Five Roma activists talk culture, rights and discrimination.
Today the world marks International Roma Day. April 8 is widely seen as an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture but also to raise awareness of the issues concerning around 15 million Roma people worldwide and to highlight the discrimination that Roma people face in different areas of life.
Although the day was formally ratified during the fourth World Roma Congress in 1990, the foundations of the Roma movement were laid in 1971, with its first World Congress, held in Orpington near London.
The Congress adopted one common flag for Roma people, with a symbol resembling the famous Hindu ‘Chakra’ in the center. It was chosen in honor of the Indian heritage of Roma people, while its red color represents the blood that hundreds of thousands of Roma shed during the Holocaust. The 1971 Congress also saw the creation of a Roma anthem, based on the lyrics of the Serb-Roma musician Zarko Jovanovic, a holocaust survivor.
The goals of the eight World Roma Congresses to date have been the standardization of the Roma language, improvements in civil rights and education, preservation of the Roma culture, reparations from World War II and international recognition of Romani people as a national minority of Indian origin.
Yesterday the European Commission issued a press release calling on EU citizens to acknowledge and embrace the equality of Roma people and to recognize that Roma history and culture play a unique role in the fabric of Europe.
“Equal treatment and fundamental rights are the cornerstones of the European Union,” reads the statement. “Roma have faced a long history of social exclusion and prejudice. Europe’s largest minority — with 6 million Roma living in the EU — continues to be discriminated against and marginalised.”
K2.0 met five Roma activists in different fields of social and cultural life in Kosovo, to talk about the rich Romani culture, daily challenges facing the Roma community and International Roma Day itself.
Avni Mustafa, 29 (Plemetina)
Senior program officer at Advancing Together
“They say, if you are not a musician, you are not a Roma. So in my family my father started playing the guitar at a young age. I call it the DNA that was passed to me and all my brothers. My older brother plays guitar, my second brother plays guitar, I play drums (kahun), and I have a younger brother who also plays. Everybody in my family plays something and there is this happy atmosphere going around and I am very proud of it.
Music is in our blood and is something that really defines us. Wherever you go you will go to some neighborhood and you will find some people playing music or dancing. Music is part of our life.
[My band] doesn’t play this tallava music, but we try to play something different. We are focused on pop music, Roma jazz music. With music we can show that we are not only tallava people — we try to use music as a tool to show people that we are different.
"It speaks about holocaust, about Auschwitz, it speaks about Roma survivors, it speaks about their suffering, their sacrifice."
For me as somebody working in human rights and minority and Roma rights from a young age — 12 or 13 — with different activities, at the local and international level, I think Roma Day has lost its meaning. During the Congress in 1971 the Roma people didn’t do a football tournament, but now in every municipality in Kosovo you will see that the first activity they are doing on International Roma Day is a football tournament.
Before the Kosovo war there were different activities carried out in which Roma would really try to produce policy documents, politics, and do things to change the situation. But now in the last couple of years, International Roma Day has become a business day — there are these NGOs, from civil society that are active only for International Roma Day.
[From the Congress] until now, we haven’t seen changes. For me when there is a celebration it has to happen for a reason. I believe that Roma people are really kind of overloading on celebrating — they are celebrating everything. I am not against celebration, I am really for celebration, I am Roma after all. But my point is if you want to celebrate something there needs to be a reason. April 8 is a good reason, but if you just see the environment in which people are living you will understand there is nothing to be celebrated. If you go by traffic lights you will see three or four of them begging on the streets or asking for money.
Luckily at an international level I can see useful events going on. For instance, you will have a delegation who will go to the European Parliament in Brussels, and you will also have different activities on the importance of raising awareness about International Roma Day.
If you can find the Roma anthem, you will see the lyrics of “Gelem Gelem” that are very strong. It speaks about holocaust, about Auschwitz, it speaks about Roma survivors, it speaks about their suffering, their sacrifice. You have this “Gelem Gelem” as the international anthem and you have something that has a great value — this is how you raise awareness. You put “Gelem Gelem” onto paper, translate it into Albanian as we are in Kosovo, and you send it to the media. This is raising awareness. Not the tournament, not the parties, not the tallava music.
"Discrimination in society is happening a lot. The invisible discrimination. There is the bus that goes from Prishtina to Obiliq and the bus seats are divided."
The only day in the whole year where the government, president, and head of parliament mention Roma as a community and dedicate time to then, is on April 8. I hate this because we want to first change the situation our community faces at a local level and then try to do something at regional and international levels.
The media is spreading hate speech around, which is something that is not good because it is raising hate towards people and these kind of things are happening still. It is not changing at all. I really hoped it would change after the war but it didn’t.
A crucial area to change is people’s mindsets — all people: Roma and non-Roma. Roma have to understand that the time of sacrifice is finished. They have to change the traditions, they have to change their way of thinking. They have to build their self-esteem. They have to believe in themselves, in what they are doing.
For the Albanian community and other non-Roma communities, they have to give opportunities to Roma. You’ve probably heard the rumors of people saying ‘gypsies are this, gypsies are that. They are thieves, they stink, they smell very bad.’ You have to ask yourself again: ‘Did anybody give Roma the opportunity to be something else?’ ‘What are the opportunities?’ First you have to have opportunities and then you need to have results.
Discrimination in society is happening a lot. The invisible discrimination. There is the bus that goes from Prishtina to Obiliq and the bus seats are divided. So everybody knows that from a certain point there are Roma, Ashkalis and Egyptians sitting, until that point there are Albanians and Serbs.
This is something that society has to change and everyone has to work on; it cannot be changed only by communities because they will face problems. And after that we will understand the real meaning of diversity in Kosovo.”
Isak Skenderi, 35 (Obiliq)
Executive director of Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians
“I think language is one of the main pillars of every community or ethnic group. I am very proud that Roma people, although on the road over the centuries, have aimed to preserve the language and carry it from generation to generation. We, the Roma community, were more sentimental regarding traditions and we preserved them maybe even more than other communities in general.
Some of our traditions aren’t in line with [modern] developments and our community sooner or later needs to ask ourselves if we still want to live this kind of anarchist life, where we don’t really care about world developments, or if we want to be integrated in overall society, and maybe this is the key question that we as Roma need to ask ourselves one day.
For instance, the issue of early marriages: that was part of life for different people, not only in Kosovo, but also in Europe and beyond. But while the world and other people went beyond those customs, unfortunately we are lagging behind with some of them as the Roma community. And now the thing is how much they harm us, considering modern trends of progress, of human rights, and equal rights.
Not long ago, in a village in Lipjan municipality, I saw a child, maybe around 9 years old, wandering in the streets while other children were getting ready to go to school. His father said, ‘He is very problematic, I take him to school but then he just leaves.’
This is the reality for many families living in extreme poverty because the concept of education is very low. I also attempted to leave lessons at that age, but my parents ensured I finished my education. Sometimes someone only understands those missed opportunities they had when they were a kid after they’ve grown up.
For sure part of the responsibility lies with the parents of these children, but poverty is on a very wide scale and then there is also the wider discrimination the community is facing, as many parents say that even when their children go to school it will be difficult to find a job. So, one of the battles we have is to show to families that education doesn’t mean only creating new opportunities for employment, but it is important for the intellectual progress of the community, and also for creating new life opportunities that people will discover later.
"What is important is that the community gets the sense that the attention is on them. Although it is just one day of the year, it is still one day, because earlier the Roma weren’t even the focus of attention on this day."
Fortunately in Kosovo there isn’t any institutional discrimination with regards the right to education, there are no special schools for the Roma community, and there is a tendency to avoid class segregation. But there is an ongoing open and direct discrimination from the people who work in the educational system: school directors, teachers. And while this is an individual discrimination, somehow it is also an institutional one, since these people represent the system.
I don’t feel disappointed [by the government] because if you have expectations and see that they aren’t doing something then you will get disappointed — we never had the trust that they would treat this issue in a more serious way. But on the other hand I am dissatisfied as an individual of this community that our government and institutions haven’t done what they vowed to do when they voted with the Kosovo Constitution for the creation of a democratic society with equal rights for all citizens.
International Roma Day is one of the rare days when that proudness of belonging to a certain group comes into focus, and the community might feel a bit more special because it is the day when the Roma community is talked about, when there are celebrations about the Roma community. This is one of the meanings, that recognition that we should be equal in society and life. I think this is the whole essence of the day and this is the reason I have always tended to organize awareness raising activities, rather than organizing celebratory cultural activities that for me don’t have any qualitative meaning.
What is important is that the community gets the sense that the attention is on them. Although it is just one day of the year, it is still one day, because earlier the Roma weren’t even the focus of attention on this day. So it is a step forward. And the second step is that Roma need to be part of this society and the life of this state like everybody else. If we reach this aim, then April 8 won’t bring these feelings anymore because for the Roma, April 8 would be every day of the year.”
Denis Mustafa, 20 (Plemetina)
Award-winning filmmaker / Visual communication facilitator of Rolling Film Festival / Artistic director of Rolling on the Road
“I make documentary films about Roma people, always trying to bring untold stories to the screen and to show to people what it is actually like to be a Roma person.
There is so much stuff, there are some prejudices, differences, and so many things on people’s minds that you cannot change just like that. And I’ve tried to do this through my movies and show them different perspectives from what they already think. And the festival Rolling on the Road is the same thing, that’s why I decided to work for the festival. Because for me it is not enough to just show all the stuff, so I thought that with the festival you bring more stories about the Roma community.
I made my first movie actually when I was 9 and it was very cool. I would see my uncle wandering with his camera and making films and I got super interested and all I wanted was to have my first movie. I just started recording and recording.
The first movie was a short movie, “Dream Power.” It tells the story of a guy who lives in Plemetina and he is left with nothing to do, and how he finds his passion for doing what he likes. It is a super amateur movie, but it is a cool one. I’ve made five long documentary films and many many short ones because every time something happens I just start recording with the camera and something comes out of it.
"I find it somehow sad that there aren’t Roma movies in Kosovar cinema."
The things that draw my attention to make a movie are simple, small things that in the end become characters or stories. I like a super simple Roma who I find super cool, who I want to show to other people. Right now I want to make a movie about a cook in Germany, who has his own restaurant. That is something you don’t hear about every day — a Roma guy owning a restaurant and inventing recipes.
At the moment, a group of people from France, Kosovo and Hungary are working on a Roma film database and we are collecting 100 of the best Roma movies and putting them on one website.
Unfortunately, I find it somehow sad that there aren’t Roma movies in Kosovar cinema — there is nothing actually. Except for Rolling Film Festival, there is nothing else.
The nice thing about the festival is that we teach Roma youngsters how to make simple, low-budget, zero-budget movies, just to document their stories by using sort of creative ways of thinking. And we tell them about storytelling, techniques and making movies with mobile technology. And some of them have won great awards.
Actually, I know so many Roma artists, like painters and musicians, but they are somehow in their own world, not making something bigger out of themselves. They are in their small places and either they don’t want to be seen or they don’t have the chance to be really seen.
A month before Roma Day you see millions of projects happening just for this day: tournaments, folklore, theater plays, just for that day. My issue is, what are you going to do after that?
I think all days should be Roma Day, not only April 8. And you get so much funding, because they say, “It is your thing, we show you some kind of ‘respect,’ we respect you a little.”
And the craziest thing is that no real action is happening. We do lots of cultural events on this day that we don’t do on other days. NGOs play a huge part in this because they go along with that; also the government just tries ‘to get rid of you.’ People need to push the institutions and NGOs more in order to create something more sustainable, which contains all the things that are on April 8, but not just for that day.”
Amanda Toska, 27 (Peja)
“I like the eyes of Romani people. They are colorful: blue and green with a touch of brown. I like the colors Romani people use. They come specifically from a part of today’s India and Pakistan, and maybe we have inherited these colors from them. We combine many of the colors that they do too.
Even when we see [Indian] TV shows we understand them more or less. We evaluate the accuracy of the translations, saying ‘they didn’t translate that one right.’
I am finishing my management master’s in the education sector at AAB University. I finished my bachelor’s in business administration in Peja, and my bachelor’s in education in Gjakova.
My father works at the Municipality of Peja and is an official for the returns of communities. My mother has represented women as a deputy in the Municipality of Peja’s Assembly. All my siblings are educated.
"There are many other women who are judges, prosecutors, doctors and lawyers but people don’t know them."
I think the reason that me and my family undertook all this education was because we Roma are always told that we lack knowledge. Maybe other people did not know Roma people before. Maybe they saw only the surface, and didn’t get to see the details, to find out more about us.
I remember during the war when Serbs looked down on us, just because we spoke Albanian. This is something else that pushed us and created a sense of resentfulness within us, so we continued and studied even more.
We are not all the way others think we are. The fact that I am here today and that I am employed proves that. But there are many other women who are judges, prosecutors, doctors and lawyers but people don’t know them.
According to recent research, none of the women interviewed from our community said that they wouldn’t like to work with people from different communities. They were all happy to work — be it in recycling or selling things — just to start working. But opportunities are not given to them. This isn’t just the case for Romani women, but for all women in Kosovo. They have no opportunities. But we’ve seen that women are very capable, even to lead. This was proven by Atifete Jahjaga.
It’s good to mark Roma Day, to show people that a date exists to identify us. We don’t have a state, but we still need to tell others that we have a day and we are a community, and that we have a flag, an identity, an anthem, a culture, and everything else that we can show to you.
If we have been accepted in the Roma Congress then why not have our existence as a community accepted by others. If an Indian person is respected, why not respect a Roma person? We came from them — that is our heritage. Why not respect the descendants of Indians?”
Daut Qulangjiu, 45 (Prizren)
Editor of the Roma edition editorial team at Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK)
“There are three Roma groups in Kosovo that we distinguish through the dialect they speak. There are the arli, meaning people who arrived and settled down, people who didn’t wander from one place to another. We have the gurbet, who have always had the tendency to move somewhere else in order to work and earn, and the burgurgji, whose arrival in the Balkans was through Greece, where they used to live for a very long time.
The majority of the Roma community aren’t interested in this aspect of history, from where they came from, because they want their integration process into society to be as easy as possible. Maybe some of us, through our education and progress can also help people who are on the road. That would be a strength — to be integrated into society, but many cannot find that strength and they go away, or get assimilated and hide their identity.
We have been facing assimilation since forever, and that is why when we started with the Roma edition at RTK we found the name Jekhipe [Unity] that unites all the community, including those who have become assimilated. We’ve tried to not only be an editorial team that informs in the native language, but to have it also as a way of preserving the Romani language, traditions and culture in the places where we live. Bearing in mind the increased assimilation, we have had a more complicated mission and responsibilities than other [non-Roma] journalists.
"Since it is International Roma Day, we should talk about the day itself, or about the first Congress of the Roma community — there are other days when we need to talk about the issues faced by Roma people."
Most of the time we aren’t happy with the representation of Roma people in media outlets. It’s not being reported enough. You hear them speaking about April 8, International Roma Day, where the media invites guests to talk about the community’s situation. Five minutes of a particular program isn’t enough to talk about the position of the community. Different topics and many hours are needed to talk about this.
Since it is International Roma Day, we should talk about the day itself, or about the first Congress of the Roma community — there are other days when we need to talk about the issues faced by Roma people. My message to [journalist] colleagues would be: On April 8, focus on the day itself, on the meaning of April 8.
Journalists don’t know about the history of the community, but many Roma people don’t know it either. That’s why we’ve never had learning in the Roma language institutionally, in order to learn the history of our community, and this is also another reason why assimilation happens. Roma people might fear that they don’t have identity.
In fact, we have identity, we have culture, we have a language, which is Indo-European, one of the oldest languages spoken in India. Roma people just need to be taught about this, the history needs to be taught to them.
This is a day on which Roma people should celebrate or protest about not being included in integration processes. When we talk about integration there was the government’s strategy, only 5 or 10 percent of which was implemented.
"We often say that the whole world is our state. That’s why we should demand our rights all over the world."
This is a day when Roma voices should be raised a little more because on this day there is national and international focus on the Roma community. Celebrating or protesting, April 8 marks the day when we started to demand our rights; the day when the first Congress raised its voiced and demanded that Roma people no longer be addressed with derogatory words. Because the word Roma, means ‘human.’
Let’s not forget that in every country marking this day, events start with a song and the anthem that refers to the holocaust, in which half of all Roma people were killed in the infamous Auschwitz camp. All Roma people need to remember the holocaust and find the strength to work and demand their rights in the countries where they live.
Because we don’t have another state, we don’t have a motherland — our state is the place in which we live. And we often say that the whole world is our state. That’s why we should demand our rights all over the world, in order to be equal with other communities living in those states, while not forgetting our history.”K
The words of the activists have been edited for length and clarity. The interviews were conducted in Albanian and English.
Images: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0. (Image of Denis Mustafa: Sami Mustafa).