Ukrainian Roma: The government treats us like stepchildren
Ukrainians are enduring a serious hangover after the euphoria of Maidan. Romani people in Ukraine are also being most painfully affected by the current crisis.
Hundreds of families have been trying to flee recent fighting in Donbas and Luhansk, and Romani activists have set up a hotline for them in Kiev. Despite poverty and war, most Romani people consider themselves Ukrainian patriots and still believe in a better tomorrow.
"Romani people from the east of Ukraine, just like the other inhabitants, are doing their best to save their bare lives and are fleeing the places of fighting as quickly as possible. However, far from all of them can afford it, so they are endeavoring to at least send their children and the women from the communities to safety," Natalia Varakuta, a Romani activist from Donbas, told news server Romea.cz on 4 June.
Varakuta said the situation was critical. Artillery shells, bombs and rockets were falling on the town.
The number of civilian victims was rising and fear and panic were spreading. "We have to forget about dancing and singing now, the material situation is getting worse day by day. All of the markets and shops are closed and there is nothing to buy. It's also hard to collect scrap metal under gunfire. Local Roma will support a government that looks after its citizens, not one that shoots them and throws bombs at them," Varakuta said.
Despite the danger, Varakuta travels into town every day to visit the children's hospital, where distressed young patients listen to the din of explosions in terror. "Grown men are shooting like lunatics over the heads of little children," she says.
"One thing I cannot understand," Varakuta posted recently to her Facebook social networking profile, " is if the Ukrainians, led by their new president, want to live together us, the inhabitants of the east, in a single country, then why are they annoying us like this? What do they think - that if they shoot us we will love them? Our own government is killing us. On the other hand, I definitely disagree with the statements by those sympathetic to the Donetsk People's Republic that Donbas is 'Russian'. That's not true, several different nationalities live here. Despite this, we still believe our native Ukraine will start treating us like a mother, not like a stepmother. I love Ukraine, I would like to keep living here, it's my home, but now our eyes are only good for crying - someone has let the genie of hatred out of the bottle, and people who have lived through good and bad times together as native-born neighbors have suddenly begun to fanatically murder one another."
Varakuta said the priority for all inhabitants of Donetsk is to leave and save their own lives. Romani people are impoverished and have many children, so it is highly improbable they will actually have the opportunity to flee.
"Those days when we traveled and were able to quickly move from one place to another are gone. We could use those skills now," Varakuta said.
Reports of hundreds of Romani families fleeing armed conflict in Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Luhansk and Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine have been confirmed by the Kiev-based Romani activist Kondur Zola, who recently attended the international meeting of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in Prague together with the Vice President of the Ukrainian Romani Congress, Yuriy Ivanko, as a representative of the Ukrainian Roma. "Two weeks ago, dozens of Romani families fled across the border into Russia. There were approximately 50 of them, so several hundred people total," Zola said.
"Currently they are living in a Russian monastery near the Ukrainian border and waiting for aid that has been promised by the Russian government, specifically, basic material assistance, housing, and jobs. However, I personally believe that was just a propaganda statement by the Russian government, because there are thousands of Romani people in Russia who are in urgent need of housing and jobs and no support actually ever reaches them, so I doubt Romani people from eastern Ukraine will ever see aid from Moscow," Zola said.
Other dozens of Romani families who managed to flee Donetsk have found temporary asylum with relatives in Lviv, according to Zola. However, they cannot live there long-term because their housing is overcrowded and there is no opportunity to find work there.
The problem is that while many more Romani people have attempted to flee Donetsk, such efforts are an insurmountable problem for many families. "Even when they raise the money for the trip, they can't make it pass the separatist checkpoints and are sent back. Only those who had luck and money succeeded. More and more people are attempting to flee these isolated, shot-up towns to save their families despite the ongoing fighting. We can't estimate their numbers, but what is certain is that they are rising," Zola said.
Romani organizations in Ukraine do not receive sufficient support from the authorities or the government, so their activities are seriously restricted. "We are doing our best to at least communicate with and disseminate information among Romani people and to draw the attention of the international organizations to the critical situations of many Romani families. Those organizations can then pressure the government in Kiev to take measures to ensure their lives are dignified, peaceful, and safe," a Ukrainian activist told news server Romea.cz.
"Every time we learn of a mass exodus of Romani families from the regions, we do our best to monitor the situation and report about it to other Roma. We issue joint statements, we send our demands to the government. We provide at least food and shelter to Romani refugees who manage to get to Kiev, but we have neither enough money nor enough people for more coordinated aid. We have sent up a hotline for Romani refugees where they can get the information they need, mainly about where and how they might have a chance to ask for aid," the activist says.
The situation of Romani people in Ukraine, according to this activist, is immeasurably complicated and hard to follow, and the war has just exacerbated all of the pre-existing problems. The first cases of attacks on Romani homes and settlements took place in January of this year.
During the demonstrations on Maidan, reports were heard of the first attacks on Romani families in their own homes. First it was believed these were raids by Ukrainian nationalist groups, but according to more recent information, they were planned provocations undertaken by the Russians.
Pogroms against Romani people occurred in the town of Chorostyň near Kiev. "A group of approximately 15 people drove up in luxury automobiles wearing masks and armed with baseball bats and pistols. They forced their way into buildings occupied by Romani people and demanded all their money, jewelry, gold, and everything valuable. Several Romani people were brutally beaten during this attack, not just men but also women," Zola emphasizes.
"The assailants threatened the Roma that if they didn't leave town immediately they would all be shot. The Roma packed their bags in a genuine panic and headed to their relatives' homes. The fear and uncertainty lasted several weeks, almost two months. Back then we warned all Romani people in the neighboring towns and villages that pogroms of that sort might take place. The Roma organized militia groups and patrolled day and night," Zola said.
When asked how many of these pogroms are participated in by members of the nationalist groups Freedom or Right Sector, Yuriy Ivanko responds that such notions are largely Russian propaganda. "I live in the town of Kherson on the border of the Crimea, where I run the local philharmonic. It is absolutely calm there, no Banderites there at all. However, the calm is sometimes horrifying - it's because people prefer to stay home at night," he said.
Romani activists in Kherson, of course, have too much work to do even without violent conflicts to contend with. "The main problem with Romani children in Ukraine now is that they aren't getting educations. The war is an excuse for them not to attend school at all," Ivanko told news server Romea.cz.
"This is a vicious circle. Children who grow up in Romani families do not have parents who can afford to buy them things they need for school so the other pupils won't laugh at them or look down at them. They prefer to not attend school. Without an education, they have no chance of finding jobs as adults. Due the poverty of today's families, a new, lost generation of the uneducated is growing up here, and once they are adults, they will not arrange for education for their own children," Ivanko says.
He believes it is incredibly difficult for Romani people to find work in Ukraine. There is often not enough work for non-Romani Ukrainians either.
Another problem is the fact that Ukraine does not make it possible for Romani representatives to enjoy the slightest access to either local or state authorities. The representation of Romani people at any official level is still, according to Ivanko, an "insurmountable taboo."
"Prejudices against Romani people are strong in Ukraine. Unless we succeed in changing the majority's view of us and our problems, we will be condemned to conflicts and suffering. For those of us who are Romani activists, there is just one rule: If we succeed in breaking down the prejudices against Romani people in at least one person, in means we have not lived and worked in vain. If you can succeed with one, you can succeed with others. In that sense we are modest but persistent," Ivanko says.
Yuriy Ivanko considers people like himself to be as rare as hen's teeth - "I'm the only Ukrainian Rom who is the director of a philharmonic orchestra," he says with a smile. He says he enjoyed good luck in the midst of misfortune because schools were free of charge when he was growing up in the Soviet Union, while today the support of a high school or college student in Ukraine costs such horrendous amounts of money that Romani people have no chance of affording it.
"Despite that, however, we are doing everything in our power for Romani people to improve their lives. We organize Romani concerts and parties. People like our dance and music, and therein lies our hope of changing the hateful or indifferent attitudes toward Romani people as a whole. Sometimes it works. The blindfolds fall from people's eyes, they begin treating us completely differently," says Ivanko, who has chaired the Romani Society in Kherson since 1998.
The pride and joy of the Romani organization in Kherson and its local creative club, Amala, is a richly designed and beautifully illustrated book of Pushkin's fairy tales translated into Romanes. The book is not just an advertisement for the association's outreach work, but a weapon against the Romani people's worst enemy in Ukraine, which Ivanko believes is a lack of education.
"This beautiful little book is a chance at a better future for our Romani children. It will be the first book they ever hold in their hands. If they realize how beautiful a book can be, how much fantasy and joy it can bring them, then there is a hope that they will want to learn Romanes and educate themselves further. That's why it's so colorful, with these hand-painted Romani illustrations, so it can capture their imaginations, so they'll fall in love with it," Ivanko tells Romea.cz. "If anything can save our exploding, nervous, quarreling world, I firmly believe it is art, beauty, and music."
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