Travelers and the lure of an easy stereotype…

gypsy man

The news here has been full of lurid stories about Gypsies abducting little blond girls. Firstly a child found in Greece, later another in Dublin.

In neither case did we know the full facts but this has not stopped the worlds media from giving these two stories huge attention. In the Greek case they are now stalking a potential biological mother in Bulgaria, who seems to have given away her child as she was not able to support her. It already begins to look as though this story is about poverty, not about Gypsies. Within poor communities, children have always been passed around as a survival strategy so it should not be even slightly surprising.

Next we discovered that the blond kids removed by police from a Roma family in Dublin were returned to their parents after DNA tests. They were removed because they had blond hair.

So why all the hysterical attention, we have to ask?

The idea of an abducted child (even though we do not yet know whether either of these kids have actually been abducted) is an incredibly emotive issue- one that plugs in to our deepest fears as parents. This, I think, is the point. Our deepest fears. 

The swarthy outcasts who are always on the prowl- stealing the lead from our churches, the washing from our lines and our children from their beds. Hiding it all behind a quick wit and a muttered curse.

A few weeks ago there was one of those typical facebook stories handed round, suggesting that Gypsies had been seen in a particular locality watching and waiting for people to go to work so they could break into houses. Everyone was told to on their guard. There was then a line of concerned comments and bits of vitriol. True or not (and lets face it, probably not) we instinctively react to these stories as to a threat that ‘the bogeyman is coming to get you’ when we were children.

no gypsies sign

Here is my conviction; watch for the easy stereotype– particularly when aimed at a marginalised group.

It will almost certainly do damage.

Let us remember that hundreds of thousands of Roma people died in the Nazi death camps.

Let us remember too that traveling folk over the past 30-40 years in the UK have found that their lifestyles have almost been entirely forced right out onto the margins- both in terms of physical location, but also by the way society views them. This became a worry for me- I have met very few Gypsy folk- just a few contacts in my years as a social worker.

We hear stories of violence, bare knuckle fighting, weird weddings with girls dressed up like Disney dolls. We hear no stories of kindness, family, love, people who literally go the extra mile. How can we appreciate the value of the other unless we seek first to understand?

Unless we actually MEET people and share real lives?

This book might be a good place to start;

no place to call home

This is what the author has to say about her book;

My book starts with the story of the site clearance of Dale Farm, but it also goes much further afield, as well as back in history. It goes into the heat of the battle at Dale Farm – but I also examine the bitter conflict at Meriden, in the Midlands, where a small number of Romani Gypsy families also moved onto a field without planning permission, and then became embroiled in a very public dispute with some local residents.

I also travelled to Glasgow Govanhill to talk both to members of the settled community, and relatively newly arrived Roma, about life in the area and how the communities are learning to integrate, as well as travelling to both the Stow and the Appleby horse fairs to visit Gypsies and Travellers in trading and holiday mode. I went to Darlington in the North- East to visit the much respected sherar rom, elder Billy Welch, who organises Appleby Fair and has big dreams about getting out the Gypsy and Traveller vote, and to the North-West to talk to the devastated family of Johnny Delaney, a teenager from an Irish Traveller background who was kicked to death for being ‘a Gypsy’ ten years ago. I travelled down to Bristol to talk to veteran New Traveller Tony Thomson about life on the road in the 1980s, and being caught up the vicious policies of the Conservative government at that time. I also journeyed into East Anglia, where New Travellers, Irish Travellers and English Gypsies have made homes, and north of London, to Luton, to meet some of the destitute Romanian Roma who have created a vibrant community in the heart of England with the help of an inspirational Church of England priest named Martin Burrell. I was also invited to a convention in North Yorkshire by the Gypsy evangelical church, Light and Life, which is growing at an exponential rate and whose influence on nomadic cultures in the UK cannot be underestimated.

I could have travelled more – to Rathkeale, where English–Irish Travellers go for weddings, funerals and to have the graves of their ‘dear dead’ blessed once a year, or to Central and Eastern Europe, where most of the world’s Roma population (and the smaller population of Sinti and other nomadic groups) live. But I chose to concentrate on the experience of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers living in the UK – to go deep, rather than wide. But it was striking that many of those I interviewed would phone me from abroad, or from hundreds of miles away from their actual home, completely comfortable having travelled milto find work – as long as they were with family – or were earning money to keep their family.

The other way that we can encounter the other is through their art- their stories, songs, poems, paintings. I loved this little clip, from a Roma Cultural Festival in Portugal. Here we see real people full of life and pride in who they are, where they have traveled from…