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.

The Journey as Sestina

 I felt like writing poetry today, and decided to challenge myself by writing in a form called Sestina. I’ve only used this form once before, in a poem I wrote years ago for my sister called “A Sestina from the Heart”


Box by box, item by item, I pack for our move
to a place both familiar and yet unknown
pursuing a life or perhaps a dream
of days filled with fulfilling work and challenges
met with a smile, a laugh, and joy
and evenings filled with stars, friends, and peace.

What will it take to find that peace?
Does the solution lie with this next move?
Or does the truth lie with inner joy
and acceptance that life is a journey into the unknown
with every day bringing new challenges
as we pursue our ever-changing dream?

What happens when we become unsure and dream-
less, tossing and turning at night in search of elusive peace?
Perhaps the search for a new dream becomes one of the challenges
which keeps a soul vibrant and constantly on the move
always  embracing the unexpected and the unknown
which will sometimes bring sadness but more often joy.

What if you find life is not filled with joy?
Or that everything you hope for is only a dream?
Then the next step becomes another unknown
followed by another, and another, and another until you find the peace-
ful place inside your heart which encourages a move
toward other dreams, other stories, other challenges.

Unless, of course, you wish for a life without challenges,
but for me that seems like a life without joy.
For me a successful challenge is a move
toward the next step of the journey and piece of the dream.
Knowing I can handle what comes gives me a sense of peace
even as I journey into the unknown.

I knowingly take steps toward the unknown
trusting that life will not give me any challenges
I cannot face. Knowing that even days not filled with peace,
can still be filled with joy.
As long as I keep working toward a dream
then nothing bad will happen on this, or any,  move.

While I don’t know what challenges this move
will bring, I believe that the unknown dream
is the one that will bring me peace and joy.

A Sestina from the Heart

happy valentines day - pink gerbera with a hea...

Image by Vanessa Pike-Russell via Flickr

[Note: This is a re-post of an old poem I wrote many years ago. I wanted to link it to Jingle Poetry’s Poetry Potluck (#22 Love, Bonds and Relationships) but for some reason when I went to edit, the page would die. I figured the easiest solution was to repost. I wrote this for a poetry workshop where the assignment was to write a sestina (which follows a specific  format.  Sorry if you’ve read it before.]

A Sestina from the Heart

(dedicated to my sister)

A Christmas miracle, they said, she should not have lived,
but her strong body would not give up.
We laughed, another Jewish miracle at Christmas time.
We cried, a virus destroying her young heart,
her mind struggling with memories of past and present.
Silly battles fought around her, to love, to heal, to help.

Our brother’s healing hands seemed to help.
Our mother began to understand how he lived
in a world of energy, a gift he could present
to us all.  His power kept my spirit up
but could not heal my breaking heart.
She forgot me first, despite all the time

we spent together living in the same room.  Time
when we both loved and hated.  She would help
me understand my heart,
breaking when I could not be loved.  We lived
apart, together. Our tiny pink bedroom up-
stairs was filled with my fantasies.  There I would present

her with bedtime stories, whenever she was present
in the room and not having a great time
with friends who would ignore me.  Up
in my bed I would listen to the big kids outside, praying for help
to become like her.  I lived
with my heart

screaming to be special.  Her heart
was stronger than mine, until the present
moment when she should not have lived.
She began to remember in time.
She began to heal, her stubborn soul struggling against the help
offered by friends and family.  She would not give up–

–until now.  She wants to give up
frustrated by new troubles, her incomplete heart.
How can I help?
I wish I could present
her with knowledge of a future time
when she will know that she lived

helping others with the present
of her heart and her time.
She can keep her head up high knowing that she lived.

Lisa A. Kramer, August 25, 2005

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