‘It’s a liberation struggle for us’

After centuries of government exclusion a new generation of Romani activists is fighting back. Conrad Landin profiles three campaigners leading the charge.

Illustrations: Jason Ngai

DIJANA PAVLOVIC

Actor, campaigner, karate master

Milan, Italy

After growing up in Serbia at the height of the Balkan wars, Dijana Pavlovic was used to living on the edge. But when she moved to Milan in 1999 to work as an actress, she found herself in a bubble of prosperity: ‘In Milan, it was [all] lights, beautiful, rich’.

After she was asked to work as a mediator with Romani school children, she soon discovered that Italy was marked by deep segregation. ‘I could not even imagine that people could live so badly in a city like this,’ she says.

Dijana recalls that children came to school on transport marked ‘Roma bus’ from the encampment where they lived. In the years that followed, she became convinced that the challenge was ‘not about helping those kids, those families, on an individual level. It was really structural: it’s a political problem’.

I cannot change my life because some fascists are threatening me

As well as pursuing a successful acting career, Dijana works with Roma communities to effect change. ‘It’s a liberation struggle for us, and that’s why we have to be organized to struggle. We have… to struggle on the same level as the others who are struggling against us.’

Roma are ‘people without voice’, she says, ‘because whatever they decide for us, they decide it without us’. That’s why one of Dijana’s core organizing principles is that while Roma civil rights organizations do not need to be exclusive to Roma, they should be Roma-led.

Dijana frequently appears on Italian broadcast media – and her high profile and effective communication style has led to frequent threats and intimidation. Her husband was beaten up, with the attackers telling him this was ‘because your wife is the Gypsy that goes on TV’.

Asked if the harassment gets to her, Dijana is resolute. ‘It’s not pleasant, it’s not nice, but I’m not afraid. I cannot change my life because some fascists are threatening me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be what I am, or who I am. I’m also a karate master – and I try to protect me and my family as much as I can.’

Illustrations: Jason Ngai

JOSEF ‘JOŽKA’ MIKER

Community leader, cook, miner

Teplice, Czech Republic

Josef ‘Jožka’ Miker’s parents met as children in a Nazi internment camp. Released at the end of World War Two, they ended up in Sobrance in Slovakia, where Jožka was born in 1965.

Later, the family moved to Teplice in then German-speaking Sudentenland, where Jožka followed in his father’s footsteps and found a job in the mines. The Sudetenland was Czechoslovakia’s most industrialized region, and there were good, skilled jobs on offer – but rarely for Roma. ‘When the Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland after 1945, the Roma were dragged to do hard labour here,’ he says. ‘Here was the all this industry – the glass works, the chemical works. Roma always got the worst work – digging by hand, electrification, gasification.’

Roma always got the worst work

He sprung into political activity after the fall of communism when, in 1992, he organized blockades to stop mobs of skinheads marching through Teplice’s Roma district, including Dubska, where Stanislav Tomáš would be killed 29 years later (see page 16). Jožka has long been central to organizing among the Czech Republic’s Roma community. He co-founded the volunteer-led Konexe organization, and was involved in organizing demonstrations against the killing of Tomáš and the wider issue of police brutality last year. He too has faced personal repercussions for his activism. Last year a bunch of thugs beat him up in the street for being ‘a Gypsy in a Pirate shirt’ – (he was wearing a T-shirt in support of the Czech Republic’s Pirate Party).

Jožka retired from the mines in 2011 due to ill health. He has since become involved in feeding Teplice’s most marginalized people. ‘When I started cooking for the homeless a decade ago, there was not a single Roma,’ he says. ‘Today, about half of the Roma are homeless and will join me for food, and are happy to have at least one hot meal a week.’

Illustrations: Jason Ngai

RAHELA CIRPACI

Language teacher, organizer, mother

Glasgow, Scotland

Born in Belgium into a Romanian Roma family, Rahela Cirpaci and her relations moved to Ireland in search of a ‘better life’ when she was two. After finishing school and college, she met her partner on Facebook when she was 19. He was already living in Govanhill, Glasgow – Scotland’s most diverse neighbourhood. ‘He came over and met me in Ireland. From there things moved very fast – he stayed a couple of days and then went back to Scotland, and then the following week I came here to Govanhill. And I never left, basically. I got married here and I just fell in love with the place.’

After hearing about the community organization Romano Lav (which translates as Roma Voice) from her now-husband, Rahela was excited. ‘I was amazed by the idea,’ she says. ‘There’s such a huge Roma community, there’s over 3,000 Roma people – maybe more – just here in Govanhill. In Ireland, the Roma people were really scattered.’

Once a Roma woman gets some support, she can do amazing things

Just months after joining her husband as a sessional worker for the organization, Rahela became Romano Lav’s project co-ordinator. ‘I was pregnant at the time. It was a huge thing for me because it was my first ever [regular] job. I never thought I would get an opportunity like that. It boosted my confidence and made me the person who I am today.’ As well as organizing Romano Lav’s activities, Rahela has recently delivered a beginners course in Romanes for Glasgow residents.

‘A lot of Roma women do shy away and don’t have the confidence to actually get involved,’ she says. ‘They might have kids, and that might hold them back as well. But they just need a bit of support, that’s all a Roma woman really needs.

‘Once she gets some support, she can do amazing things and achieve so many things in life. We don’t want them to be quiet and just hide away – we want them to be visible, and be active in their local communities.’