Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The Right-Hand Path

By Hedina Sijercic
Hedina Sijercic interviews Ronald Lee, Director of Advocacy in the Roma Community and Advocacy Centre, Toronto, and well-known Canadian-Romani scholar, educator and activist.

O Drom si baro
  Tai zhal dur
  Si amen, tan te zhas
 Tai ame zhanas
kana aresas
Serel amen
O tan katar tradilyam

The road is long
It goes far
We have a destination
And weíll know when we get there
It will remind us of the place we left

Hedina: What does this mean for you?

Ron: These lines come from a short poem I wrote  as the introduction to my novel, Goddam Gypsy, which I wrote between 1969  and 1971.  I began writing it in Canada and I finished it when I was living in London, England, where I supported myself  and my family by working as a model building engineer. I also did civil rights work with the Roma in Britain. What it basically means to me, is that the road symbolizes the life of the Roma. Wherever you come from, you leave prejudice, persecution, stereotyping of the Roma behind. Nobody sees you for who you really are. But it doesn't matter where you go because when you get there,  you will run into what you thought you had left behind. Whether you left Hungary or the Czech Republic where Roma are being killed by skinheads and  their houses burned down, or whether you  were born in Canada and you went to school  here and the first time something was stolen in the classroom you were the first one to  be suspected because you were Roma, is there really any basic difference?  When you work at a job in Canada and you arenít allowed to handle the cash register if the employers know you are Roma because they believe you might be tempted  to steal if you have access to money on the job, this too is systemic discrimination. So the varying degrees of systemic prejudice and stereotyping are  there wherever you go if you are a Rom. You probably wonít be murdered in Canada for being a Rom, but I and my generation and even my children suffered from stereotyping and prejudice. So Roma in Canada became invisible and went into the closet. It doesn't matter where you go, anywhere along the road, you will find the same thing. This  is what I'm saying. If you are Rom, your destination will always lead you to where people stereotype you and judge you by this mythological "Gypsy"  that non-Roma  writers have enshrined in literature and ignorant, misinformed journalists perpetuate in the public media.

Hedina: You have been working with Roma refugees for many years.  After so rich an experience with Roma from different European countries where do you see the differences, except language, between Canadian-born Roma and refugee Roma?

Ron: I began to work with the Canadian Roma as an activist in 1965, working with Russel Demitro, the leader of  the Canadian Roma in Montreal. He and I worked with the Roma community through the Kris Romani (Romani internal judicial assembly) to try to get a better understanding between Roma and non-Roma; to get laws changed to help the Roma to make a living by dealing in used cars; to get laws changed so as to get licenses for the fortune telling parlours; to combat prejudice and misinformation in newspapers and to help the Roma represent themselves. There was no refugee problem back in the 60s. Later, in the 70s, I worked with George Demitro, the son of Russel. I, Zoltan Hering and Dule Jovanovic did everything we could to help refugees who were coming to Canada via Montreal, from Poland, Hungary and  the former Yugoslavia. They did not come as Roma, but as refugees fleeing communism like many non-Roma people from these countries. But since the Gadje organizations for these non-Roma refugees wouldnít help the Roma refugees, we set up our own organization within the Roma community. Since 1989-90 we have had refugees coming to Canada claiming persecution as Roma in their former countries. So, at first, I began to do civil rights work with lawyers in Montreal and then later, when I was living in Kingston, I was periodically involved with lawyers in Toronto to help with  refugee cases because I was the Canadian Representative of the International Romani Union, an NGO of the United Nations, and was known to the Canadian government authorities as such.

It was only after we founded the Roma Community and Advocacy Centre [RCAC] in fall of 1997  and I moved to Toronto that I really began to work a lot with Roma refugees, advising them about the rules for Convention-refugee application, assisting them to fill out forms and helping them to prove Roma identity. Most of my work, however, is in educating the non-Roma about who are the Roma, working with the media, lecturing and providing information to people who want to learn the truth about Roma.

Hedina: What are  the differences between Canadian-born Roma and refugee Roma?

Ron: The main difference is that Canadian-born Roma are descended from ancestors who came here just over 100 years ago. They have been culturally isolated from Roma in Europe. They are very familiar with the Roma in America who are the same people. They see being Roma differently than refugees. The refugees from Europe have experienced the Romani Holocaust, the Nazis and communism, things that Canadian Roma have not experienced.

Secondly, the Canadian Roma have been living in towns and cities  for least two to three generations.  They are not known to be Roma. They have developed the defensive mechanism of being invisible so nobody knows who they are. So they don't have the problem you have in the Czech Republic, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria or ex-Yugoslavia where people know you are Rom because you live in a mahala, you have darker skin than the non-Roma, you live in  large Roma communities, so people can easily identify  you as a  Rom. We don't have that in Canada. Nobody can identify you as Rom unless you say you are. The Canadian Roma have not been persecuted for being Roma as much since they stopped travelling just before the Second World War. Since then, Canadian Roma have become invisible.  Most of them don't think that there are any other groups of Roma but them.  So, because they lost contact with the Roma in Europe, when they meet Roma from Europe they are surprised that there are Roma in other countries.  They think that their Romani dialect is real Romani and what anyone else speaks isn't because they never heard any other dialects of Romani. The Roma in Europe are used to hearing different dialects.  Also, many of the Roma in Europe have been educated and they can read a lot about different groups of Roma, Romani history and Romani culture. Canadian Roma, even among the current younger generation, are often not well-educated and seldom read much, so the level of education of the refugees is often higher than that of Canadian Roma. The refugees have begun to see Roma as a nationality, but Canadian Roma see Roma as just people who tell fortunes, deal in cars, work for themselves, belong to a certain family or clan (vitsa). They don't see themselves as an authentic ethnic group or a nation. Canadian and American Roma have been too long cut off from the Roma in Europe without any communication and have developed survival techniques within the Canadian and American context which are different from those of European Roma.

Hedina: What is the biggest problem among Canadian-born Roma?

Ron: They do have a problem, because they prefer to remain invisible. They believe that it is safer not to get involved with the government, to let people know they exist, just to stay hidden and to survive, just like they have been doing for generations. They think they will be able to avoid trouble by not declaring themselves to be Rom in public. However, by being recognized as a genuine ethnic minority in Canada, they would be protected against discrimination like other minorities in this multicultural society. Things have changed in Canada since the 1930s and are still changing. They may need self-representation in the future and it will be too late for them to create it when they need it the most. Nobody can predict political trends anywhere.

Hedina Sijercic
Hedina Sijercic
Ronald Lee
Ronald Lee
Hedina: How do you see gadze working with Roma in Romani organizations and  becoming involved with the Roma in general?

Ron: This is a difficult question to answer.  First of all, I don't like to use word Gadje because if we, as Roma, are going to say Gadje, we are making a difference between us and them. If Roma want to be accepted as equals, then they have to accept the other people as equal. I prefer to use non-Roma instead of Gadje.

Hedina: How do you feel if the gadze call you a Gypsy?

Ron: Well, this is definitely something that we have to combat. This is stereotyping. The Gypsy, the Cigani, or some other word like Zigeuner, were created by Gadje just like the mythological creatures these words represent. "Gypsies" have nothing to do with  real Roma because the people who use the word don't know the real Roma. Itís like The Gypsy Lore Society. They have to have "Gypsies"  to study. You canít study Roma because Roma are a nation. Nations donít have interesting "lore" to study.

Hedina: Do you think gadzo has a  bad meaning, like when they call us Gypsy?

Ron: No, it isn't. The word Gadjo comes from Sanskrit (gadjjha) and basically it meant a civilian, a non-warrior, when the Rajputs and their followers left India to become the Roma in Asia. Roma were warriors, Gadje were civilians, domestics belonging to non-military castes. Today, Gadjo is a parallel of goy among the Jewish people, somebody who is not of your own group. It is simply a word used to define a person who isn't in a member of the Roma nation. It isn't pejorative in the sense of  "Gypsy." If somebody wants to say a man was killed in an accident, Romani has no general word for man. We have to say the victim was a Rom or a Gadjo.

Hedina: How do you feel about gadze working in Romani organizations?

Ron: I've been working with Gadje since 1965 and there many Gadje  involved with the Roma. Some Gadje belong to The Gypsy Lore Society. They see the Roma as something exotic to study and they don't want see them to change. They want to write papers and books about them. They don't want to see Roma becoming educated, having a Romani flag, nationality status or evolving like other peoples have evolved. I have no time for this kind of Gadje. On the other hand there are a few Gadje who are serious professors and have written good books about the Roma, for instance David Crowe or Angus Fraser. Other Gadje have worked with Roma, like Thomas Acton in Britain or Paul St. Clair of the RCAC. However, a lot of Gadje are adventurers who have gotten involved in Romani movements just to make money. Others are entertainers who create show groups with music and dancing that isnít genuine Romani culture. We have also been used by some Gadje to further their own ends, politicians and people who set themselves up as "experts" on Roma and get paid to lecture about Roma. I believe the leaders in Romani organizations must be Roma, and Roma should represent themselves. Gadje are welcome if they want help us with refugees, by doing volunteer work, helping us with skills that we don't have like doctors, publishers, editors, lawyers. This is constructive. But we Roma are tired of being defined by Gadje. We must define ourselves before we get defined out of existence by Gadje "experts."

Hedina: How is the International Romani Union (IRU) doing  and does it help the Roma?

Ron: I have been involved with the IRU since the beginning with Ian Hancock and Yul Brynner. The IRU was created in 1971 at the first International Romani Congress in London, England. The dream was that the IRU would be an umbrella organization that would take all the problems of Roma in the different countries they lived in to the United Nations. What happened? Roma leaders from Europe got too concerned with local issues. There has been too much in-fighting between leaders who represent Roma, Sinti, Manouche, Kaale and Romanichels who donít want to unite as Roma. They may still be squabbling over this issue in Paradise or in hell when the Roma have died out as a people on Earth. Instead of working together, the various leaders broke up into a disorganized collection of fragmented organizations where the IRU eventually wasn't able to do what it was supposed to do. Now the IRU has become locked in a power struggle that can only be resolved at the next Congress in the year 2000, if  we are lucky.

Hedina: What was your biggest success?

Ron: The biggest success for me was when I went with Yul Brynner, Ian Hancock and John Tene to the UN on July 5, 1978, in Manhattan,  to present the Romani petition asking for NGO status. This was granted a year later. The next big success was the formation of the RCAC in Toronto and the Western Canadian Romani Alliance in Vancouver in 1998. We in Canada have shown that Roma from many different groups and backgrounds speaking different dialects of Romani can unite as Roma and work for the Romani Nation and the Roma people. We must send this example back to Europe.

Hedina: What is your dream?

Ron: To see the Romani people become a nation without a homeland, with their rights to language, culture and self-determination guaranteed under the UN Charter of Human Rights. We have to be accepted as Roma with our own culture, language, and traditions, and we should be proud of being Roma. We don't have to assimilate and become Gadje in order to be accepted as people. Roma must become educated and create their own intelligentsia and power base in the coming century so we can develop our culture and be proud to be Roma. We must be proud of our history and culture and pass this on to the next generation.

Hedina: What is your plan for the future?

Ron: My plan is to be there to help the Roma, whatever they decide to do, to use the skills I have as a journalist, a lecturer and an author. Romani representatives should combat the stereotyping of Roma and help the Roma attain what they have asked for collectively if this is possible. I also want to work towards educating the Roma about who they are, their origins, history, culture and language. They have been lied to in the Gadje schools and told they have no history, culture or language of their own. Many are ashamed to be Roma because they only know the lies told to them by the Gadje. I want to do all I can to put the mythological "Gypsy" to death and replace this phantasmagoric creature with the living Roma.

Hedina: How did you realize your truths?

Ron: I began my life as a Rom. As a teenager I  worked in carnivals and later, I traveled with  Kaldarash Roma in Canada. When I married my ex-wife, I was living in a Roma community. I began my career as a Rom and from there I became a journalist, editor and author, and I became a successful member of non-Roma society. Now I am still with the Roma. To me, the truth is an understanding of, and acceptance of,  your origin and the ability to remain a Rom while becoming what you want to be in the mainstream society around you. You can be a Rom or a Romni and still be a doctor, lawyer, journalist, farmer, ballet dancer, nurse or schoolteacher.

Hedina: What does Romni mean for you?

Ron: For me, my Romni is my partner and the person I share my personal life with. I believe that men and women are equal but different. Women have certain strengths and abilities that men donít necessarily have and vice-versa. Romni is to me the other half, the part of you that you are not. If Rom and Romni were not different and necessary to each other, why would O Baro Devel have created them?

Hedina: What is the left-hand path for you?

Ron: This is your choice, how you choose to interpret  intelligence, spirituality and understanding of your role in the world. The left-hand path is exploitation, using people for your own greedy ends, criminality, war and destruction of the environment. I have always tried to follow the right-hand path which  is construction, creativity, spirituality and love of humanity and the world. As individuals with freedom of choice, we must all choose one path or the other. There is a poem I learned when I was a teenager which I feel  expresses this very clearly for me.

Those who are born with imagination
Are blessed or cursed with a fearful  magic
With which they may rise to the heights of Heaven
Or fall to the depths of Hell

 by Geoffrey Farnoll

Hedina Sijercic is Editor-in-chief of the Roma magazine, Romano Lil.

Originally printed in the June 1999 issue of Romano Lil.
Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with the permission of the author.
Posted 29 May 1999.

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