“If the political will is not there, then you have to sue. But even if you sue, change does not happen.”
“The only thing Balkan people agree on is their hatred for the Roma.”
Senada Sali works for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an organization that uses advocacy and strategic litigation to combat discrimination against Roma people. Sali is a Roma woman and a practicing Muslim from Macedonia. Her community once specialized in horse-trading, but today Sali does legal work using her college degree.
The Roma are Central and Eastern Europe’s largest ethnic minority. They are also one of its most persecuted. Colloquially referred to as “gypsies” for their supposed Egyptian heritage, the Roma are a heterogeneous ethnic group without a single common language, religion, or cultural tradition.
“The Roma don’t really work in circuses or magic shows like the stereotype goes,” Sali said in an interview with The Politic. “Our community is very divided.”
Sali explained to me that although she is Roma and Muslim, many other Roma communities belong to different faiths. In addition to religious diversity, Sali said that the languages spoken by Roma communities also vary by region.
In Sali’s view, a history fraught with oppression is the only real explanation for modern Roma communities’ economic and social disadvantages.
Sali used the example of language to explain how Roma communities throughout the world have been persecuted. “In Spain, they don’t speak the Romani language,” she said. “The Romani language was banned there, and if you were heard speaking it, you would have your tongue cut off. The Roma there speak a language called Calo instead.”
Calo is a blend of Spanish, Portuguese and traditional Romani. It was originally used as a method of discreet communication between Iberian Roma people to avoid being punished by the Spanish authorities. The root of the language’s name is the Romani word kalo, which means “black” or “absorbing all light.”
“It is called ‘black’ because of its black history,” Sali said.
Many attribute this diversity to policies of forced assimilation in the societies where Roma people settled. Roma communities are vulnerable to discrimination because of their statelessness. Starting in the early 12th century, Roma people began migrating from the region that is now India into the Balkans. The first historically recorded meeting between Europeans and the Roma was documented by an Irish monk who referred to the Roma as “the descendants of Cain,” likely for their dark skin.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Roma were often serfs and slaves in feudal societies. In the 16th century, nomadic Roma communities were expelled from countries like Germany and France. In some other nations they were subject to ethnic cleansing. In an extreme example, Roma women living in Bohemia had their ears severed as a mark of their ethnic identity. Roma were still enslaved in Romania…