Yes, my fellow Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian citizens need to say it loud and clear: “I will never again allow myself or my family to be threatened by hunger!”
When the COVID-19 pandemic knocked on our doors, everybody hurried to buy flour. You may have seen the long queues outside of mills, and the people at supermarkets almost fighting each other to get supplies. In these cases, fear and panic overpowered logical thinking and behavior.
Yet, in the midst of this mess, an interesting thing drew my attention — you could hardly spot any Romas, Ashkalis or Egyptians in the crowds. Not because we are rational and don’t feel afraid, on the contrary, we were even more terrified because we knew that we could not afford it financially.
I am personally very familiar with that fear and panic. Many of us in Kosovo know what it means to be panicked due to powerlessness. Seeing our loved ones suffer, our children, sisters, brothers or parents with an empty stomach, knowing that there was nothing to eat and that they could do absolutely nothing to remedy the situation.
And this bitter feeling of anger and powerlessness, considering the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians position on the margins of society, is entirely our fault.
It is partially a product of thousands of historical actions of persecution and negative socio-economic effects on Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians.
It is the ignorance of these negative past actions by the majority.
It is the depiction of our culture in fairy tales, as harbingers of bad luck and attractive dancers.
It is the appropriation of cultural images and practices on the backs of real people.
It is the unequal access to things like clean water and safe shelter.
It is precisely the geographic division between “Gypsies” and “non-Gypsies.”
The skyrocketing unemployment and drastically lower life expectancy come as a result of widespread prejudice in the police, judiciary, government, in the social welfare and healthcare systems, as well as in society as a whole. All of these things have created a collective mindset that sees us as “Gypsies,” and as such we are placed at a lower level than the majority population.
This is anti-Gypsyism — attitudes against the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, or the expression of negative stereotypes in the public sphere through hate speech. A wider spectrum of discriminatory expressions and practices includes various implicit or hidden manifestations.
Something that is not only to do with things said or done, but also things that are not said and done.
COVID-19 is an enemy to the human race and it should be treated as such by everyone. It does not differentiate based on gender, age or ethnic origin — it could afflict anyone. Knowing this, we fear that this virus will make it to our neighborhoods, our houses, distress our people and show no mercy. Simply put, the damage would be terrifying.
That is why we need to say it loud and clear: “NEVER AGAIN.”
We will not allow ourselves to end up in the same situation again. When this pandemic comes to an end, we need to start our battle, but this time with added passion and conviction. We will start the battle for good and quality education, against poverty, against unfairness and of course against inequality.
There are many ways in which we could do this and there are many positive examples that we can follow: One of the most important steps is changing behavioral practices and attitudes, especially for things that are considered stereotypes, which still dominate our communities.
However, we will not be able to bring about this change alone — we will need the full support and encouragement of the whole society. Because, by being with us, the majority will also become part of the change. In this way, the practices and manifestations of anti-Gypsyism could be reduced little by little and eventually disappear altogether, and we would reach our goal together.
Regarding the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, state institutions need to plan long-term measures for shelter, infrastructural development, economic participation through employment or self-employment, access to education and to all other sectors of society.
And, I somehow do believe that this government and this society will make change possible.
The real question is: Will we also do it? Well, we are motivated for a new beginning.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.