We were guests of the Association of 21st-Century Roma Women in Nyíregyháza. We talked to Réka Makula, the president of the association, and two of her colleagues, Betti and Barbi, about Roma culture and the outlook of Roma women today. They also talked about the new challenges the Ukrainian crisis has brought for the association.
Réka, please introduce us to the 21st century ROMA WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION. Who are you, what do you do?
Réka: I worked as a family support worker for years, which I loved. I loved it very much. I wanted them to be more fulfilled. 6 years ago we started the association with 10 people. Everyone knew each other, as we all came from the social sector. We knew each other’s work. We learned everything from scratch, from how to set up an association to how to submit an application. It’s been a long journey, and we don’t spare any time: we have gone and are going to training courses all over the country. Today we are 18 women and men, Roma and non-Roma. It is a real success of the association that a man of non-Roma origin is a member of the association, he wants to do something for this cause.
Why has the association become a women’s association? What does the name ROMA WOMEN in the 21st century refer to?
Réka: I come from an Oláh gypsy family. I don’t know what you know about Roma culture and traditions, but there are several groups of Roma: the Oláh Gypsies, the Romungros, and the Beás Gypsies. There is a very strong bond or tradition among the Oláh Gypsies, which is why women are very oppressed. They marry very early to get a clean marriage and they never leave the stove for the rest of their lives. They cannot fulfill themselves.
The essence of the Roma women of the 21st century is that there is a part of our Roma culture that needs to be changed, that needs to be renewed. For example, there are a lot of highly knowledgeable, valuable Roma women who, because their husbands won’t let them assert themselves, are oppressed and just dream at home.
The self-esteem of Roma women is very low, but thanks to the association, many of the women who have visited us have been completely transformed.
For example, there is Betti, who has since become a member of the association. Betti, can you tell us a little bit about your story?
Betti: I was 13 when I ran away from home with a boy. I went to school, but every day I did the washing, cleaning and housekeeping.
When I met Reka, that was the first time I heard that this was not my job, but learning.
I had another relationship after that, in which the boy was even more traditional, telling me what to cook, how to cook it, not letting me go anywhere, especially not to training courses. I was able to get out of that with Réka’s help.
Réka: Then, for example, there was a gypsy woman with four children who, under our influence, enrolled in an evening high school and graduated.
But I can also give you my own example. I used to find it extremely uncomfortable to be in the same room with a male colleague in the family support service. I brought that from home. I had to sort myself out first. I was thinking stupid things like, “Oh my God, what will my neighbours think of me being in a room with a man? For me, it was a long process to get to the point where I was freer about it and I dared to talk to men. I must still have been about thirty years old when, during an exercise in a training course, we were asked to look each other in the eye for a few minutes. I, of course, was assigned a pair of Roma men. It was very difficult, but I overcame the confusion, and so did he, and we came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with that. That’s when I learned to look men in the eye.
I understand your husband is a member of the association – has he always been a 21st century Roma man?
Réka: This is one of the biggest successes for me, that I managed to change my husband. He is a Romungro and not an Oláh gypsy, but before he was not happy if I went to a strange city, among strange people for a few days alone. Today, he is a member of the association, he helps and does something for this cause. It’s a fantastic experience that although we are a women’s association, men are also welcome to join.
What trend do you see here in your community?
Réka: We find that here people of Roma origin are gypsies without knowing why they are gypsies. They don’t know the culture, the tradition is exhausted in what they pass down from generation to generation – that a woman has to be able to cook, to provide for her family.
Many children come to us in September, disappointed after their first day of school, and say “Réka, you’ve been bullied! But I’m not a gypsy! “We tell them to be proud of being a Gypsy. But unfortunately, they don’t know anything else about Roma culture, they don’t know why they are Gypsies. This is wrong.
What happened to the precious Roma traditions?
Réka: The Romungros died out even earlier than the Oláh Gypsies. The Romungros are usually gypsy musicians, but they don’t speak the language, and they don’t know the Roma culture. It’s just a matter of being a gypsy. There is no content behind it. Today even the Oláh Gypsies do not keep the traditions. Here in Nyíregyháza, too, only the older generation speaks the Gypsy language at all. My mother and father spoke it perfectly, but for a very long time, I didn’t even know I was a Gypsy. My father took me out of the gypsy village when I was very young so that we could be brought up in a fully integrated way. So I was confronted with this in a negative way at school when they saw my mum. She was a typical gypsy woman, and for years it really bothered me that we were being gypsyised.
I was about 13 or 14 when I first came down to the gypsy village, and I really liked the lifestyle: the atmosphere, hearing the gypsy language, and seeing gypsy dancing for the first time. That’s when I became interested in gypsyism.
There were six of us brothers and sisters, 3 brown-skinned and 3 fair-skinned. Unfortunately, it’s much harder for brunettes. We blondes have a much easier time getting over a hurdle. We tell our children that you are blonde, take advantage of it, go and learn, you can do well! Of course, we tell the brown-skinned ones the same thing, but we know that it won’t be easy for them, even if they get a degree. They will not be able to find a job in their profession. My sister, who is brown, a typical gypsy girl, used to smear herself with talcum powder at school to make herself look white.
It is not easy to be a Gypsy. The Gypsies themselves do not accept themselves as Gypsies.
And what the media broadcasts does not help. Only bad news about gypsies is presented, no positive examples are shown.
Can you tell us a little bit about your activities, what you can do? For example, where we talk, your community hall is a real children’s paradise.
Réka: We have been running the Szirom Playhouse for 3 years, where we run early development sessions for disadvantaged children aged 2-8, mainly of Roma origin. We have a tower block next to us, which has about 200 social rented flats for families in need. Most of our sessions are for the children living here, and we also offer programmes for parents.
We do these children’s activities on weekends. Betti is in charge of putting together the themes, and Barbi is her assistant. We discuss who does what, what needs to be bought, who does what, we inform the parents. I do the special development sessions and Betti leads the games.
The aim of this project is that by the time they start school, children should not be starting from behind. In disadvantaged families, where the necessary tools and infrastructure are not in place for the child’s development, additional development is needed.
It lacks basic things like a swarming pole or a carpet where it can slide on all fours. Then, for example, if the TV is on all the time at home, so the parents talk loudly, the child will talk very loudly.
Betti: We teach a lot of things. We teach a lot of things, like pencil and scissors, poems, large movement activities. We develop balance, we do imitation exercises, cross movements, shoe lacing. We tutor school-age children, and it’s also important to spot developmental problems that need further care.
Réka: Many things can only be solved together with the parents. There are many cooperative parents who want to give more and better for their children. We teach them, give them advice to become better, more conscious parents.
For disadvantaged children, day nurseries are also very good, but if they only go to kindergarten, it is harder to start school. We had children who were only in kindergarten, but they came here and had no problems in the first grade.
We are also developing ourselves in many directions at the association. Right now we are studying education law, enforcement law and criminal law at TASZ. We also pass on this knowledge to the local community.
My image of the Roma is that you love children very much. Is that really true?
Réka: unconditional love for children is present, but child-rearing is not conscious, but instinctive in disadvantaged mothers. They think that they are good parents if they buy and give everything to their children, there is no system and discipline in parenting. Feeding is an example. A child eats when he is hungry, stays awake as long as he wants. In a family with many children, it is usually the older girls who raise the younger siblings, so they soon learn the skills of running a household, feeding and cleaning up after the children. But they are not conscious parents, they don’t know the basics. For example, letting babies crawl around. Nor is there conscious family planning. This is a total taboo subject in Roma families. Mothers don’t prepare their daughters, they don’t even talk to them about menstruation. And women certainly don’t talk to their husbands about it.
What other projects do you have beyond the Szirom project?
Réka: As I mentioned before, it is very important for us to take care of the Roma culture and tradition. We want to create something that will last. We have published 3 books in the last 3 years: one of them is “Roma women in the great war“. The second is a bit Harry Potteres, it’s “Legendary Roma Creatures“. And “Herbarium” is about the history of herbs in the Roma culture.
What else do you do?
Réka: Unfortunately, this year we have very few opportunities to apply. Before the covid, we had Forum Theatre, where simple, everyday people played and we dealt with everyday, but important topics. For example, we had a show about the debt spiral. Foreign currency loans, usury, a little bit of prostitution, these were our themes. We put that on stage in a story. It was interactive theatre, the audience could decide which way the story would go. Since the covid, unfortunately, it couldn’t go any further.
Betti: We also have a women’s gossip club, where we give each other advice, talk about everything. Anyone who has any problems can tell us here.
Réka: We also collect donations for the local disadvantaged community.
People in the area love us, they see how much we care about children and families. Unfortunately, Roma children don’t get to the cultural programmes in the city. The information doesn’t reach them either, this community is so closed.
You are right in front of us, practically in the pedestrian zone. What do you need to know about this place of association?
Réka: This community space was built 15 years ago, and it has been empty for a very, very long time. When we founded the association, we thought it would be just the right place for children’s activities and a playhouse. We have been here ever since. We have donated equipment and supplies. We are here in good weather, as there is no heating, and in the winter we use the library.
You also have a brand-new project: working with Ukrainian refugee families.
Réka: Yes. It so happened that when the war broke out, we also went out to the border crossing at Záhony. Several other Roma organisations were already out there and we got the message that more forces were needed there. So we also went out on a daily basis. Refugees were arriving in droves at the border, including people of Roma origin. We helped with the briefing, the transport to the hostels.
Unfortunately, we found that the municipality of Záhony was not cooperative at all. I have never seen such racism in my life. We got everything, for example, that we gypsies bring our gypsies there. We reported countless cases of discrimination, but nothing has happened since. It was also very stressful for us to work in that hostile atmosphere.
In any case, as a Roma women’s organisation, we went primarily to Roma women and children. It should be known that these were simple families in Transcarpathia, already living in abject poverty, who were forced to come over because of the food price rises outside to feed their children. Some came in robes and slippers, children without coats. There were indeed some families who made the trip several times, taking home the donations for those left at home, but unfortunately they were lumped together with the others. Already then we started to filter out the families who were smuggling, those who were moving on to other countries and those who really wanted to settle here. Those who don’t come from camps (that’s what they call the gypsy camps outside) do go on.
In April, we applied for the MotherNature – Mother Nature Association‘s “Women for Women” and the Carpathian Foundation‘s “Hold my hand” competitions in support of Ukrainian refugees. We received funding from both places to help these families who are staying here to get started. Thanks to this, we were able to provide them with childcare and help them with administrative tasks, such as applying for asylum status. Our aim is to get their lives started, to become independent. It‘s not easy because they don‘t rent to Roma families, let alone to refugees with many children. We were lucky enough to meet an entrepreneur with whom we worked at the border in Záhony. He had empty houses and was willing to rent them out to refugee Roma families. With the help of the Tabulapláza Foundation, we were able to rent out the apartments. With the intervention of EMMA girls, we moved them in on the first of June. The Tabulapláza Foundation also supports them with shopping money. We coordinate and help them to start their lives: we teach them how to manage their money, food and make a good shopping list. We have to be very sensible; we have to manage the families so that they don’t fall over the edge. Our aim is to make them self-sufficient.
The saddest thing for us is that these families are illiterate. Even though a 15-year-old Roma child in Transcarpathia attends school, he or she cannot read and write – and this is not due to his or her mental abilities or the family.
The family we are visiting today is a family with 10 children living in extreme poverty. Meli is the mother, a fragile woman, but this is her 14th pregnancy. Two were adopted because they were born sick. Their eldest daughter, 17, has stayed at home, has one child and is pregnant with her second. Fortunately, Imre, Meli’s husband, was able to escape and they have ten children between 8 months and 15 years old. The next baby is due in September.
And for donations and book orders, feel free to contact us here: 21szromanok<at>gmail.com
The project is coordinated by MotherNature-Anyatermészet Association (HUN) and MINE, Mother Centers International Network for Empowerment granted by the State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg.
The article was written by Blanka Somorjai and first published at mumpark.hu.