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Art: Valentiny János.
János depicts Romani people in Hungary in the old days. Today a new radio show in Hungary highlights the many sides of of these people, especially Roma women.

Revisiting the notion that no group is a monolith, I take a look today at Hungarian Roma women. Persecuted throughout history in the many countries where they traveled, Roma (“travelers,” “gypsies”) have an especially tough time in Hungary, according to many observers. That’s why a new radio show featuring Roma women has been especially important for sharing Roma lives with non-Roma listeners.

Orla Barry writes about it for Public Radio International (PRI): “Szandi Minzari knows she’s different from most Roma women in Hungary. The divorced, single mother is one of the leading broadcasters on Radio Dikh, a radio station in Budapest, whose presenters are all Roma. 

“The station began broadcasting in February 2022 with the aim of raising the profile of Hungary’s large Roma community, as well as upending some of the negative stereotypes that still exist about the group.

“[In September], the European Parliament issued a statement saying that Hungary is no longer a fully functioning democracy. EU lawmakers laid out a long list of fundamental rights they believe are under threat, including the electoral system, judiciary independence and the protection of minorities. The Roma are Hungary’s largest ethnic minority.

“Minzari’s weekly radio show ‘Zsa Shej,’ which means ‘Let’s go, girls,’ in the Romani language, tries to cover subjects that are usually taboo in the Roma community, including those pertaining to relationships, menstruation and family issues. …

“Her co-host, Melanie Nagy, is also a divorcee and a single mother. Divorce is really uncommon among Roma, Minzari said, adding that many Roma women often stay in abusive relationships out of fear of poverty or shame. 

“One of Minzari’s friends, who was recently divorced, has now been ostracized by her family, she said. …

“Listeners of Radio Dikh, which is the Romani word ‘to see,’ are both Roma and non-Roma. The station’s motto is ‘about Roma, not just for Roma.’ The shows feature music and literature by Roma artists.

“Minzari’s father comes from a long line of traditional musicians, although he doesn’t play an instrument. He runs his own construction company, employing mainly Roma workers.

“Minzari describes herself as half-Roma, half-Hungarian because her mother is not Roma. When her parents first got together more than 35 years ago, there was a lot of hand wringing in her father’s family, Minzari said. …

“Minzari is proud of her Roma roots, but she still remembers being singled out in school by her teacher and labeled cigány, meaning ‘gypsy.’

“That was 23 years ago. Segregation of Roma children continues in Hungarian schools to this day. 

“In 2020, the country’s Supreme Court ordered an elementary school in Gyongyospata to pay compensation to Roma families for ‘unlawful segregation and substandard education.’ Before the ruling, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suggested the school should refuse to pay out any money if ordered. Instead, he suggested it was the Roma children who had created a threatening environment in the school, which led non-Roma parents to take their children to a school in a neighboring town.

“Bernard Rorke, the advocacy and research manager with the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, has been campaigning against school segregation in Hungary since 2000. 

“Conditions for Roma have deteriorated since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, Rorke said. 

“ ‘The European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Hungary for school segregation more than five years ago and more recent EU reports have noted that segregation in Hungarian schools has actually worsened,’ he said. ‘But the Orbán government has done nothing to address it.’

“But not everyone agrees. István Forgács, who is Roma and a regular commentator on Hungarian TV, believes that segregation in schools comes down to demographics. 

“ ‘The Roma have more children than non-Roma,’ he said, ‘and the high number of Roma kids in certain schools is mostly because of this difference.’

“Forgács said he believes Orbán has been doing a good job as prime minister over the last 12 years and has ‘helped the Roma socially integrate.’

“ ‘This government has helped people to have more income, both Roma and non-Roma. It has helped Roma to have more jobs and also to get closer to the non-Roma community,’ Forgács said.

“But Rorke, with the European Roma Rights Center, said unemployment remains a big issue among Roma in Hungary, and those who have a job are often paid far less than the minimum wage. …

“During the migrant crisis in 2015, when over 1 million people fled to Europe, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, Hungary refused most asylum requests. Hungary’s Justice Minister László Trócsányi said the country was unable to take in migrants because it already had its hands full dealing with its own Roma population. …

“Roma commentator Forgács said he wasn’t offended by the remarks and that the Orbán government just wanted to point out that it has its own challenges providing for its own people. 

“Orbán’s name is rarely heard on Radio Dikh — Minzari said she shies away from politics. In Hungary, the majority of the country’s news media is government-controlled or owned by Orbán allies. 

“Péter Erdélyi, director of the independent news outlet 444.hu in Budapest said … ‘There are lots of very difficult issues that people need to talk about in Hungarian media, but they won’t because they know that, as soon as there is even a remote whiff of criticism of government policies, there could be all sorts of problems around funding and licenses and whatnot. There’s an understanding that you are allowed to keep doing what you do, if you do not engage in politics,’ Erdélyi said.

“Minzari said the only criticism she has received about her show, so far, has come from members of the Roma community who disagree with her views. Non-Roma listeners have been hugely supportive, she said. ‘And even if people do complain, at least we’ve got them talking,’ Minzari said.”

More at the World, here. The World is on at 3 pm weekdays where I live, but you can get it anywhere and at different times. You are going to hear stories there that you are unlikely to hear anywhere else. It really does connect you with the world.

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Photo: Pexels
Studies show that people walking side by side naturally tend to synchronise their movements.

I remembering reading years ago that, in a business meeting, sitting beside someone you normally disagree with makes you both feel more akin. I know that when I tried it, I felt friendlier toward the other person, less antagonistic.

That insight came to mind recently when I read an article at the Conversation by Liam Cross, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in the UK.

“It’s often said,” he writes, “we feel a connection to those we are on the same path as or in sync with. … Many metaphors for conflict and resolution seem to revolve around walking or moving together. But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised by this – research shows that moving in time together with another person can result in positive social consequences.

One study, for example, found that people who walk in step with one another are more likely to cooperate – even if doing so comes at a financial cost to them. Studies have also shown how coordinating your movement with other people – such as tapping to the same rhythm – can lead to greater rapport and the desire to help each other.

“We are also more likely to conform to and obey requests when they come from someone we have coordinated with.

“Given then that we are living at a time in history when many people are marching for equality and an end to discrimination and prejudice, in our latest research project we wanted to find out if walking together could be used as a tool to foster better relationships between polarised groups. And it seems it can – in more ways than you might imagine.

“We tested whether walking in synchrony with a member of a disenfranchised minority group could improve people’s attitudes towards that group. We asked native Hungarians to walk with a Roma person. Roma people are a particularly disenfranchised group in Hungary. …

“One week before coming into the lab, we asked 70 Hungarians to fill in an attitudes assessment towards the Roma online. They were then introduced to a Roma person and spent five minutes walking laps of a large room with them. They did so either synchronously (landing their steps at the same time), or at different speeds.

The study found that following synchronous walking, people rated their Roma co-walker as more likeable, felt closer to them and had more empathy for them. They also showed increased empathy and a reduction in negative attitudes towards the Roma group as whole.

“We then wanted to see if just imagining walking in step could have the same effects. … Research has also shown that imagining having a positive conversation with members of different social groups can help bring groups together akin to actual positive interactions. Previous research has also shown how imagining walking in synchrony with a group of people can increase rapport in line with actually walking together.

“In a follow-up study, 60 Hungarian people came in to the lab and were asked to just imagine walking with a Roma man or woman after a video introduction. They were simply asked to imagine walking either in or out of sync with them. The study found that just imaging walking in synchrony improved intergroup relations akin to actual walking. …

“This kind of bodily synchrony is something we, as humans, have been doing for many thousands of years. From prehistoric cave paintings of our dancing ancestors to the remains of Palaeolithic pipes people have practised moving in time with each other throughout history.

“For coordination to have persisted across culture and time, it likely served some adaptive purpose in terms of evolution. Perhaps one of these purposes was to do with helping people get on the same path and move forward together. It seems then that there might just be something to the idea that we can empathise with others by walking in their shoes.”

More at the Conversation, here.

“Walk Together Children, Don’t You Get Weary,” sung by Mt. Olives Church Choir, Naalya, Uganda.

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Photo: Rajpot
A stool painted by Travelers, or Gypsies.

A while back, I started following Romani Arts (@romaniarts) on twitter, which is how I learned about a Scotland-based nonprofit that validates and promotes Gypsy culture. It’s called Rajpot.

From the website: “RAJPOT was established as a voluntary organisation by individuals from varying backgrounds, including Scottish Gypsy Travellers, with a view to establishing an inter-cultural arts centre that would enable people from indigenous and seldom heard cultural communities, often oppressed communities, to give voice to their experiences and allow their stories to resonate across cultural boundaries, deploying a multi-art format: visual arts, craft-making, performance art (drama, story-telling, music, poetry recital, etc.) …

“The word ‘Rajpot’ derives from the Scottish Gypsy Traveller language of Cant and usually refers to someone considered to be ‘mad’. …

“The creator embraced this humorous view of himself in designing the plans for the centre, where a large pot, typically used by Gypsy Travellers, occupies pride of place on an outside fire at the heart of the design; the symbolic value should be apparent to any Gypsy Traveller, many of whom preferred historically to cook in a large pot on an open fire.”

Rajpot’s History page offers additional background: “The origins of Scottish Gypsy Travellers, or Nackens, are commonly held by experts to be traceable to North-West India. It is believed that Gypsy warriors were expelled from India and gradually migrated westward around 1000 AD.

“Official records note the arrival of Romanies in Scotland around 1505, several years before the earliest record of their presence in England at Lambeth Palace.

“Research has noted that ‘cultural osmosis and intermarriage’ ensued between the Romanies and a group of pre-existing craftsmen referred to as ‘tynklers’; this name emerged on account of the tinkling noise they made in the production of tin wares.

“The art of tinsmithing was a widespread occupation among Gypsy groups throughout Europe. On that basis, the tinsmiths may have constituted an earlier band of Gypsy migrants who self-identified with the new arrivals.”

I have no way to evaluate whether that history is accurate. (You might check Wikipedia.) But the impulse to create an organization that honors an often misunderstood population seems a worthy one.

On a related note, this is a lovely photographic book on Travelers by two women from my old high school: Irish Tinkers.

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Photo: Akos Stiller for the New York Times
Vladimir Ledecky, the mayor of Spissky Hrhov, Slovakia, meets with Roma residents. The village has worked hard to better integrate Roma with the broader community.

The Roma, derided for centuries wherever they have traveled, have been seen as the ultimate “other.” But in this New York Times story, a village where they used to be unwelcome has made common cause with them — and prospered as a result.

Rick Lyman writes, “In a part of eastern Slovakia where other villages are withering, Spissky Hrhov shows signs of surprising prosperity. The houses are solid and well-tended. There is running water and electricity. A former distillery has been turned into an art space, its facade decorated with a colorful mosaic.

“But there is something even more striking about this place. About 350 of the 1,800 residents are Roma, a group commonly shunted aside, impoverished, undereducated and widely disparaged across Europe.

“ ‘Twenty years ago, this village nearly disappeared,’ said Vladimir Ledecky, 51, who has been mayor for 18 of those years.

“ ‘We were down to 700 residents, half of them Roma,’ he explained. ‘The problem for Slovak villages is that when the population becomes half Roma, the other half tends to move out.’

“That is when Mr. Ledecky decided to take what is still a novel and controversial approach to the Roma in his country — working to better integrate them with the community. …

“The situation for Roma has improved vastly in the village, said Petronela Kacova, 27, who lives in one of the Roma neighborhood’s newest apartment blocks with her husband and two young children. Until she got this new home, the family had to share one room in her mother-in-law’s house. Now, she said, relations are cordial between Roma and non-Roma residents, unlike in other nearby villages.

“ ‘The children know each other in school, so they play together,’ she said. ‘And we sometimes sit together, Slovaks and Roma, when we are at the pub.’ …

“ ‘There was nothing to do if people had no jobs,’ said the mayor, who is a former software engineer. ‘So, the only thing to do was to set up a village company, the only aim of which was to provide Roma with jobs. We didn’t want to have any profit.’

“The first product from the village company was pavement tiles for sidewalks. The business flourished. Then the village started its own construction company, for local infrastructure projects and to help local residents with home projects.

“ ‘We grew so fast and started making a profit, so we kept expanding,’ Mr. Ledecky said. …

“One by one, the former illegal Roma shanties were turned into legal brick homes and apartment blocks that the Roma either owned or rented. A new town hall was built. Wooden sculptures and colorful mosaics decorated the new town center. A village swimming pool was built with the profits from the businesses, and a new park is underway.

“ ‘The village has become so trendy, people are just coming,’ Mr. Ledecky said.

“One of the arguments Slovak mayors have made in refusing to upgrade Roma settlements is that doing so would only encourage more Roma to move in, exacerbating the problem. But that has not been the experience in Spissky Hrhov.

“For one thing, the village’s own Roma residents have proved vigilant about keeping out illegal shanties, eager to protect their own neighborhood and steady jobs.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: The Daily Mail
At the Ursul festival, Romany gypsies wear bear skins to ward off evil spirits from the year gone by. This scene in Comanesti, north of Bucharest, is replicated across Romania.

Today I saw a photo in the Boston Globe about an unusual custom in Romania. Inspired to do a Google search, I found a surprising amount of information.

Jay Akbar writes for Mailonline, “In a bizarre ritual every December between Christmas and New Year, Roma gypsies living in Comăneşti, 300km north of Bucharest … put on real bear skins and parade through the streets.

“The festival called Ursul — which is replicated across the country — originated from an ancient Indo-European tribe known as the Geto-Dacians, who believed bears were sacred.

“They and other tribes who lived in what is now Romania and Moldova — then known as Dacia — thought bears were the spirit of the forest and ‘the supreme master of cosmic energy’.

“According to Romanian mythology, the bear possesses the power to protect and heal.

“Villagers would long ago cover a newborn baby with bear fat, to give him strength and luck. And today they believe bear skins protect them from the spirits they are chasing out of the village.”

Read more at The Daily Mail, where you will find lots of terrific pictures.

The Ursul experiences of photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi are at CNN. She recounts how her grandmother used to see Gypsies descending “into towns from the forests in which they lived, bringing with them real bears.”

Up until the 1930s, she says, “Townsfolk would pay the Gypsies in exchange for letting the bear cubs walk up and down their backs — seen as a cure for backache.”

No more live bears today — just people in bearskins.

(Even so, I wonder if I should ask a physical therapist about getting a bear cub treatment.)

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Roma families (also called gypsies, tinkers or travelers) have a hard life in Europe. Recently, Elisabetta Povoledo wrote at the New York Times about some Roma women who are hoping to build a better life for their families by starting food businesses.

“On a muggy July evening, a handful of Italian hipsters milled around a food stand at an alternative music festival in Rome, trying to decipher some of the exotic offerings: mici, sarmale and dolma.

“These Balkan delicacies — barbecued meatballs, cabbage wraps and stuffed peppers — are the basic ingredients of an entrepreneurial scheme cooked up by a group of Roma women looking to better their lives and leave the overcrowded and insalubrious camp in Rome where they currently live.

“They call themselves the Gipsy Queens.

“ ‘Cooking? I’ve been cooking practically since I was born,’ said one of the chefs, Florentina Darmas, 33, a mother of three, who is originally from Romania. …

“Nowadays she is trying to break down some of the barriers faced by her traditionally marginalized group using the universal language of food. …

“ ‘We realized there was unexpressed potential in the community, especially on the part of women,’ said Mariangela De Blasi, a social worker with Arci Solidarietà Onlus, a Rome-based nonprofit organization that works with marginalized people and manages the burgeoning catering business. …

“If their entrepreneurial plans pan out, the Gipsy Queens hope to buy a food truck or rent a kitchen on a more permanent basis — foundations for steady work that will bring in rent money.

“ ‘Getting out [of the camp] is my first priority,’ said Hanifa Hokic, 31, a divorced mother of five children between 8 and 12 years old, who is originally from Bosnia. …

“Maria Miclescu, a 20-year-old mother of two, agreed that to give her children ‘a better future,’ she had to leave. Her husband is trying to establish a small-appliance repair business …

“The oldest member of the group, Mihaela Miclescu, 49, who is a grandmother, was happy to join the Gipsy Queens.

‘I wanted to show Italians that we are not bad people, that we want to work, not to beg.’

More here.

Photo: Gianni Cipriano for the New York Times
Maria Miclescu, left, and Codruca Balteanu at a food stand run by the Gipsy Queens during a music festival in Rome. 

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