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Gypsies Try Organizing to Fight Discrimination and Poverty

June 5, 1994

SEVILLE, Spain (AP) _ The wandering Gypsies of Europe, scorned for centuries by those with the power to help them, are finally trying to organize and help themselves.

About 250 gathered in Seville last month to discuss the growing violence against Gypsies and how to improve their lot without destroying their culture. It was the first Gypsy meeting sponsored by a supranational organization - the European Commission, executive body of the European Union.

Not since the Nazis slaughtered Gypsies in their genocidal campaign for racial purity have the people who call themselves Romas faced such a wave of violence and xenophobia.

″We’re trying to do something now because of what happened to our own families during the last war,″ said Marcel Hoffmann, one of 43 French Gypsies who attended the 1st Gypsy Congress of the European Union.

In eastern Europe, Gypsies have been attacked with increasing frequency. Gypsies in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, have been killed or driven from their homes by both Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat forces.

On May 29, residents of the Romanian village of Racsa, burned 11 Gypsy dwellings.

Thousands of Gypsies have fled west from former Yugoslavia, mainly to Italy and Germany, swelling the ranks of earlier unwanted immigrants who now face expulsion under stricter laws. Some have been attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads or other extremists.

Three years ago, a mob in the southern Spanish town of Mancha Real went on a rampage after a bar owner was killed in a fight, burning Gypsies’ homes and driving them out of town.

The 6,000 Gypsies trapped in Sarajevo by the Bosnian war say they have received little of the U.N. humanitarian aid distributed through organizations representing Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews.

Dervo Sejdic, a Sarajevo Gypsy who managed to attend the Seville conference, said a special association was set up two months ago to channel food aid directly to the Gypsies.

The wandering nature of Gypsies, who are believed to have begun their westward exodus from India in the 10th century, is both the hallmark of their culture and the trait that leads to conflict with structured societies.

″We love to move around,″ said Hoffmann, the French Gypsy. ″We refuse to be sedentary, to remain in one place.″

Their roaming makes it difficult for national or local governments to educate Gypsies, tax them or even count them. The Gypsy population of Europe is estinmated at about 5 million.

Peter Mercer, head of the East Anglican Gypsy Council in Britain, said Gypsies are in greater danger today than at any time since the Nazis because of increasing xenophobia and restrictive legislation.

Citing British laws that limit where Gypsies can park their wheeled homes, Mercer said: ″If they stop our horse fairs, if they stop how we meet, then they are committing cultural genocide at the very least.″

As an migratory people without territory or boundaries, Gypsies have little or no political clout. They depend for assistance on the same governments that hamper their freedom of movement.

″We (Romas) need more coodination among ourselves,″ Rajko Djuric, president of the International Romani Union, said in a panel discussion of political participation. ″The gadje (non-Gypsies) are always saying we’ve got no organization, that we’re chaotic.″

Rudolf Kosthorst, a German social worker who spends much of his time trying to help Gypsies, said dealing with them is ″incredibly stressful, like a constant tug-of-war. They’re very individualistic.″

Gypsies have made some gains in the past decade, obtaining guarantees of basic rights and public money for educational and community projects. Education, housing and making a living remain the most serious problems for most of them.

An estimated 70 percent of European Gypsies are functionally illiterate. Creating school programs for both settled Gypsy children and those in roaming families is a major challenge.

Most of Spain’s 600,000 to 900,000 Gypsies work as itinerant peddlers and many camp on the fringes of cities, creating rat-infested shantytowns. Attempts to move them into subsidized housing are fought by equally poor non- Gypsies who do not want them as neighbors.

Not all European Gypsies live in poverty. Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia of Spain, the main organizer of the Seville congress, is the first Gypsy elected to the European Parliament.

Romani is the universal Gypsy language, but many European Gypsies do not speak it and have difficulty communicating with each other. Interpreters at the meeting May 18-21 worked in Romani, English, French and Spanish. Informal interpretation in German, Italian, Romanian, Greek and Serbo-Croat also was needed.

Cristina Alberdi, the Spanish social affairs minister, told the conference proudly that her government was alone among the 12 European Union members in divising a national plan for Gypsy development. Among other things, it sets down rules for itinerant peddling.

Spanish Gypsies who heard the speech and took the microphone later said the rules mean little because many towns bar the peddlers.

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