April 27, 2009

The "Other" Part of Town

I want to rock your Gypsy soul/

Just like way back in the days of old

-Van Morrison, "Into the Mystic"

A strange word that is, Gypsy. It literally refers to that group of people also known as the Roma, but a glance at the word's appendages reveals some deep-seeded feelings about the people and their culture. Take Van Morrison's lyrics; he sings of the romantic Gypsy. This sentiment has been expressed by others, including U2's Bono, who couches a woman's "Gypsy heart" in a song about taming her "wild horses." Nomadic, unconventional, vaguely artsy, hard to pin down--that's the Gypsy of romance and mystery. In other words, a sort of ethnic bohemian. Except that bohemians generally weren't a target of Hitler's Final Solution.

But there's another side to this word that reveals some darker feelings about the Roma. Certainly you've heard the phrase "to be gyped", as in, "He gyped me!" or "He ripped me off!" That precise phrase may not exist in Macedonia, but its central idea sure does: that Roma are nothing by thieves.

And how about the Gypsy moth, that dreaded insect that inhabits a tree just long to completely kill it before moving on to another? This reflects the Western attitude regarding the historically nomadic nature of the Roma people.

Among the 15,000 or so inhabitants of our town, roughly one thousand are Roma. They mainly live on one unpaved street. It’s a slum. Many families don’t have running water or consistent electricity and their roofs leak. Unemployment is nearly ubiquitous. Almost no one has graduated from high school. In other words, if you were to look up the phrase “cycle of poverty” somewhere, this community’s picture would be right there.

The street's called Edinstvo, the Macedonian word for "unity" or "harmony." I couldn't dream up a more bitterly ironic name for this part of town.

The attitude on the part of Macedonians towards Roma in town is one of, if not outright discrimination, severe marginalization. The Roma are, in every sense of the word, "others" and there seems little interest among Macedonians to ever change that.

I was walking from school one day with two seniors from the debate team. Along the way we crossed paths with two Roma teens who attend our English class. I stopped for a second to chat with them about our schedule and then continued on. My Macedonian students looked at me strangely and one asked, "What business do you have with those people?" I explained, but they still seemed puzzled. Their reaction mirrored a common belief here: the Roma can't be helped, they don't want to be helped, so they shouldn't be helped. Don't bother.

Of course, the situation is more complex than the surface suggests. We've heard various, conflicting reports about the municipality' efforts to aid and integrate the community. Did they offer to build new, safe housing for the Roma? Or did they attempt to bulldoze half the settlements because they're an eyesore? Were the candidates for mayor in last month's election making legitimate promises to help the Roma or simply manipulating the most desperate community for votes? With some notable exceptions, Jillian and I have not found a lot of good will toward the Roma and certainly nothing that would translate into municipal support. But we can't be sure.

On the other hand, there is a lot of unity on Edinstvo; it sometimes feels like a town all to itself. When Jillian and I walk up the rough cobblestone street, just barely wide enough for the rarest of car to pass, we are met with waves and greetings from a multitude of adults, teens and young children outside--playing, standing, sitting. It constantly feels like a block party either just wrapped up or is just about to start. Because the community is so small, everyone literally knows everyone else and where they live and always knows what they're doing.

But it's hardly a block party: the living conditions on Edinstvo are quite dreadful. Many of the homes are barely fit to be called so. As much as I'd love to document some of this with our camera, I still can't bring myself to take pictures of the homes or the trash-filled gulley that runs directly down the center of Edinstvo like a polluted artery. I think it'd feel like some kind of sick voyeurism.

Instead we take pictures of the children. Between our work at the kindergarten and weekly English classes we teach for Roma kids and teens, we've developed some really nice relationships with them. And they just love getting their pictures taken and then looking at them on our camera's tiny viewing screen. Like sadistic mathematicians wielding permutations on their hapless victims, these kids seem to figure every conceivable combination for posing in photographs and then insisting we take them all. From a recent trip to the neighborhood:

There's so much more to say about this community and the relationships we've established there and the kindergarten. But it will have to wait. We'll keep you posted.

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