Who are the Romani people?

  • There are various terms used to refer to them such as “Rom” or “Roma” or the more well-known term “Gypsy.” They are not to be confused with Romanian people.
  • “Gypsy” is considered a derogatory term by many Romani people.
  • Researchers generally agree Romani people originated from Northern India
  • They mainly live in various countries across Europe (though a large amount of the Romani population is in Europe, they live in other places such as the Middle East and North America) and are Europe’s largest ethnic minority.
  • They have a rich, diverse and unique culture.
  • Despite the fact that EU countries have banned discrimination, Romani people face rampant persecution and discrimination and racism in Europe. An article refers to them as “the unwanted Europeans.”

A book titled “The Girl From Nowhere” and how it increased my awareness of Romani people.

Until recently the only main reference I had of Romani people was Esmeralda, the “gypsy girl” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even then, through watching that movie I could tell that Romani people were often seen in a low light, especially when one of the soldiers was harassing Esmeralda and telling her: “Gypsies don’t earn money. They steal.”

Image of Esmeralda from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame

As the years went by, I would hear a little more about Romani people and learn a little more about them, but it wasn’t until I read The Girl From Nowhere by Eliska Tanzer that my awareness and understanding of Romani people really increased. 

The Girl from Nowhere is a memoir by Tanzer, where she writes about her experiences as a half Romani girl and woman. Among the many experiences she has had, some of the topics she writes about is the discrimination she has faced, how she grew up in a slum and how a school would not accept her as a student because she was half Romani. 

Cover Image of The Girl from Nowhere

I strongly recommend this book, although it does deal with heavy and disturbing topics such as child exploitation and sexual assault. The book was simply heartbreaking and made me want to learn more about Romani people and their struggles and histories. And from what I’ve learned,  they are a highly resilient people who have faced persecution and discrimination in Europe for many centuries. I think it’s incredibly important that more people are aware of them and the struggles that they have faced and continue to deal with.

Here are some ways that Romani people have been and are being discriminated against:

Quotes from Girl From Nowhere

Here are two quotes from Girl From Nowhere that I felt was really impactful and described some of the discrimination that Romani people face.

“They would not employ Gypsies in the cities surrounding us. They would not allow us to earn a living. They would refuse us entry to shops, doctors’ offices, dentists, and even public toilets. This was in the mid-nineties, and even today in some parts of Europe, it continues. We were supposed to starve to death, die of pneumonia, waste away until there was nothing left of us. But we refused.”

“Everyone else had their opinion of us, and how deserving we were of our cockroach-infested surroundings. We were always thought to be worthy of the fleapit that Drovane was, simply because we existed. A new-born Romani baby deserved to rot in Drovane because it was Gypsy. There was no help, no repairs, no attempt to give us access to running water, nothing.

Instead, the government decided that Drovane would also be the perfect pen to contain the criminals, squatters, rapists, paedophiles and other outcasts of society. So in they were moved: white men and women, whose punishment for committing the very worst of crimes was to associate with normal Romani families.”

Do Romani people deserve this treatment?

From what I’ve been reading online, it appears that some people may think that because many Romani people are “poor”, “uneducated” and “derelicts”; that it justifies Romani people being treated badly.

To treat people badly, you have to dehumanize them or tell yourself that they deserve it. And too many people in Europe have dehumanized Romani people and told themselves that Romani people deserve the poverty-drenched conditions that they are often forced to live in.

Does being “poor” suddenly mean you’re not a human being worthy of respect anymore? Does being “uneducated” also mean it’s okay for others to see you as inferior? Does being a “criminal” or “derelict” mean it’s okay for others to physically harm or murder you? Did you suddenly become a devalued object with no entitlement to human rights when you were born as a member of a certain race?

No. Just being a member of a certain race doesn’t automatically mean you have negative attributes exclusively associated with you. Even if society views you as scum, you still have a right to be treated with respect and dignity; you’re still a human being. Romani people are still human beings and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and live a life without discrimination. They do not deserve to be victims of systemic discrimination and marginalization.

It’s shameful that even in these modern times some European nations still help to keep Romani people in conditions of poverty and mistreatment. 

Blaming Romani people for their circumstances of “poverty” when they were forced into those circumstances of “poverty” is wrong. When some people say that Romani people choose to live in slums and be criminals, they need to educate themselves and have human compassion, rather than automatically judging them through a narrow, racist and stereotypical lens. 

I strongly recommend reading The Girl From Nowhere. It provides an abundance of insight into what it’s like to be a Romani woman in Europe. I think that the author Eliska Tanzer is an incredibly resilient and inspiring person who has overcome so much struggle and trauma, and I believe  her book deserves more attention.

Further learning resources: 

Although I did my individual research into Romani people and compiled some of that information into this blog post, I am not an expert at all on Romani people. To learn more about Romani people, I would recommend to also watch these two videos to better understand Romani people and their history.