Found Path

27 May 2004

Rita Izsák

I FIRST LEARNT OF the ERRC in 2002, when a friend of mine came to the restaurant where I was working during the night to be able to pay my university tax. I remember her shining face when she entered the place, took a seat at a table, and wrote down on a piece of paper: “I found an organisation that could give you a scholarship! They could cover a big part of your costs! You could even do an internship there!”

So, in the following days I visited the ERRC. I remember many publications and folders with names of different countries - Macedonia, Romania, Kosovo, Slovakia - written down on them. And I remember the feeling that I had: How come that I have never heard about this organisation before and they are dealing with Roma from all over Europe? I began to read ERRC publications and check the website. And beginning in September 2002, after having been luckily chosen from among many applicants, I became a legal monitor of the European Roma Rights Center.

I was born to a Romani mother and a Hungarian father and grew up in a non-Romani community. My mother had been placed in an orphanage and grew up there with her younger sister. They don’t have any relationship with any of their family members. My mother has only a few memories of the Romani community of the village where she was born and where she lived 11 years. So, for me the Romani origin meant only some songs, some Beash Gypsy words and something mysterious - maybe for her as well.

In my memories, the first time I had to face my origin was when somebody shouted after me in the street with a humiliating tone: “Gypsy!”. The irony was that this had been a boy whom I liked so much. I was about 8 or 9 years old and ran home crying. My mom sat down with me and asked: “Do you want me to change my name so that people won’t threaten and hurt you any more?” (My mom is named Orsós which is one of the most common Gypsy family names in Hungary.) And for me it was so obvious to answer immediately: “NO!” If she could live with this name and achieve everything that she wanted in her life, how could I ask her to change such an important part of her personality?! My mom completed her primary and secondary school and moreover, she graduated as a kindergarten teacher - as one among the first Romani women with a diploma in the country. I was proud of her and, therefore, of her name as well. And how could I forget the efforts of my daddy to make his family accept my mom? I was told that in 1977, employees of one of the national radio stations went to my father’s parents’ place and conducted an interview with my grandparents about the possibility of a marriage between my parents. My grandfather was shouting and beating the table with anger. He said that if they entered a restaurant, they had to sit at a table by themselves, because no one else would take a seat by the side of this Gypsy woman. Despite my grandparents’ resistence, in the following year, my mom and dad got married. Today, my whole family thanks God to have sent such a lovely wife my dad’s way… I thought that if my parents were ready to face and struggle against these prejudices and difficulties because of my mom’s name - which revealed her origin - how could I, their child, escape from this fight and fake my origin?

A more painful story was one that happened just three years ago. I worked for an agency that provided assistants for the national holidays and was funded by the previous Hungarian government (1998-2002). I even helped in logistics for the director of the agency. Then, after some time, they stopped inviting me to the Parliament to work, whereas all of my classmates and friends from the university continued to host these events. The explanation was given by my best friend who one day, when asked about the possible reasons for this, told me the truth: the director told her that my Romani origin was so obvious that he could not afford this in “such elite company”.

So, the sad truth had to be faced at an early age - despite of my mom’s hard work and the efforts that we both made in our life to be fully accepted, in today’s society, the colour of your skin still does matter, regardless of your education, abilities, behaviour or achievements. And I think that it is the recognition of this sad reality that can keep together such otherwise divided groups like Roma.

So, the way to the movement defending the rights of the Roma and struggling against these instense prejudices was straight. However, when in 1999, I learnt that I passed the entrance exam to the law faculty, I began to cry. Not because I was happy. In fact, I was desperate. I thought that I would not be able to survive in such a snobbish environment. The law faculty was not among my first choices, and I had never seriously thought that I would have to attend a law faculty.

During the first years at the law faculty, I never managed to rid myself of the feeling that I was there by accident. I felt like an absolute outsider at the university. I never had the fancy clothes, a big car or even a driving licence which seemed to be the minimum requirements at the faculty. Luckily, I managed to find some friends who felt similarly.

In May 2003, I went to a hearing to Nyíregyháza. It was an ERRC case filed together with the Hungarian National Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI), where a young Romani woman was the client. The case was on appeal at the second instance and being heard by three judges. The woman was asked mercilessly about her family life, religious habits, about the role of the children in her community and so on. I myself felt embarrassed during this interrogation. However, the worst part of the hearing came when she was asked about the numbers of her marriages. She immediately answered: two. But the judges didn’t accept the answer. They asked again: “Please, think again. How many husbands have you had in your life?” She said again: “Two”. Judges were smiling. “Dear Mrs, we know you had only one since this is written in your official documents. Why do you keep on telling us that you have had two?” The woman began to cry. The lawyer provided her with a tissue. I myself felt the tragedy. I knew that the woman came from a traditional Romani community where sexual relations are equal to marriage. That was the moment when I first felt any kind of commitment to the law. This was the time when I experienced how much the lack of any knowledge about Roma can lead to such painful outcomes. I saw the woman crying; the others thinking of her as a liar or as somebody who was so stupid she had forgotten about her marriage, and I felt: No way I will ever accept this humiliation of Roma just because the elite of society is not willing to take any efforts to get closer to the Roma and to their everyday life. That day, I was determined to become a good lawyer.

That day, everything fell into place for me. It became clear why I was born Roma, why I was in that court, why I had passed the entrance exam for the law school, why I started working for a public interest law organization, why exactly for the ERRC and why for its legal department. And finally, I began to feel good in my skin.

I am happy that last year, the Parliament of Hungary amended the Educational Act and adopted an Anti-Discrimination Act, both of which provide us with a stronger weapon to fight for our rights. I am happy that beginning in 2005, schools can be closed down if they practice segregation. And I am happy that the Public Foundation for Hungarian Roma registers year after year an ever-larger number of applications for scholarships by university and college students who are of Romani origin.

Although I am sure that it will take a long time until Roma will feel the difference in their everyday life, I am also sure that we are on the right track. However, every Romani person should acknowledge that in order to take advantage of the possibilities provided for us, we have to forget about our internal divisions when the issue is the protection of our rights. We have to get up, stand up and fight for our rights with one voice.

Finally, please let me cite from the Bible:

“And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” (Genesis, Chapter 11:6)


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