05 September 1999

In the following statements, Roma and Travellers from various countries of Europe speak about Romani and Traveller identity and personality.


THE identity of Roma is a complicated thing - one has to take into account not only people who state that their identity is Romani, but also in the majority of cases, people who adhere to other nations or nationalities. Often you can hear from individual Roma that they regard themselves as Hungarian, Romanian or Slovak Roma, which doesn't only mean the place where that particular Romani person lives. Throughout all of the tribulations caused by the majority community, Roma feel a strong sense of belonging with those majorities. Especially while interacting with other Roma. In the Czech Republic today there is a lot of talk about preserving one's Romaniness. At the same time, the same people speak about integration. I personally regard integration as a milder form of assimilation.

Today, one should speak above all about the advancement of the positive qualities of Roma and the suppression of those qualities which are not in conformity with the norms of the wider society. Is this called integration? Definitely not in the way that integration is commonly presented. I personally consider myself a Hungarian Rom, a Czech, a Slav and an eastern European. I think that as a Rom, I am enriched by and have a close connection to the Hungarian, Czech, Slav and other eastern European cultures. These aspects, in my opinion, make up my Romaniness. I would not, however, want to claim that a Rom is de facto a mix. I am a Rom, who has found in himself the strength to allow himself to be enriched by other cultures, while at the same time leaving undisturbed my Romano jilo - my Romani heart.


I GRADUATED from the mechanical engineering faculty of Košice University in 1992. Straight after leaving the faculty, I went with a non-Romani classmate of mine to look for work. We had exactly the same qualifications and obviously neither of us had any experience at all as we had just finished college. In the first company, my classmate was accepted and I was turned away on the grounds of not having enough experience. I met with the same reaction everywhere I went. It was the first time in my life that I had met with such racism.

Around this time I met a woman who was looking for someone to run the Roma programme on the state radio and she recommended me. I was given the job and have been doing it ever since. The programme has existed since November 1992 and it is broadcast for half an hour every Wednesday evening, with a repeat running on Sundays. Other minorities receive more air time - the Ruthenians have twelve hours a week, and the significantly smaller German minority has the same length of time as we do. In 1995 I made a detailed application to the head of the station for more time and he approved it. That was four years ago and still nothing has happened. I have been promised another half an hour or so this year, but I am not convinced that it will happen.

Between April 1997 and February 1998 I did my military service. There was a lot of racism in the military. We heard about a case in Trebišov in the autumn of 1997 when five skinheads from Prievidza were put in the same unit. They attacked Roma in the barracks. There were problems between them and Roma in other units, and they even went so far as to attack civilian Roma in Prešov. Their officers did nothing. They told journalists that the Roma had provoked the skinheads. In the end the commanding officer of the brigade brought a criminal procedure against them for propagating racism and fascism. Two of them were given sentences in the military prison, one of nine months and the other for one year. The others were just given a warning.

I was 29 when I first entered the army, and most of the other soldiers in my unit were younger than I was, but they insulted me and treated me as their junior. I was repeatedly verbally abused by them. This lasted for about four months. I asked the commanding officer to do something about it because otherwise I would have to defend myself the next time. He did nothing, and so the next time I defended myself. Of course I was punished along with the attacker. So I asked to change units and I was accepted for transfer. The second unit was much better.

Romani is taught in one secondary school in Košice, but not in primary schools. The problem with teaching it is that it is not a written language. There are dictionaries, but they are no good. The text books that have been produced are for the Western Slovak dialect. Most Roma in Slovakia live in the east and don't understand this dialect. Also, qualified Roma, like doctors and teachers, often don't speak Romani at all. After 1989, there was a project in Košice where they started zero grade classes. It was really successful. It was a grade before primary school where Romani kids were taught Slovak and other preparatory lessons. Research has shown that these kids then had no problems coping with primary school. Still, two years ago the funding was stopped. Whatever works is always stopped in the end.

The school that most Romani children in Prešov go to is near to the Matica Slovenska building [an institution founded to protect the Slovak national culture]. Skinhead groups hang out where the kids from the school walk home. There was a case of a boy called J. E.. He was attacked by skinheads in February 1998 on his way home from school. He was in hospital for about three weeks and failed the school year because of it. The police never arrested the attacker, even though there were witnesses - a white man who lived near by and intervened in the attack, and other Roma. The police did not even interview the witnesses and the case was suspended. The police know that the skinheads hang out there because of the Roma but they say that the school should do something about this, and the school says the police should.


NOMADISM has been a defining characteristic of Travellers. They have had a tradition of moving which was related to their economic needs. But it wasn't only economic: it had to do with social and family reasons. It is getting extremely difficult now to lead the "Traveller" way of life. Local authorities have blocked off all traditional campsites: there are very few traditional campsites left in the country. But even if Travellers do settle they are still not accepted in towns.

Also, the extended family is very important. The sense of belonging to a group, of recognising and identifying with that group is important to Travellers. This is particularly important when extended families want to be accommodated together. The local authority who is in charge of housing for many Travellers only deals with individuals, and so families are split up. Then they are there in a housing estate of 200-300 houses. They soon feel very isolated. That is why many Travellers move out of houses when they are allocated them. That is the price they have to pay to hold onto the extended family.

Presently there are approximately 45,000 Travellers in the country, although the figures from the Irish Government Department of the Environment say there are only 30,000. That means there are about 4500-5000 families. About one third of them live in houses and see themselves as being settled in an area. Another third live in local authority provided halting sites, and the remainder are living on illegal encampments or unofficial sites. You might say that Travellers living on sites are the ones more likely to be moving. But even families that have lived in houses for fifteen to twenty years still have a wish to move at some point - and probably will.

There are a number of things that affect what it means to be a Traveller in Ireland. Where I live, there are a number of pubs that won't serve me because they know who I am. Not so much that they can identify me as a Traveller when I walk in, but they know because of where I live. There are also pubs that do serve me, but most Travellers, particularly young Travellers and women, would have difficulties. There is nothing to stop people turning Travellers away. That has an affect on younger Travellers who live in an area or have settled in that area, but are not able to socialise or mix with settled young people. They are being socially ghettoised.

There is great difficulty in schools. There is still segregation in schools, although that is being phased out. During the 1970s, the state began to put extra funding into the primary school system to encourage Traveller participation. However, in practice this meant that schools began to use these extra resources to in effect create a segregated school system for Travellers by setting up separate classrooms. It was argued by the schools that Traveller children move a lot so they could not fit into the mainstream classes. But children who were settled and who were starting school for the first time at the normal school age of four or five were also put into these classes. This is changing now. I think there is an effort by the Department of Education to try and encourage Traveller children to stay in school and to give the support they need when they are there. Most schools now employ extra support teachers to work with Traveller children within mainstream classes. The majority of Traveller children of primary school age have access to primary education, but some Traveller children are still refused entry to primary schools. Racist name-calling and being bullied at school is an experience for many young Travellers. The schools don't deal with such bullying very effectively.

A lot of Traveller children don't go on from primary level and there are many reasons for that. Firstly their experience from primary school, and secondly the attitude of Travellers themselves to the education system and that type of education. I think that attitude is changing: you can see that many Travellers are seeing the need for continuing their children in education and so the numbers are rising all the time.

The negative stereotypes of Travellers that exist generally within Irish society have a negative impact on Travellers' image of themselves, particularly young Travellers. They begin to hide their identity. Much of the reason for this is linked to their experience in school. The fact that a Traveller is Irish and white means they can often pass for a settled person. But many younger Travellers in housing estates face a crisis, because they are sometimes not accepted as Travellers by other Travellers, and they are not accepted by settled people as their neighbours. The negative images of Travellers affect their confidence and their pride in their own identity and community and their desire to protect or change it.

I think in one sense the situation is changing and has changed in the last couple of years, partly due to organisations like the Irish Traveller Movement and other local groups, and Travellers' involvement with them. They are promoting the identity and the history of Travellers, and how they have played a major role in Irish society in terms of music and culture: one that needs to be acknowledged. That creates a sense of worth, I think, and so the stereotypes of Travellers that need to be challenged are being challenged. Through the work of these organisations, Travellers have been able to start to take pride in themselves. I think that that belief in their identity has helped bring leaders forward.

On a national level, state policies have been more positive towards Travellers. This is mostly due to the recommendations of the Task Force Report on Travellers, published four years ago. The Traveller Accommodation Act was introduced last year: it was the first piece of legislation that dealt specifically with Travellers and accommodation. This legislation was a direct result of the recommendations in the report. The Act for the first time puts a statutory obligation on local authorities to draw up five-year programmes for the accommodation of Travellers. It also obliges the local authority to consult with the Travellers on accommodation issues. The legislation also, for the first time, acknowledges nomadism and the right to move and provides some legal protection for it. How this legislation gets interpreted and implemented at a local level will be important regarding its effect on Travellers. The current tendency among local authorities is to ghettoise Travellers by creating sites miles from anywhere. Travellers are then forced onto these sites through court action - for example, court orders removing them from more central, unauthorised sites. So although you could say that this legislation recognises nomadism, which is positive, you could also argue that it is a very sanitised form of nomadism.

Travellers who try to gain access to jobs in the mainstream find it difficult, particularly if the employer knows that they are Travellers. In order to get a job, Travellers often have to use the address of a relation who is living in a house. This means that they are forced to deny their identity. This discrimination against Travellers in employment may now begin to be addressed with the implementation of the Employment Equality legislation from last year. This law specifically names Travellers as a group and gives protection against discrimination in the work place. As yet, no Traveller has taken any action under it, probably because they are not aware of it. The Equal Status Bill also sees Travellers as a distinct group. The introduction of this new legislation is a positive development for Travellers.

With the increase in the small number of asylum seekers and refugees in the last few years, there is a perception in Ireland that racism is something new. The irony of this perception is that the refugees and asylum seekers get blamed for the existence of racism: "If they were not here, there wouldn't be any racism". This is a view that was quite clearly expressed by former Irish Member of the European Parliament Paddy Cooney in 1989 during a debate on racism. He claimed that "The country has been remarkably free of such problems as there is not a large presence of foreigners." This attitude has often been expressed by politicians at a national level. It shows a lack of understanding of what racism is and how it affects people.

Travellers have been experiencing racism for generations. Romani families that have recently arrived in Ireland, particularly from Romania, are being given the same kind of labels by the media that are usually attached to Travellers. For example: "They are all on the welfare fraud and cleaning the state out", "They have massive families, and they are sending it all back to their families in Romania", and are basically a "criminal element". These sorts of stereotypes have all been attached to Travellers, at various times.

At the end of the second millennium, Travellers are still very much outcasts in Irish society. Discrimination and racism is still a reality facing young Travellers. One positive aspect for me however, is the developing confidence among young Travellers and their readiness to challenge the treatment they receive from the majority population. This is being done while promoting the positive aspects of Traveller culture.


I WAS born into a Romani Lovari family. We live as keepers of the Romani tradition - Lovari are traditionally horse-traders. My family comes from the village of Nagyecsed. Nagyecsed is famous among Roma because the Romani dancer named Bela Balogh is from there, and Nagyecsed is also the home of Fekete Szemek - Black Eyes - a Romani band who have won seventeen gold records in Hungary. Members of another well-known Hungarian Romani group called Kalyi Jag are also from Nagyecsed. Kalyi Jag, besides being a musical group, has established a Romani school in Budapest.

Living in a Lovari family means for me that I have to learn all of the things a woman has to know: to cook well, to clean, to take care of children, to help my mother lead the family - in the future I would have to know these things for my husband. I also had to keep my virginity because a girl who is not a virgin has no respect in the community. A traditional Lovari man will never marry a woman who is not a virgin. So of course I behaved myself so I would be ready when the proper time arrived. Also, I stopped going to school when I was fourteen, because after that, school is a dangerous place because there are many boys around.

I remember everything clearly, I could never wear pants or short skirts. The girls in my circle were in a similar situation as me. When me and my family moved to Budapest, I realized the things are different here, among the gadje [non-Roma]. In Nagyecsed, my girlfriends were my relatives, but in Budapest I started to dance in the Romani dance theater and I met with girls who are Romani, but were very different from me and my family. At that time, approximately eight years ago, it was easier for me to make friends, because everything happened at the same place: we danced together, we became excited together before the performance and we talked a lot about all of the things around us, together. I was always wondering about the beautiful dresses.

Things are not so simple, now. We began to meet less often after the Romani theatre in Budapest closed, and when my parents began to plan to marry me. Then my mother only let me meet with my girlfriends if they came to our house. We used to show new dresses to each other. Sometimes we could go out, but only if we came back at the exact time we agreed upon beforehand. We did not talk about the latest films - at that time I still had never seen one. The girls would come and tell me what had happened at school, and about the things I could no longer do - the things other girls my age were doing. But that didn't mean that I did not see anything from the world. I could do whatever I wanted to, with my mother, brothers, sisters and with my relatives.

I went to the cinema for the first time last year. I went with one of my girlfriends. We went to see The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo diCaprio. It was my choice. My husband Matyi didn't want to let me go and when he finally let me, he wanted my friend to leave her mobile telephone on in the cinema so that he could call me during the film. Finally we persuaded him that we couldn't leave the mobile telephone on in the cinema, but it was difficult to persuade him, since he also had never been to the cinema. I liked the film very much - it was very romantic. It is about twin princes - one is evil and one is good, and the evil one keeps his brother hidden away in a dungeon with an iron mask on. They both fall in love with the same girl. I cried a lot during the film, even though it has a happy ending. After we came out of the cinema, my friend switched her mobile telephone back on. There were five messages from my husband. The phone rang thirty seconds later and it was Matyi.

I'm 25 years old now, I married six years ago as I was supposed to: Matyi courted me with great devotion for more than a year. During that time I paid careful attention so that everything would go right. I wanted this marriage very much, even if it was my parents who chose my husband. I was very excited. I had a childhood and then suddenly I became a woman and a mother. Now I have two children - Vanessa and Annácska.

Between the time when I began to dance in the Romani theatre and now, fashion has changed a lot. I always knew how to make the connection between fashion and my life. When the "colored nylon mini-skirt" came into style among young women, I went to a textile shop, bought a stretch of nylon, and stitched the same style, color skirt for myself, the same one that I had seen in the shop-windows. But the difference between the popular ones and mine was that my skirt was ankle-length. Any dress can become one of our dresses and it's true that a lot of dresses can be found ready in the shops, you don't have to do anything with them. I'm lucky, because my husband usually doesn't meddle with my dressing. I can pretty much buy what I like. Most of my fashion sources come from television. I watch music channels where beautiful girls compete to see who is the most beautiful. I don't like the Hungarian music channels because you can see only white singers there, but for example on MTV, most of them are blacks. They dance more the way I like. I can not explain exactly what is the difference between the dances of blacks and whites, but once you have seen a black girl dancing rhythmically in one of their slick video clips, you can see the difference. And their dresses are also different. So I have seen a clip where the singer wore a shiny miniskirt, white on the top and black-and-white on the bottom. It was very beautiful because you could see her distinctive features highlighted against the white skirt. I made a dress like this for my sisters-in-law. Of course, this does not mean that I don't like the local Hungarian fashion. If I see a good-looking non-Romani girl with beautiful, long legs in a mini skirt on the street, I think it looks good. I like that, but I never wear mini-skirts myself. It is funny when I go into a shop and I take a look at the new dresses and a salesgirl comes up to me and shows fantastic dresses to me, but the big problem is that all of them are mini. I always try to explain what the problem with those dresses is, but the salesgirls usually ask me to show my legs. They think I won't wear a mini-skirt because of the way my legs look. I always enjoy situations like that.

I had a period when my favorite kind of skirt was the one-color skirt. At that time, the most popular color was the phosphorescent green and orange. Nowadays, the long, wide, flowery skirts our mothers and grandmothers wear are not so popular among the youth. Now we wear the long, tight hobble-skirt. The similarity is that skirts have stayed long. It is a bit difficult to walk in a long hobble-skirt together with the new thick-soled shoes that are in fashion now, but one of the tasks of a real woman is to learn how to behave beautifully in uncomfortable dresses, as well as in comfortable ones. Now I like very much sparkling and glittering, long, sleeveless dresses, the one which look like elegant nightshirts. I wear them on the street, too.

Hair is also important. I have never had a short haircut, because for women hair is the greatest ornament. Some women wear shawls. If you wear a shawl, it means that you are not a girl anymore - you have husband and children. In Nagyecsed, all of the women wear shawls, but here in Budapest, I don't wear them and neither does my mother. I have really long hair down to my waist. I have never had bangs, but now I like very much the stepped-cut hairstyle, sometimes scrolled. I went to the hairdresser. She suggested that it would be very attractive if we put some light lines into my hair. So I had them put in. Many people at home didn't like it, but I didn't have a big problem with it. The haircut can be changed according to fashion but it has to be kept long, like the skirt.


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