Julia waves us into the kitchen, where a large pot of lecsó steams on the table. The house smells of onion, sweet peppers and tomatoes turned into a thick, summery stew. I am here to visit two Roma women, Julia and Andrea, who live in Jászjákóhalma, a small village in Hungary’s Northern Plains. But first, we eat. Talk comes later.
The media is full of stories of racism, poverty, and violence against Roma. Events in Greece and Ireland, where fair-haired Roma children have been removed from their families by the authorities under suspicion of child theft, has only deepened divides between Romas and the wider community. While there are many individuals and organizations working hard to reverse these negative trends, we rarely hear the voices of Roma community-members themselves, beyond the occasional sound bite.
This lack of intimate, human exchange reinforces the view that Roma are a homogenous group with interchangeable faces and stories. In turn, this faceless, storyless perception makes it easier for mainstream society to ignore the diversity and humanity of Roma experience.
So what are the lives of individual Roma really like? How do they, as individuals, cope with the past and envision the future?
I went to Jászjákóhalma, more than anything, to listen.
One thing I noticed during my conversations with Julia and Andrea is the complexity of the stories they share. These are not straightforward narratives of either discrimination or triumph in the face of adversity. What Julia and Andrea offer is something more difficult, and at the same time, more necessary to our discussions of women’s and minority rights: Wisdom voiced by those who have gained it by living it.
First, Julia tells me about her childhood and youth:
” When I was 6 months old I was given to an orphanage. When I was 10, my foster mother died, and I had to leave [her home]… I was taken in by another sweet elderly lady who passed away after 4 years.”
Julia moved from family to family until the age of 18, when an older women, whom she calls Rigo Mama, took her in. It was a brave and unusual thing to do. After all, Julia is Roma, and Rigo Mama was not. In fact, her adopted mother sometimes had to defend Julia from Rigo Mama’s own children. But despite their racial differences, “a binding love developed” between the two women.
Julia holding a photo of Rigo Mama
After lunch, I head to Andrea’s home a few streets away. Her dog greets me noisily from the garden, and she and her son, Sanyi, invite me into their homey bungalow. Andrea is blunt about her views on racism in Hungary. As she puts it:
“Racism is getting stronger in Hungary…not only against Romas, but against anyone who is foreign. It doesn’t matter that I was born here, and that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were also been born in Hungary. More and more, it feels like we do not belong here, even though I love this country as my motherland – exactly as a child loves her mother.”
But she also envisions a positive resolution to centuries of conflict between Hungarians and Hungarian Roma, hinging on education:
“I believe the solution [to racism] lies in accepting each other the way we are and finding the things that are in common [between us], not the things that divide us. This is very important, and [all] children need to be educated in [tolerance] from an early age… They have to learn to respect each other the same way they respect themselves, and not to forget my favorite proverb: ‘What hurts me, hurts the other.'”
Andrea addresses the Roma community in particular: “For the Roma, it is crucial for parents who do not have the opportunity to get educated to definitely educate their own children.”
She places additional emphasis on the education of Roma mothers and girls, including in matters of family planning and contraception – very sensitive topics:
“Of course I loved having children myself. But I gave birth when I was 30, and did not miss out on anything – including changing diapers and kindergarten….Girls should give birth when they have stability in their lives. I know nowadays it is very difficult to find this stability – to buy a house, a car – but that’s not the most important thing.”
The most important thing, she continues, is to understand that parenthood means caring for another human life for at least 18 years. This means we must prepare our girls both practically and emotionally for becoming mothers.
Julia’s wedding photo
For many of us, this kind of admonition seems perfectly normal. But to be voiced by a Roma woman gives it special significance. Roma mothers are often considered too young, uneducated, and poor to have children. In many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, forced sterilization of Roma women was common practice until recently, and it continues to be a matter of concern and restitution.
Regarding education, while school enrollment rates for Roma children are on the rise, the education gap is still significant (see: UNESCO 2012, Roma Education in Comparative Perspective). Roma women are at an additional disadvantage due to a cultural emphasis on youth motherhood, and institutional barriers to learning including segregated schools and widespread bullying. Moreover, it is popularly believed that Roma families do not encourage their children, especially their girls, to pursue education.
In fact, given the right environment and support, Roma women are just as committed to their children’s education as any other mother. The difference lies in approach, not values.
For both Andrea and Julia, what finally broke the cycle of rejection and low self-esteem caused by racist individuals and institutions was an innovative program called Meséd (Meséló Édesanyák), or Storytelling Mothers. In small groups of between 6 and 12 women, storybooks become the medium of learning how to read to your children, voice your feelings and opinions, and share stories of your own. In this way, Meséd blends the oral storytelling traditions of Roma culture with the importance of literacy.
Meséd circle in Hungary
The program provided a stark contrast to the Hungarian kindergarten Andrea’s son attended:
“There were conflicts between the children… since my son is half-Roma and I am Roma. People were saying that whoever is Roma is a bad person. Which is not true. And this hurt me.”
For Julia, the acceptance she felt during Meséd meetings helped her connect emotionally with her children:
“[During Meséd] I cried a lot. And it crystallized inside me that these people accept us…. After that… . I was better with my children, a better parent. Before that, it was very difficult to raise two children all by myself.”
Julia and Andrea are single mothers with demanding full-time jobs. Julia works as a furniture upholsterer, and Andrea alternates between jobs in administration and manufacturing. But both women place their children’s futures at the center of their lives.
Old family photos
Julia’s daughter, Vivi, 21, is looking for work as a legal assistant, and her son, Máté, 18, is training to be a car mechanic. Andrea’s son Sanyi, 15, excels in school, especially in computer science, and speaks English at a high level. Both mothers encourage their children to travel and experience new cultures. This curiosity about the world stems from their shared belief that underlying all our differences is – to use Julia’s word – a binding humanity.
As Andrea concludes:
“[We must teach our children] not to look at the differences between people. Or better yet, to see the differences as something beautiful….”
Coming from anyone else, these words might seem like a cliché. But from Andrea, they are hard-won and backed by the knowledge of how difficult – but not impossible – this truly is.
Andrea reading to a local Hungarian girl