Proud to be Roma

In the second of our series of campaigning articles on the Roma, Ciara Leeming meets the community in Manchester

Stinking Gypsies. Thieving scum. Scroungers, beggars, gangsters, child traffickers.

This is the kind of abuse shouted, scrawled on walls and posted on online forums since Romanian Roma became a visible community in Manchester.

But the racist slurs are shrugged off by Marcella Ungureanu, 32, who was one of the first Roma to move to Manchester in search of a better life.

“People sometimes make us feel that we should have shame for being Gypsies but there is no shame in it,” she says. “In Romania the word for Gypsy – tsigan – is a negative thing, an insult. But it is our identity – this is what we are. We are not ashamed, we are proud of being Roma and of our culture. Yes, there are some people in Manchester who say bad things about us but you get that everywhere and most people here are kind.”

Ungureanu is dressed in the typical style of a Romanian Roma woman – with a long patterned skirt and a loose headscarf. She has an open face, sparkling eyes and wears a permanent disarming smile. Speaking partly in English and partly through an interpreter, she explains that like many Roma from her country she never got the chance to go to school and married young, at just 14. She gave birth to her first child two years later but life was difficult and jobs hard to come by for anyone, especially Roma.

In 2003, she and her husband Daniel came to the UK and settled in the Gorton neighbourhood of Manchester. Today, two of their four children live in Romania with their grandmother, and the family share their home with another Roma woman.
The main challenge for her community is work, she says, before asking whether we know of any jobs. The Ungureanus make ends meet by selling The Big Issue in the North but she would like to clean or look after children and her husband wants to find work fixing satellite dishes.

She smiles. “Most of us want to work but the problem is that we can’t get jobs. I think it’s unfair that people judge us because a few Romanian Gypsies do bad things. British people look at us and are scared because they think we are different. They say we are criminals but they are wrong. We go to church and we don’t drink or smoke. We are not fighters. We like to stay together, we like to be quiet and stay out of trouble. There is no reason to be afraid of us because we are good people.”

There are between 10 and 12 million Roma across Europe. Linguistic clues suggest they originate from northern India and moved through Persia, Turkey and into the Balkans, with migrations branching off into Russia, Scandinavia, France and the Iberian peninsula, and the British Isles.

Over recent years a new wave of migration has been taking place, with central and eastern European Roma moving west – first as asylum seekers and more recently as members of the enlarged European Union. Slovakian Roma have been living in Glasgow for the best part of a decade, and other UK cities are home to Roma from Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. A community of Czech Roma has formed in Salford.

About two million of Romania’s 22 million people are thought to be Roma. Not all are poor but the vast majority live in poverty and face high levels of discrimination. It is not difficult to understand why so many have left but the hysterical reporting of the recent crackdowns in France and other countries risks turning some into pariahs in their chosen cities.

Standing with his friends on a tightly packed terraced street on the border between Gorton and Longsight – one of the most multicultural areas of Manchester – The Big Issue in the North finds 16-year-old Florin Calin, one of a handful of young Roma men who speak really fluent English. A thoughtful and articulate young man, he is exactly the kind of Roma that some believe could help his community thrive in Manchester if offered some encouragement and a helping hand.

For Calin’s family too, life in Gorton – however imperfect – is preferable to the alternative back in Romania. They arrived as asylum seekers in 2002 and were sent to Gorton after an initial stint in London. Once given leave to remain, father Gima found work selling The Big Issue in the North and, as the community mushroomed, became the preacher in their church. Calin and his brother were the first to complete high school. He now hopes to use his language skills working as a Romani interpreter for the authorities in Manchester.

“Until about two years ago, very few of the children went to school,” he says. “My brother and I were the only ones for a long time but now about 70 per cent are being educated. In many countries you have to pay to put children through school so Roma families can’t always afford it. There are about five of us young people who speak really good English now and two of my cousins are working at the school as translators. So it’s worthwhile. Once I get my papers from Romania I hope to find work doing this as well.”

It was partly economics that drew many within the community to the UK, he explains, and cultural preferences are behind the fact that so many Romanian Roma moved to one relatively small neighbourhood. They have links to another community in London.

“People thought they’d have a better life in England,” says Calin, who lives with his parents, three brothers and sister. “A month’s wage in England could be the same as what someone earns in a year in Romania. We send any spare money back home because Roma people have a hard life in Romania.

“What a lot didn’t realise though is that it is not really possible for them to find jobs in the UK because of the law. That’s why so many of them are selling The Big Issue in the North.

“Now the council has started making that difficult. My family used to receive housing benefit but in February that was stopped because they say selling the magazine is not self-employment. This happened to a lot of people. We have appealed. It is very difficult but we just have to find other ways to get on. A lot of Roma people believe this is happening because they want us to leave Longsight.

“Manchester’s my home though – I’ve grown up here. If I went to Romania I wouldn’t know how to find my house. People around here are generally fine. There are some rude people who shout names but we are okay. We try to keep out of trouble. We just want to get on with our lives.”

A West Yorkshire home

Eugen Balaz arrived in Leeds from Slovakia speaking minimal English. Six years on, he is employed by the city council to help Roma youngsters access education.

Balaz, 35, moved with his family to escape the lack of opportunities for Roma in Eastern Europe but now calls West Yorkshire home. “Last time I visited Slovakia, after three days I couldn’t wait to get back. It felt so good to see the lights of Bradford from the aeroplane because I really felt I was coming home,” he recalls. “Life is very difficult in Slovakia. The country is an EU member but it doesn’t feel like it for us. Even if you are educated, you are nothing but a Gypsy.”

Balaz is one of two Roma migrants employed by Leeds Gypsy Roma Traveller Achievement Service, and works with more than 300 children in the city. His job involves persuading families of the value of education, as well as finding school places, paying for uniforms and signposting to other services.

The fact he is Roma and speaks the Romani language is of huge benefit when it comes to engaging the community, which can be wary of officials and unwilling to open up to outsiders.

There are upwards of 2,000 Roma people living in Leeds and Bradford, mostly from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, plus a few from Poland. In Leeds, a large number have settled in Harehills, a multicultural neighbourood of terraced housing to the east of the city centre.

The council’s early years outreach team started working closely with Roma families several years ago and now runs a weekly advocacy group from a local primary school where families can get advice.

The team also does home sessions – with interpreters – where they help young children learn through play and lend them toys. As nursery approaches, staff accompany families on visits.

For Balaz, who works with older children, it is crucial that Roma youngsters go to school and learn English. His own family ensured his first language was Slovakian and not Romani and sent him to school.

“We Gypsy people often live day to day but when I visit families I tell them that we also need to be talking about the future of our children,” he explains. “In the UK we have more opportunities than in our countries in this respect.”

Balaz and some Roma friends are now setting up a project aimed at celebrating their rich culture and promoting integration with their wider community. Called the Roma Centre, it is likely to start with small events for young people, based on music and dancing, but the idea is to challenge some of the negative stereotypes around the community.

Balaz says: “We want to promote interest in the Roma in Leeds and Bradford, and improve community cohesion and understanding. We have to celebrate the positive things about Roma culture and help people learn about us. We also want to provide some advocacy, information and language support for the Roma community, which is very important for new arrivals.

“We would like to set this up now but it’s very difficult. I’m working full time and many of the Roma people who I know have difficulties making ends meet so don’t have the time to do voluntary things. But they agree that they would like to help me where they can.”

Ciara Leeming

Photo: Women dancing at the annual Roma gathering in Costesti, Romania. Around 2 million of Romania’s 22 million people are thought to be Roma. A?new wave of migration to the west started when Romania joined the EU in 2007.?Reuters/Bogdan Cristel

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