O Drom si baro
Tai zhal dur
Si amen, tan te zhas
Tai ame zhanas
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
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
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
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,
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
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