The 8th of March, this year, means Easter day for the Orthodox church. But every year, since 1990, this day is marked as the International Romani Day, celebrating the Roma culture and calling for attention to issues related to this group of people. The date was created as a way to distinguish the first international meeting of Roma representatives, in 1971, and it was announced during the 4th World Romani Congress of the International Romani Union, in Poland.
The proper word to use, when referring to this group of people, is Roma. They are also known as Gypsies (derived from Egyptians, due to the physical similarities between the two people), or ciganos/cinganos, in some languages. The later expression comes from the word acinganos, meaning «not to be touched», and it emerged during the Byzantine empire when priests used this word so that Christians wouldn’t mix with these people, who were considered pagan. There are many stereotypes surrounding the Roma communities, such as the fact that they are violent, they steal, they live only in settlements, they are not hygienic, etc. This is the way social media sees them and, therefore, the way the rest of the world sees them. As any stereotype, these beliefs have some truth to them, but also, as any stereotype, they are complete generalisations, unfair to many Roma people around the World. This makes the integration of Romas in the community o the country they live in extremely difficult, them being, many times, practically “invisible” to the rest of the people who surround them.
Moreover, many are the controversies that put the traditional Roma and typical European cultures in a confrontation. One of the main ones is the early marriage and, many times, forced. Typically, a Roma couple will marry young, and their marriage will be arranged by their families, to make sure that the girl will still be a virgin, proving that the family is moral and proud. Although many young Roma couples decide to elope, when they fall in love, and actually marry someone of their choice, they still do it at a very young age. This custom, as well as the fact that girls should marry whilst still virgins, leads to the fear of keeping girls in school. Being mixed with non-Roma kids, there is a concern that the Roma young girls will change their mentality about their bodies and this law. This, alongside the fact that, traditionally, education wasn’t much valued, and the unstable conditions these families generally live in, increases the percentage of children who drop out of school before compulsory education ends – in Greece, the 3rd grade of middle school (15 years old). All of these cultural shocks make the mixture of the Roma people with the non-Roma part of the community extraordinarily complicated and delicate. And in Greece, it is not different…
Some of the Balkan Hotspot volunteers visited Dendropotamos, a Roma neighbourhood in the city of Thessaloniki. Inside the neighbourhood, there is a ghetto – Agiasofia – where the Roma families with less economic possibilities live. It was built in 2000, supposedly to last only 5 years. The idea of the Government was to divide the land and attribute a portion to each family so that they could build their house. This never happened and, today, 18 years later, around 3000 people are living in this ghetto, in extremely poor conditions, including a non-working sewer system.
In this community, there are many Associations, many of them only active on paper. In any case, we talked with the president of the Educational and Cultural Association of Deprived and Homeless Roma Women of Dendropotamos (E.C.A.D.H.R.W.D.), as well as with two of its members. The E.C.A.D.H.R.W.D is an organized group, founded in 2002, that puts their time and effort into finding solutions for the community’s problems, especially the ones regarding women. Today, they have a body of approximately 390 members, all of them Roma women from Dendropotamos. Their predominant purpose is to provide support and information to these women, mainly about health and education, and they work very hard to keep moving forward with projects and partnerships that will bring the best life quality for their members. Some of the projects are put in motion with no funds, like providing gynaecology appointments for free, in the association; and others are supported by other associations, such as “Roma Women to Justice” – founded by the European Union and the Council of Europe, it intends to arrange free meetings between Roma women and lawyers so to get some legal advice, when needed.
As the only representative of NGO’s in Greece, “Alternative Innovative Development” (A.I.D.) is a friendly organization of E.C.A.D.H.R.W.D. with very similar purposes towards what concerns the Roma community in Greece. It is a group of specialists, experienced in different fields, whose main purpose is to «provide support to individuals and groups in need, focusing on actions related to Human Rights, racism and marginalization of vulnerable social groups».