A Life in the Margins: Understanding the Roma Experience

In recognition of International Roma Day, Weatherhead Faculty Associates Jacqueline Bhabha and Jennifer Leaning, and their colleague, Roma Program Director Margareta Matache, discuss the annual conference and their team’s research on a disenfranchised people.

Image of Roma painting

In one of the popular Madeline children’s stories, the well-known redheaded French schoolgirl runs away with her friend Pepito to join a caravan of Gypsies who train them to perform in their traveling circus. At first they are thrilled not to have to go to school or brush their teeth. But when they become homesick, the Gypsy mother sews them into a lion costume, effectively kidnapping them.

Of course it ends well, with a rescued Madeline exchanging farewells with the affectionate Gypsy mother and children and returning to boarding school.

Is this a harmless children’s adventure story or does it perpetuate an enduring stereotype of criminality and indifference among a little-understood ethnic group? The educational crisis of Romani children (pejoratively referenced as “Gypsies”) is just one of many research topics spearheaded by a faculty team from the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center on Health and Human Rights at Harvard.

Ask an American if they know someone of Roma heritage, and they will likely draw a blank. But mention the word “Gypsy” and a flood of associations will come to mind, especially from childhood.

To better understand the experiences of this marginalized and misunderstood ethnic group, the FXB Center created the Roma Program in 2012.

“Not many European minority groups have faced continuous discrimination as intensely and widely as Europe’s 10–12 million Roma,” the researchers write.

Image of Roma research team in the field

On Monday, April 10, the FXB Center held its fifth annual Roma Conference, titled “Culture Beyond Borders: The Roma Contribution,” timed for International Roma Day; this year it explored Roma artistry and culture.

“Exclusion, discrimination, and violence against Roma have been well documented, and have been the focus of the past four years of conferences. This year we explored the vast artistic contributions this group has given the world,” says Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Jacqueline Bhabha, director of research for the FXB Center and professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Discussion of human rights at the conference centered on the launch of the program’s first book, Realizing Roma Rights, and featured scholarly articles on civil rights and justice issues such as racism, violence, access to education, reproductive rights, and other areas of exclusion, as reported at their earlier conferences.

The Roma diaspora began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from northern India and resulted in migration and ultimately settlement throughout Europe, especially in Romania, the Balkans, France, and Italy. Their migratory path was ever changing, as they were expelled from various locations possibly due to their darker skin and their status as wanderers or outsiders.

“Their harsh and unremitting oppression, dating from the 1300s in Europe and extending to our current time, distinguishes the Roma from most minorities, with the exception perhaps of the Jews. Unlike the Jews, their absence of homeland, their impoverished and itinerant existence and their exclusion from all zones of wealth, property, and education, have marked them as the underclass in any context one may find them,” says Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Jennifer Leaning, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights and director of the FXB Center.

Unlike the African American experience, the Roma movement in Europe and other parts of the world “has not yet established a visible presence as a mass movement,” Bhabha writes in the preface of the book.

The Roma program’s mission is to use research to unpack some of the enduring human rights problems this group faces. Most recently it has addressed the complex factors behind perceived Roma attitudes toward education. In some parts of Europe, up to 90 percent of Roma children are not enrolled in secondary education because harassment and discrimination, along with other factors, are so severe that they end up dropping out. The overall low education level of Roma parents contributes to the widely held misperception that Roma parents are indifferent or hostile toward their children’s education and try to keep them out of school.

The FXB study, called “Reclaiming Adolescence: A Roma Youth Perspective,” implemented in 2012–2014, explores the educational experiences of Roma children through the voices of Romani and non-Romani teens in Serbia, who were trained to design and conduct the interviews themselves. The FXB Center collaborated with the Belgrade Center for Interactive Pedagogy and Save the Children in the northwest Balkans.

Margareta Matache, director of the Roma Program at the Harvard FXB Center, says her team wanted to sidestep some of the biases of past researchers by involving the adolescents in the study implementation. “Many times researchers come into the community to collect data but never return to share their findings,” she says. “And it is not uncommon for a researcher to think a Roma parent is not being truthful when they say they would love to have their children benefiting from higher education, but there a lot of problems in primary education that prevent them from doing that.”

To capture the day-to-day experiences of school life, researchers put together pairs of Romani and non-Romani teens to document the hardships each group experienced in school. “Not only did the youth researchers design the survey questions for peers, parents, and institutional authorities, as well as collect and analyze the data, but also they jointly developed community actions and interventions,” says Matache.

The methodology, called participatory action research (PAR), avoids subjects becoming objects of “expert research” by turning them into investigators.

Quotation about Roma discrimination

Overall, the ten youth pairs interviewed 300 adolescents, fifty-seven parents, and forty others including policy makers, teachers, social workers, and employers. The data showed that about 30 percent of Roma children stopped their education at primary school, versus 6 percent for non-Roma; and fewer than 5 percent of Roma students went to college, versus 40 percent of non-Roma. Roma youth were more than seven times more likely than non-Roma youth to experience discrimination by teachers.

The researchers documented specific examples of discrimination, as described by students:

“I did not follow the subject during class, and the teacher told me that, since I am Romani, I will definitely get married, so why waste time at school?”

“The teacher called me a ‘Gypsy brat’ and tried to hit me.”

“In primary school I was one of the best students. I even participated in the national math competition. But the principal of the school failed to recognize me as the Student of Our Generation [an award] because he said I did not know enough.”

And from Romani parents:

“Serbian children were beating my child…By the time I came they had lit a fire and were going to throw him in it.”

“The teacher kissed each child from the general population when they received their report cards…but just shook hands with the Roma children.”

One of the most alarming findings the team discovered was that the more directly an adolescent experienced discrimination, the less likely they were to aspire to a career that involved higher education. “They had dreams and hopes regarding their education but they were very pragmatic regarding their opportunities and were less and less likely to believe that higher education was a key part of their future,” says Matache.

At the end of the process, data were collected and analyzed by expert researchers and mentors, then shared with the youth teams for discussion. The draft report was presented to the communities where the data had been collected, eliciting feedback and suggestions. A final report was then distributed to local policy makers, media outlets, and civil society organizations.

Matache believes one of the most remarkable outcomes of the project was the transformation of the non-Romani youths’ perspective through the interviewing process. “I think many participants became aware of the numerous forms of discrimination against their peers, and how pervasive and internalized stigma was for Roma children,” says Matache.

One young researcher shared an insight about (his/her) Roma peers: “discrimination has become so normalized that young people do not even recognize it as as discrimination but as a way things are and will be.”

Some of the participants were even motivated to continue documenting violations of human rights in their communities, and later presented their findings at a public hearing. Another participant filed a set of antidiscrimination claims.

One non-Romani investigator noted a change in his/her perspective: “At first it was to gain work experience, but later I realized that it wasn’t about me. I wanted to change something, to help others.”

Leaning explains that through its research, the program has been able to promote policy change in Europe and is beginning to do so in the United States.

“Most compellingly, their histories of struggle for acknowledgment and place have sustained the Roma to a time, now, when in many parts of Europe and the United States, they are beginning to find success in claiming their human rights and dignity,” says Leaning. 

She notes that the FXB Center studies and advocates for a diverse set of adolescents-at-risk around the world, and expects it will expand assessment of the Roma situation in other continents.

Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Jacqueline Bhabha is a professor of the practice of health and human rights and is the director of research at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Jennifer Leaning is the François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights and is the director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

On April 10, the Roma Program, part of the FXB Center on Health and Human Rights, held a conference called Culture Beyond Borders: The Roma Contribution. The day-long event highlighted Roma arts and culture and investigated their portrayal in various media forms. To kick off the event, actor Alina Serban performed a one-woman play at the Barker Center the evening prior. Titled, I Declare at My Own Risk, the play recounts the story of a painful journey through Romani childhood.

The Weatherhead Center, along with the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center’s Field Education Internship Program and the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights, sponsors a participatory research internship in France every year for Harvard students to work with the Roma population in France. To learn more about the experiences of one of the 2016 recipients of the internship (as well as other undergraduate researchers) read our recent Centerpiece feature, Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field.

Photo credits:  

  1. Painting by Roma artist Zoran Tairovic.

  2. Margareta Matache, Carrie Bronsther, and Jacqueline Bhabha from the FXB team visit a Roma community in Mitrovica, Kosovo. Credit: FXB Center