The story of Europe’s Roma people is a road movie, criss-crossing Europe since their arrival from India hundreds of years ago, but their story is also one of persecution and discrimination, exclusion and poverty, and that continues today. However in eastern Slovenia local people, Roma and non-Roma, have embarked on a project to break down the wall of ignorance that separates Roma from mainstream society.
The Roma settlement of Kamenci in the region of Prekmurje is the launchpad for an innovative project supported by the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog. It is called the European Route of Roma Culture and Heritage, an international network of tourist sites to encourage direct people-to-people contact between Roma and non-Roma. It was launched here during Slovenia’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe, but it has a specifically European dimension, as the head of the Slovenian government’s office of national minorities Stanko Baluh explains: “We are still facing certain stereotypes of Roma, and I would even state that the Slovenian way of thinking is very narrow. So this particular example here in Prekmurje shows that we have to broaden our way of thinking, we have to go over borders and we can get together with the friendly states around us. We can take certain steps forward, even towards the Roma community.” Music and dance are central to the Roma culture, and over the centuries it has inspired Europe’s classical and popular composers, becoming an important part of Europe’s cultural development. This project sees Roma culture not only as something to be celebrated in its own right, but a way of demystifying Roma people and challenging many of the misapprehensions about them. Among the guests at this event is a Roma journalist, Jake Bowers from the UK: “My hope is that this route literally diverts people to meet Europe’s largest ethnic minority. All Europeans know about gypsy people, they see them at the side of the road, they see them in camps, they hear about us in fiction and in films, yet they don’t know us. So if this road can literally bring them to people’s front doors, then they will start to understand us.” The European Route of Roma Culture and Heritage launch followed a conference in nearby Lendava. Roma people and representatives of organisations working with them gathered to discuss the project’s ideas, sharing their experiences of Roma cultural initiatives all across Europe. Irena Guidikova is the Council of Europe official responsible for the project’s development. She explains where the idea first came from: “There is a 20-year-old programme of the Council of Europe called ‘Council of Europe cultural routes’ and it has always been considered a very effective way of raising awareness about the unity of Europe, the fundamental cultural unity of Europe. So we thought that because there is a big issue with achieving, with managing, Roma inclusion through exclusively social or educational or political measures, it seemed appropriate to work on the deep-rooted attitudes of the majority about Roma people through establishing direct links between Roma and non-Roma.” The conference venue also hosted an exhibition of photographs depicting scenes from Roma communities. Photographer Nino Pušija discovered only recently that he has Roma roots. He has been chronicling the lives of Roma people for nearly 20 years. His interest developed when he suddenly found himself living alongside Roma people, at a moment when social barriers had temporarily broken down: “My inspiration was in the beginning of the 90s, when the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. The Roma people were together with other refugees, on the run, getting away. And at that time I noticed that they were very different from other refugees. They have another view of life, they have another vision of communication, they have another culture. And at that time I was with them on their way because I was also a refugee at that time.” Slovenia is just one stop on the Roma route, which links various important Roma cultural locations around Europe. The hope is that tourists will visit them and come to learn more about Roma people. But the project also emphasises the importance of challenging prejudices by raising awareness among young people. Slovenian rap stars Murat and Jose are ambassadors for two high-profile anti-discrimination campaigns in their country, and they have lent their support to this campaign too: “I think that younger people are much more open to diversity. Even us with our music, we have had, I can say, some success in this area. People who listen to it became more aware of what’s going on, and I think things are starting to get better because of what we do.” The Council of Europe cannot go it alone in the battle against Roma exclusion. The European Parliament has long supported and helped to coordinate initiatives aimed at combating discrimination against Roma people and promoting their inclusion. One of the MEPs most active in this respect is Lívia Járóka from Hungary, of Roma extraction herself: “When knowledge is there, when real knowledge is shown about the Roma, when there is first-hand experience between groups and individuals – most importantly – then it’s so obvious that we belong together.” Back in Kamenci, the European route of Roma culture and heritage is officially launched with the help of the village chief, Ludvik Levaĉiĉ. Already this settlement has begun receiving regular visits from small groups of tourists, a development that is beginning to change the preconceptions not only of those tourists, but the Roma people’s neighbours as well: “Let me tell you this: before, people used to think about us in a very negative way. But what they see now makes Roma people all across Slovenia feel very proud. The local community is also very proud of what’s going on here. The most popular tourist site in the area in now our Roma settlement here in Kamenci.” The launch of the Roma Route has been a resounding success, but the Council of Europe and its partners can only do so much. The momentum for change must come from Roma communities themselves. This initiative suggests that using culture as a way of breaking down traditional barriers between Roma and non-Roma can be a compelling way to help Roma people help themselves.