerful source of self-esteem. It would act as important symbol—and symbols are important, as is the ability to tell one’s story in one’s own voice. Such an institute could also explore the ways in which Roma life has shaped, and been shaped, by other cultures and forces, underlining similarities as well as differences. Perhaps most important, it would provide a landmark for Roma children to look upon and feel a sense of belonging and pride.

The value of such confidence building should not be underestimated. Many individuals of Romani descent will tell you of the pressure to assimilate into the mainstream in order to be successful. For those looking to get ahead, abandoning their already beleaguered heritage can seem the safest route.

This mindset is likely to remain so long as strategies designed to support Europe’s Roma communities are pursued in a piecemeal and disconnected way. A Roma Institute cannot, alone, reverse this, nor is it a panacea for all Roma troubles. However, over time it can help foster the kind of self-assuredness other communities feel.

To this end, the Open Society Foundations—working with leading Roma organizations and Roma intellectuals—have sought the Council of Europe’s help in establishing Europe’s first Roma Institute. The project will be Roma-led, but we, together, can provide needed support. It is a natural partnership: in our different ways the Council of Europe and the Open Society Foundations have long sought to advance the rights and empowerment of Roma people. Under the proposal, our two organizations will act as founders alongside a new group—the Alliance for the European Roma Institute. The Alliance will be made up of existing Romani groups including, for example, the Romani museum from Romania and the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma from Germany. Together, we will commit to fund the European Roma Institute in its five-year start-up phase.

The Institute will celebrate Romani heritage while also recording the Romani experience and acting as a vibrant creative hub. It will be a place for Roma in the arts to work together and connect with the creative community across Europe for the exchange and development of ideas. Through its events, exhibitions, and performances the Institute will seek to educate the wider public on the richness and greatness of Roma culture and achievement. Institutionally, it will also act as a policy advisor to the Council of Europe and member states, seeking to establish partnerships with similar bodies around the world.

No such institution has ever existed—and this one has our full support. Together with our Roma partners we will now seek to make it a reality. For decades leading Roma thinkers have debated how they can cut across European borders to act in concert against the discrimination they have all experienced. A European Roma Institute can be at the vanguard of this extremely important pursuit.

This article originally appeared in European Voice on March 26, 2015.

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