The Roma, the largest minority group in Europe, suffer from much institutional discrimination, including in the area of education. Nandini Kochar is an NYU Abu Dhabi film student currently studying at NYU Prague, and at the beginning of the semester she approached NYU Prague staff asking how she could meet or work with Roma, as she wanted to focus her film on this community. Yveta Kenety is the Assistant Director of Student Life at NYU Prague and used to work for the nonprofit ROMEA running a mentorship program for Roma high school students. Yveta arranged for Nandini to do a non-credit internship there; read about her experiences meeting Roma youth for the first time.
I have the pleasure of interning at ROMEA, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of the Czech Republic’s marginalized Roma population. As part of the internship, my friend Vitoria and I were given the opportunity to visit the small town of Rumburk and spend the weekend with Romani high school students. What started off as an educational trip focusing on interviews and photojournalism quickly transcended into a thought-provoking and humbling experience where our preconceived notions about the Romani people were fundamentally challenged and dispelled. We went from viewing the Romani students as victims of discrimination to everyday-teenagers with dreams and experiences no different from ours.
Rumburk is situated in northern Bohemia (Czech Republic) with a population of around 11,000 people. ROMEA chose this town as the site for the eighth meeting of their BARUVAS program – meaning “We Are Growing” in the Romani language – that is offered as part of their Romani Scholarship Program. The program focuses on educating Romani students about their shared history and culture, as well as imparting relevant skills to them through workshops and seminars on media representation, networking, theatre, etc.
During the course of these workshops, we pulled aside the participants one-by-one and conducted interviews with them. We asked them about their family and childhood, their schooling experience, challenges they had faced, and their passions and dreams. Our first interviewee was Natalie from the little town of Chomutov. She is an aspiring singer, currently studying music at the Prague Conservatory. Natalie told us about her battle with identity in middle school where she found it difficult to take pride in being Romani. Her peers used to think that she was Hawaiian, and she chose not to correct them because “it was easier that way.” But after attending her first workshop with ROMEA, she began to find strength in who she is and reclaim her identity. “Soon after [the workshop], I decided to go upto my friends and confess that I’m actually Romani. I told them that if they weren’t okay with it then I didn’t want to be their friend.”
Another interviewee, Mario, shared his experience of being treated differently at school. “The most difficult time for me was in 9th grade when I wanted to pursue higher education, but my teachers refused to support me. That’s where ROMEA came in. They gave me funding so I could obtain extra tutoring. And I’m now in business school.”
As Vitoria and I spoke with more Romani students, what struck me the most was not the extent of discrimination they had faced on the basis of their ethnic identity but rather their resilience in refusing to let those experiences define them. They didn’t want to be seen as victims. Because they are not. It was at that moment that I became acutely aware of my own biases – I was so influenced by media’s one-sided depiction of the Roma and their marginalization that I had failed to see them beyond their social standing. But our personal interaction with them had quickly destabilized and shattered that reductive image. Vitoria shares the moment when this realization dawned upon her, “When we walked into the room and realized that this looks like a regular NYU Abu Dhabi class, it was a moment of wow, they’re wearing clothes I could never put together– their makeup is on point and their swagger level is amazingly high.” Indeed, they were just normal high school kids going through the typical teenage phase of being ‘too cool’.
On a more serious note, Vitoria and I – both being women of colour – found resonance with the Romani students’ experiences of identity struggle and feeling of otherness. And by the end of the weekend, our relationship with them had shifted from interviewer-interviewee to friends. So much so that we were invited to their farewell party and were able to witness the ‘gypsy dance,’ as they call it, and jam with them to Romani folk songs.
After our first night in Rumburk, I was reminded of something Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, had said in her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, that has stuck with me through the years:
“What struck me was this: she had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”
I will forever be grateful for my weekend in Rumburk because it saved me from falling into the pitfall of a single story of the Romani people. There are multiple stories and experiences and people existing within that one dominant narrative. And once we realize this, we begin to see that our similarities outweigh our differences, and we share so much more than we think.