Spending A Day with the Roma

I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Image via Wikipedia

Today seemed like an appropriate day to write the most challenging post of this trip. It is challenging, because this event was the heart of this journey. It is challenging because this one day had so much impact on my personal journey. It is challenging because I am still trying to process and understand the amazing journey that lasted about 8 hours of my life.

My time with the Roma was too short and incomplete. I hope that someday I will be invited back and able to join Dramatic Adventure Theatre on an Action project in that community. If not, however, this day was a key moment in my journey of understanding my own life and rediscovering purpose. That must be enough, for now.

I don’t have any photos from the day, because I was too busy living it to take pictures. I will try to borrow a few from other’s who managed to pull out their cameras.

[Moment of excitement!! I knew that the sponsors of the program had been taking pictures, so I did a Google search to see if they had posted pictures and found this article “New York Theatre in Stara Lubovna”. Now I shall borrow some images. ]

 I still, however, struggle for the words to write this post, so I must resort to sharing excerpts from my journal, some of the “creative writing” it led to, and my more recent interpretations of the events.

First, a bit of a journal entry from a couple of nights before, when we had dinner with an American man, his Slovakian wife, and one of her friends who I will call K:

“K. lives in Bratislava and works for IBM. ‘”I don’t like my job,” she said, and we all nodded in understanding. This woman, when in school , had traveled and studied all across Eastern Europe. She seemed intelligent, friendly, and interested in the world, until . . . we mentioned the project with the Roma. In a valiant effort she tried to be polite and keep her personal opinions about them to herself. But her hardened shoulders and pursed mouth spoke volumes despite her polite questions and ‘we shall see’ comments.

It’s those silent messages that fascinate and scare me.”

She was not the only person to react that way. The reactions varied in degree but they were all there. One Slovak man tried to explain the prejudice away, by saying that the Slovak’s sort of see the Roma as animals. Does that sound familiar (and disgusting) to anyone else?

We knew going in that this would not be easy. We knew that the hatred and misunderstanding between these two cultures is thousands of years deep. We knew that the Roma both hated and feared whites (rightfully so).  I admit to being nervous and carrying with me my own fears and doubts. I think all of us were.

Now to the journal entry from the actual day:

Yesterday was an amazing day! While it started off badly, with the alarm not going off . . . it became a day filled with energy, disparity, love, laughter, smiles, and a little fear. We took the train and a bus to Stara Lubovna to work with the Roma community there.

The Tatras from the train to Stara Lubovna.

Our contacts picked us up from the train station and drove us to a Community Center that services the Roma community. As soon as we pulled up and stepped on the slushy snow, I heard music coming from inside and saw faces peeking out the door.

 . . . we went downstairs to be greeted by at least 50 Roma children and several adults (actually, I think there were about 75 people there.  They performed three Christian songs for us, including hand movements . . . and then we began teaching.

I almost can’t put into words the power of that day. The children themselves were a little overwhelming. They like to touch, and everyone in our group claims to have been fondled inappropriately. I didn’t notice except for a couple of feeble breast touches, but that happens to me a lot with children so I guess I just ignored it.

[Side note: We later learned from our interpreter that the teens were egging the younger kids on to try to push our buttons, suggesting touching and other things to see how far they could go. I believe it was just trying to test the whites, but I also believe we passed the test.]

The girls were shy, the boys were aggressive. Few of them enjoyed “moment in the spotlight” games but they all loved using their bodies and imaginations.

At some point during the morning it really hit me that kids are kids everywhere. While I was clearly not in the States, watching the swarm of imaginative excitement could have been in any class of children being offered fun and joy from strangers.

[During our break where they served us a delicious treat of donut-like pastries] we watched a video of a drama created by a group of teens in the Roma community that call themselves the Slum Dog players. They created a show based on a true story about a boy who escaped hunger and a family that didn’t give him support by sniffing (or huffing). He died. The play toured across communities all  around Slovakia, with a discussion session folloiwng. The power of theatre speaks again!

Although they gave us scripts, I didn’t need to read the words to understand the pain . . . one of the songs emphasized the fear and anger these people feel because of a white community that offers them only abuse and hatred. I struggle to see, [understand], and live in a world where that much hatred and misunderstanding leads to people being treated like something less than animal.

We structured the afternoon session to focus on language sharing. I led part of this session, and felt good about it. At one point . . . they came up to me to see if we could do something geared toward the teenagers in the room–which we hadn’t planned. I dipped into my bag of tricks to have them do the double line improv exploring relationships . . .

Following the second session, we went for a walk into the Roma Settlement. This was an eye-opener for me, as we walked in a street paved in mud (and perhaps feces) where broken toys and garbage lined the sides. The houses all had gaps and showed age, with laundry draped out of windows and across fences. Some of the houses had new wnidows as part of a housing program [offered by the group who brought us to this community]. In each window three or more faces peered out at us. The children swarmed around us, wanting to share stories, teach us words, hold our hand. [One little girl ran inside to put on bright blue eye shadow, then came out to share her beautiful face with each of us]. The older teens stood in a clump by one door and put some music on as we walked by to try to get us to dance.

I danced.

. . . [This walk made me reflect] about how much this kind of life [and poverty] is supported by hatred, because Slovakia is filled with wealth and yet . . . these people continue to live in these conditions. Every Slovak reaction to the “Gypsy” population has been one of fear and negativity and bias. But which came first, the Roma thieving or the attitude that turned the Romani thieves?

I know this has already turned into a long post, but I feel that I can only end it by sharing the Sestina I wrote as I tried to process this day.

What Right Do I Have?

What right do I have to worry about my life
when I have had so many opportunities in this world
while many live in poverty and fear
stemming from misunderstanding, ignorance and hate?
What right do I have to worry about the future
when so many suffer to survive in the present?

This journey I’m on has presented
me with a new perspective about life.
I recognize that whatever the future
brings, I must somehow work toward a world
which is not guided by ugly hate
and enables all to live without fear.

Yet still my head fills with the fear
that I will somehow fail to present
a successful way to combat the hate
that affects so many people’s lives.
How can I make a difference in a world
where poverty, drugs and racism limit the future?

What right do I have to worry about my future
and to hide behind my own imagined fears
when the reality is that I live in a privileged world
despite my confusions in my present
role? I know that I must find a life
that allows me to combat hate.

But the thing inside that I most hate
is my constant fretting over the future
especially as I recognize that my life
is filled with love, friendship and joy–not fear.
If I can focus on the present
then perhaps I can find my purpose in the world.

For this trip has taught me that our world
still runs often on the fuel of hate.
What right do I have to worry about my present
when so many people seem to have no future?
My heart has broken to hear of the fear
that has had such an impact on Roma lives.

I wish for them and all a life without fear in the future
as my heart mourns a world full of hate in the present.

25 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nathan
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 09:02:35

    A wonderful post showing the world to others that might not remember there is more than the USA. Great poem too.


  2. Victoria-writes
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 09:28:15

    An eye opening trip. Beautiful poem. I can really feel how it’s moved you.


  3. Taochild
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 09:34:10

    One of the most humbling things that can happen to a us as humans is to truly understand that we are just one life among billions. No matter what sorrow and joys our story holds, there are countless other stories out there, and sometimes those other stories have a tragic element to them. It can be truly enlightening to read those other stories, and learn from them. And maybe remove blinders from some other eyes by sharing these stories. Great pots as always!!


  4. bornstoryteller
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 09:36:02

    Just chilling, the continued hatred of people towards others. Animals/De-humanizing thoughts help create the pogroms and genocides of the world.

    I’m so glad you had all these experiences, and found an energy you felt missing.


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Jan 16, 2012 @ 11:25:59

      Chilling, indeed. But, it reminded me of the importance of what we as artists do. The country, overall, values the arts and I believe it will take artists to make the changes necessary.


  5. Barbarann Ayars
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 10:43:49

    For an American, and all that it means, the shocking marginalization of a class of people seen as less than human is very hard to process. A whole geographical area called Eastern Europe knows the ravages, the devaluation, the captivity of Communism as a means to break a people, and with new freedoms to recapture their culture, their values, their lives, there is this huge blind spot to the persecution of a people they deprive of simple basics. How is it reconciled? What must they tell themselves to justify their boot on someone else’s neck? Your experience and your reaction echoes my ownin Romania. There we sang for hours in a gypsy church, picked up children and held them in our arms….nobody touches Gypsies in Romania….combined our music with theirs, emptied our pockets, shared our instruments, replaced their accordion, lived our faith in front of them. My computer suffered a severe virus attack so it’s in the shop for salvage. I’ll send you my essay about it when I can access it. As with you, this was a seminal moment in my life. How Gypsies are seen by the general population of a nation amazed and appalled us. We are so used to the privileges of freedom, of creativity, of openess that it is a real reach to grasp the dynamics that make no sense to us. From their side, processing American openess and simple acceptance is often to label us naive and innocent. But the look in their eyes says something entirely different. THEY KNOW their guilt and know they are exposed. Out of that came growth that we continue to see.Believe that a long time from now your work will resonate and be remembered. Far from guilt that it is better here, know that what you left in your wake is the gift you gave in simple uninhibited love. It is what we are called and commanded to do. High five!


  6. Kathryn McCullough
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 11:23:08

    Another amazing post, Lisa, and so perfect for this holiday. It’s interesting how stories about hate are rooted in the past, but hope for changing that depends on action in the present. Your words here and participation in Slovakia help propell that hope into a future that is changed, one where peple put aside prejudice and behave differently.

    This post is utterly perfect for today! Thank you, my friend.

    Love the sestina, as well!



    • Lisa Wields Words
      Jan 16, 2012 @ 11:28:03

      Thanks Kathy,

      I’ve been avoiding this post as I was not sure how to approach it. But last night, when my trip-induced cough woke me up, I realized I had to post it today. The parallels of hatred and bias are rooted deeply in every country, but people like MLK were able to promote the change. I wonder who, of if, anyone can do that for the Roma?



  7. Andra Watkins
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 12:10:01

    Lisa, this post made me cry. What an appropriate and fitting choice for today. I, too, struggle to understand how much hatred is in the world and WHY it’s there. People are people, everywhere.


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  9. Barbarann Ayars
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 12:30:34

    From an orphanage background myself, I can tell you I recall the scratchy sweater of a boy from Lehigh College who came to distribute Christmas gifts to us, along with a large group of college kids. He held me in his lap, called me a cutie, and helped me unwrap a present. The year was 1943. He is permanently lodged in my memory for his kind attention to a lonely little girl. I know something about you, Lisa: you can look back at many moments in your life and see where you left significant footprints. Where you mattered. When you said yes to the moment. What you were able to do. How you did it. Know your gift and keep on gifting. You shine!


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  11. thepetalpusher
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 15:24:35

    Many Americans will never have the eye-opening experience to know how others live, others who live in poverty, others who are hated. Yet they manage to laugh and dance. The memories you are giving them, your teaching, your kindness, will be something long lasting for them. I felt so much excitement for you while reading this. Appropriate post for this day although it will be spent by many unnoticed.


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Jan 16, 2012 @ 15:27:32

      I hope so. Their joy, laughter, and music have definitely touched me.

      This is one of those days where I wish we had power over Freshly Pressed. Not that I think this is a brilliant post, but it is posts like these that need to be read today.


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