Roma role models may show the way

AMID talk of various government plans to help bring Slovakia’s Roma out of poverty, there may be no substitute for something that must come from the Roma community itself: role models. In the media, Roma success stories are as rare as negative reports and stereotypes are common.

AMID talk of various government plans to help bring Slovakia’s Roma out of poverty, there may be no substitute for something that must come from the Roma community itself: role models. In the media, Roma success stories are as rare as negative reports and stereotypes are common.

“Media tend to state the Roma ethnicity of a person only when he is mentioned in a negative way – for example when they are accused of commiting a crime,” said Irena Bihariová, of the civic group People Against Racism. “When a Roma does something good or succeeds, they automatically become Slovak.”

When famed composer Hans Zimmer was looking for musical inspiration for the latest Sherlock Holmes film, he found it in Vladimír Sendrei’s family, which has formed a group called Kokavakere Lavutara.

“We were chosen by him, probably because of the circumstances he found us in – we did not know who he was, we only knew we love to play together as a family and that we truly love music,” Sendrei told The Slovak Spectator. “This is what he liked about us. He travelled to visit all the well-known musical families in Bulgaria and Romania before visiting Slovakia. Although they are all skilled and gifted, he chose my family. That was an honour.”

But a quick look at the Slovak media and nary a mention of the honour was to be found.

Sendrei and his family travelled to Vienna and spent four days with Hans Zimmer in a studio recording the basic melodies for the movie. After Sherlock was finished, they were invited to play a few songs at the London premiere, drawing compliments from the producers and director Guy Ritchie.
“They all were acting very nice to us,” Sendrei said. “Mr Zimmer sometimes calls to ask how we are today. Only Slovaks somehow skipped our success and only one magazine published an article about our achievement.”

Roma that excel at their professions can serve a dual purpose, experts say. Not only can they inspire members of their own community, but they can also counteract the negative stereotypes that stubbornly persist.

“Sometimes I have a strong feeling that it is more important to have role models of successful Roma for the non-Roma, than for the Roma themselves,” said Jana Belišová, an ethnologist and musicologist who has worked with Roma for 20 years. “Most of us cannot imagine a Roma person being successful – and then when we see them working as dentists, lawyers, politicians or artists, we end up surprised or do not even realise they are Roma.”

Sendrei contended that if non-Roma Slovaks had their music included in such a notable film, the newspapers would have been filled with stories.

He said that part of the blame for negative stereotyping rests with Roma themselves, who often do not realise that an individual mistake can be transferred to the whole ethnic group.

Sendrei now works to help bridge the divide. Among other things, he oversees centres in the town of Kokava, which try to help Roma families learn skills for raising their children.

For his efforts, he was awarded the Gypsy Spirit award, which is given within the Roma community to those who help to overcome negative stereotypes.

That prize was tied to a project he launched to educate 150 Roma with practical skills that would then transfer directly into jobs. Ten of the original group remain on the job today.

“I hear people saying Roma need examples of how to live a different life very often, and I think it is true,” Sendrei said. “But Roma trust only Roma, because the intolerance against them has become so strong nowadays that they evolved a strong intolerance and segregation against non-Roma themselves. They actually discriminate against non-Roma in a sense and they accept living in an isolated way. This is why I, as a Roma, consider it necessary to go there and talk to them.”

The articles included in the “Reporting on Diversity” supplement were created by authors enrolled in the “Reporting on Diversity” programme organised by The Slovak Spectator in cooperation with the Journalism Department at Comenius University and with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava. The programme seeks to train young journalists and journalism students for covering ethnicity, gender, race and religious issues, as well as other phenomena related to various communities and the challenges they face in Slovakia. The articles were prepared in line with strict journalistic ethical and reporting standards.

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