Parallel worlds: The life of Romani people in Norway
"There probably does not exist any other group against which Norwegians harbor more prejudice," says Balder Hasvoll, the Romani Minority Adviser to the Norwegian capital of Oslo. News server Romea.cz is interviewing him in Czech, as he has both studied and worked in the Czech Republic.
We discussed the life of Romani people in Norway at his office, during a visit to the home of his Romani colleagues, while traveling through the city, at various meetings he accompanied us to, and also at a unique exhibition about the indigenous Norwegian Roma in the city museum. In addition to the Romani people who have lived throughout Scandinavia since the 16th century, the so-called "Tatere" - Travellers, whose number is estimated at about 10 000 people, there are two more distinct Romani worlds living side-by-side in Norway.
One is the group of "indigenous" Norwegian Roma, and the other is a community of Romani immigrants from the Balkans, primarily from Bulgaria, Romania, and what was once Yugoslavia. The indigenous group are Vlach Roma who have lived in Norway for almost 150 years and are now a community of roughly 500 - 700 people.
The Romani immigrant community is larger, estimated at 2 000. They began arriving in the country about eight years ago.
We're all the same to them
Romani people were not recognized as one of Norway's five national minorities until 1999. In 2008 the term "Roma" was officially recognized instead of the previous official term, "Gypsies".
Today some Norwegian Roma are referred to as integrated, while others grapple with considerable problems. "Many Norwegian Roma do not know how to read or write well, some have no idea how the local authorities work and have problems with discrimination," Hasvoll tells us.
Some Norwegian Roma also travel frequently, a way of life that influences their children's school attendance by delaying their return to instruction after breaks and requiring them to switch schools. Romani mediator Robert Lorentsen, a colleague of Hasvoll's, also encounters Romani children being removed from their families.
"What happens is that teachers misinterpret things the children talk about, they don't understand how Romani culture works, and instead of seeking an explanation, they immediately begin negotiating with the social welfare authorities. I was involved, for example, in a case where the teacher heard the children discuss arranging marriages, so she called the social welfare department and managed to get the children taken away from the family for several weeks. Ultimately it was proven that no marriages were being arranged, that the children were just pretending when they were talking to each other. They were returned to their family - all that was achieved was enormous stress generated by their being separated from their parents," Lorentsen said.
The Romani community itself is not completely homogeneous or unified - in Oslo, for example, there are several Romani "mafia" groups who practice extortion and violence against their own. "The police won't protect you because they cannot distinguish who is the assailant and who is the victim, we're all the same to them. They say we should settle our problems ourselves - many times they won't even respond when called for help," Lorentsen says.
An exhibition about Roma without them
Doubts as to the Roma receiving backup from the state could also be recognized in parts of an exhibition on the Norwegian Roma at the Museum in Oslo called "Norvegiska romá - norske sigøynere“ (Norwegian Roma - Norwegian Gypsies). "No one listens to what we are saying - they just do their thing according to their own ideas. It's not a real dialogue," the tags to the exhibition items explain.
"Why are Romani people so skeptical about various state projects?" one sign asks another. "Because they don't take us seriously," reads the answer.
"The exhibition shows the life of the indigenous Norwegian Romani people both in history and today, more or less through a Romani perspective - the curators conducted many interviews with various Romani people and created archives of news reports from the print media, radio and television," Hasvoll says. However, even the exhibition itself has not avoided a skeptical reception.
"The curators of the exhibition promised that they did not want to do an exhibition about Romani people without them. They wanted to involve Roma as docents, because they are the best-placed to say something about their history and situation. However, in the final result that did not happen at all, evidently due to a lack of financing," Hasvoll says.
What is good and what is evil
Robert Lorentsen and his wife Maria Flamros, a Romani woman originally from Slovakia, run a drop-in club for children and youth in Oslo. "We dance with the children, we are learning Norwegian and Spanish, we read, we sew and we sing. We also spend time with older children and youth after school so they can get to know the city and its surroundings, so they can get a driver's license, so they can participate in various recreational activities," explains Flamros.
She is currently putting together a little book of fairy tales for children and is planning another book. Together with the children and a pastor, they are also planning to record a CD of songs that will help people recognize what is good and what is evil.
"Nobody knows [the difference between good and evil]," she says with a smile. When asked how Norwegian Roma get along with those who have come to Norway from the Balkans, she says, "I have regard and respect for everyone, their origin doesn't matter."
"Everyone must respect one another. When I run into such people, I give them money if I have some. Some claim they are wealthy beggars, some are really angry with them and want them to disappear, to not be here anymore. In my opinion that's a bad thing - they're people too, after all," she says.
Roma from the Balkans
These people sit on the streets of Oslo, wrapped up in coats and shawls, alone or in small groups, holding paper cups and waiting for passers-by to give them spare change. Some call them immigrants fleeing poverty, others say they are a community with a business plan of begging and stealing.
Their way of life on the streets is sparking great emotion in the majority society. This summer the Norwegian Parliament also debated the issue, and if MPs approve a ban on begging in public spaces, those who violate it will face fines and up to three months in prison.
The promoters of the ban include Norwegian Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, who claims that begging is directly linked to crime, especially pickpocketing. Critics of the law say it does not target begging, but the Roma themselves, and is striving to indirectly restrict immigration to the country.
The history of the indigenous Norwegian Roma has not been a bed of roses. The forebears of today's Vlach generation came to Norway around 1880.
In 1927 Norway adopted an immigration law with a special paragraph banning Romani people from entering the country. Seven years later, in 1934, a group of 68 Norwegian Roma were not permitted to re-enter the country.
That refusal launched a series of events that had fatal consequences for them. Only 12 of the people in that group survived WWII.
Testimonies about the "Porajmos" - the Romani Holocaust - have been captured, for example, in audio recordings of survivors Miloš Karoli and Frans Josef telling about the horrors they experienced; such testimonies were also featured in the exhibition about Norwegian Roma in Oslo. "The 'Gypsy paragraph' of that law was abolished in 1956 after a big wave of criticism from abroad and at home," Hasvoll says.
In practice, however, the treatment of Romani people did not improve. In 1972, for example, Norway deported 30 Romani people to Denmark whose citizenship could not be proven.
Integration efforts and the "big swindle"
At the start of the 1960s, many Romani people in Norway lived in caravans and tents even during the winter. "They lived in terrible conditions, the Norwegians used to go look at them as if they were animals in a zoo, it was something exotic for them," Hasvoll said.
The situation was unsustainable, so the Norwegian Government offered housing to the Romani families. This effort at aid, however, lacked any dialogue with the Roma themselves, and it soon turned out that adapting to a new way of life was not at all easy for them.
The first step forward in 1972 was accompanied by a systematic integration campaign in Oslo that endeavored to help Romani people with education, employment and permanent residency and to ensure their equal access to health care and social services. One year later, the Government Office for Roma Affairs was created.
In 1989, the members of a particular Romani family became involved in a big fraud scheme with diamonds. "The big swindle", as it began to be called, is one of the biggest fraud cases in Norwegian history.
The case had such a deep impact on the life of Norwegian Roma that its repercussions are basically felt up to this day. The shadow of the members of the Karoli clan, who participated in the fraud, still fall on the entire Romani minority in Norway.
Some believe the fraud was even a deciding factor in the closure of all government care for Roma in 1991. "After the big swindle, ordinary people's perceptions of Roma greatly changed. The members of that family, the brothers and sons of those who were actually involved, even changed their names," Hasvoll says.
"Probably there is no other group against which Norwegians have greater prejudice. As a minority they are very well-known, thanks to the diamond fraud, and ever since, most of the majority population believes that all Roma are like that," he says.
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