Foreign Reportage

REPORTAGE

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SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY’S SPECTRUM MAGAZINE, Sunday, August 19th, 2007.
Pursued by Prejudice

Roma in GlasgowROMA. Gypsies. Thieving ba***rds. Dirty beggars. F**ck off back to where you came from. Appalling language but it’s the type of racist abuse Mariana
Gaziova has suffered since coming to Scotland. The dark haired, Roma teenager is sitting on a bed stroking her two-year-old son’s head as he fidgets on her lap. “We had a very nice flat in Forth Street in Pollokshields but we had to call the police three times because our windows got smashed,” the 19-year-old
says. Her tormentors, Mariana claims, were Pakistani youths who threw stones
at her Glasgow home while shouting they didn’t like Slovaks. She had to move
for her own safety and now lives in a ground floor flat in Govanhill, a couple
of miles from where the attacks took place in the south side of the city.
“It’s a shame because it was a really good flat, much better than this one,”
Mariana says, lifting Kevin up and kissing him on the cheek. Her mother Iveta,
sitting to her right, nods her head in agreement. The Roma are used to racism
in their homeland Slovakia and now here in Scotland. And it’s not just the
adults who suffer. Mariana’s brothers, Thomas, nine, and Josef, 11, have also
been targets of abuse in Glasgow and recently had to change primary schools
because they got involved in fights. But despite the taunts and the violence
Mariana wants Kevin to grow up in Scotland. “Every country has bad people,”
she says diplomatically.

 

In another flat a couple of streets away Mariana’s cousin Juraj says he wants
to return to Slovakia next year. Five years in Glasgow has been enough and
although the 24-year-old has had no problems with racism he would prefer his
17-month-old daughter Vanessa to grow up back home in Pavlovce nad Uhom, a
village in Slovakia where Jurak grew up. “I think there are more social
problems in Scotland. It is very sad to see the drug addicts. We don’t have
drug problems where we come from and it’s such a waste of so many young
lives…and we see drunken men fighting in the street, even during the day,”
Juraj says. I ask his wife Eva what she likes about living in Glasgow? “Not
much. It’s rubbish,” the shy 23-year-old says, hunching her knees up to her
chest on the sofa and blushing as she speaks.

 

There are an estimated 4000 to 5000 Roma living in Glasgow, the majority of
whom have chosen to settle in Govanhill. It’s a growing community that has
mushroomed in a short period of time since nations such as Slovakia and the
Czech Republic joined the EU. Hundreds of the Slovakian Roma hail from the
village of Pavlovce, a quite remarkable movement of people with nearly half
the townsfolk relocating to Scotland. Most have come for work and to escape
discrimination but while Glasgow is a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city that
is home to at least 100 different nationalities, the Roma’s greatest fear is
they could be made pariahs of another society.

 

THERE are an estimated 12 million Roma across the world. They are thought to
have originated in the Punjab, in India, but nobody knows for certain why they
began their great wandering to Europe. They came through Persia, Armenia and
Byzantium, reaching Europe some time around the late 13th or 14th century,
settling mostly in the east. Europeans thought the Roma to be from Turkey or
Egypt, so they were called, among other things, Egyptians or Gyptians, which
eventually gave us the word Gypsy. Throughout history the Roma have suffered
persecution most infamously by the Nazis who marched them to the gas chambers
and killed as many as 1.5 million. But since the survivors had little or no
education there is little in the way of memoirs to keep their experience in
the public domain. After the Second World War in the former Czechoslovakia -
which separated in 1989 into the states of Czech Republic and Slovakia - the
persecution continued under communist rule. The Roma were refused access to
public transport, allowed into towns and cities only on specific days, and had
their settlements kept away from public roads. The communists denied the Roma
their cultural and ethnic identity and women were even sterilised against
their will.

 

Since the fall of communism the oppression has continued and earlier this year
Amnesty International said that the Slovakian Roma still face serious
disadvantages in education, employment, housing and health care, while their
involvement in public affairs was insufficient. Almost 75 per cent of Roma
households depend on aid from the state or charities. The report added that
the ruling coalition partners in government in Slovakia,  Direction-Social
Democracy (Smer) and the Slovak National Party, (SNS), were “deemed to have
promoted ethnic or racial prejudices and hatred“. As a result Smer's
membership of the Party of European Socialists in the European Parliament was
suspended. Amnesty also noted that members of ethnic minorities continued to
be subjected to racist attacks and that police investigations sometimes
appeared dilatory or failed to acknowledge the racist motives of the
attackers. Add to that concern that Roma women and girls are vulnerable to
sexual exploitation, sexual abuse and trafficking, and the picture is clear,
succinctly summed up by the European Roma Rights Centre: ''The history of the
Roma and the state in Slovakia is a continuous shift between policies which
are openly hostile up to murderous towards the Roma, with policies disguised
as assistance which actually degrade.''

 

IN July 2004, we visited Slovakia and spent a week visiting Roma communities
living near to the capital Bratislava and close to the city of Kosice in the
east of the country. Our visit came shortly after Slovakia joined the EU.
Prior to accession the government announced it was cutting welfare benefits.
The move in March that year, ostensibly to make the country’s economy more
competitive, meant benefits were cut from a maximum of 2,900 Slovak korunas
((pounds) 49) a month to 1,450 korunas ((pounds) 24). The decision severely
impacted the nation’s 320,000 Roma as unemployment stood at around 70 per
cent, compared to around 25 per cent with white Slovakians. In some of the
poorest Roma settlements today unemployment stands at 100 per cent. With the
Roma traditionally having large families - 70 per cent have more than four
children -  they were affected most by the welfare cuts. When the decision was
announced there were demonstrations and, in some areas, Roma men looted
stores. The police response was indiscriminate and according to Amnesty
International, during one incident on February 24, 2004, in Trebisov, around
250 police officers attacked men, women and children with truncheons and
electric batons. One man died and 26 people were arrested. Some Roma later
claimed they were tortured while in custody.

 

During our trip we witnessed the appalling conditions that the poorest of the
Roma live in with families of up to nine or ten sharing two bedrooms in
ramshackle homes, some with no electricity, running water or proper
sanitation. We spoke with Bartolomej Martova, from Zemplinska Teplica, a small
village about 60 miles from the Ukrainian border, who told us he had not
worked for years and that life was much better under the communists. At the
Plavecky Stvrtok settlement near Bratislava we met with Josephine Huberdova,
17, and her 20-year-old boyfriend Lazo Zemanm, who claimed their two-month-old
son Christopher died because a racist doctor failed to provide proper medical
treatment. We also heard testimony from ten year old Andrea Daniehelova who
said a priest would not allow Roma children to take communion with other
members of his congregation. In many respects the Roma are pariahs of
Slovakian society, ostracised and looked down upon by their fellow countrymen,
a disdain summed up by Vladimir Meciar, the former Slovak prime minister, who
once said: ''Slovaks produce first-class values, Roma only themselves.''

IN Govanhill’s Allison Street a group of Roma men are gathered at a street
corner, a broad man in a white t-shirt gesticulating with has hands while his
friends listen and laugh. Across from where they stand is an Asian grocer
shop, one of dozens in the area selling some of the cheapest fruit in
Scotland. Outside a pub an elderly Romani woman wearing a red headscarf stops
and bends down to speak to a young boy while two gaunt men wearing shell suits
walk past and enter a pawnbrokers next door. There’s another such
establishment about 100 metres away on Victoria Road, a main drag lined with
downmarket cafes that don’t do mochas or lattes. This land is full of Irish
bars, charity shops and homeless hostels and on Saturday nights there’s
singing in the pubs in between the obligatory drunken brawls. Govanhill can be
described as rough and ready and has more than its fair share of social
problems. But despite the down-at-heel stigma it has an entrenched sense of
community and a great big beating heart. Indians, Pakistanis, Irish, Italians,
Scots, English, and now Czechs, Poles, Slovakians and Romanians, live cheek by
jowl in mucky sandstone tenement blocks.

 

But with any mass influx of one single ethnic group there is potential for
trouble and in March violence erupted when “Eastern European” teenagers fought
a running battle with white youths in the district’s Dixon Avenue throwing
bricks and bottles at each other. The incident made headlines in the local
media and according to witnesses the fight was started by Scots youths
shouting racial abuse. There are two sides to every story, of course, and
other locals said fights between the two groups had been on-going for more
than a year. For the local community it was a worrying development especially
when racial harmony is something Govanhill is proud of.
In her third storey flat around the corner from where the fighting took place
Irina Gombar pours some tea and offers round sugar. “Yes, there has been some
fighting with the Scottish and Palestinian (sic) youths…but I’ve had no
problems and everyone here is quite friendly,” she says. There are about 1000
Roma families in Govanhill, many with five children, some with more. They are
loosely divided into two groups - Slovak Roma from Pavlovce and Slovak Roma
from the Czech Republic. From rural Pavlovce, out of the village’s grand total
of 4430 citizens, 1500 are currently settled in the UK, the majority here in
Glasgow. Irina says she was the first Roma from Pavlovce to come to Scotland
arriving with her family in 2002 to claim asylum because of racism in
Slovakia. “It was small things happening to our children in school. The other
children wouldn’t sit near them…so we came here hoping for a better life,” the
44-year-old says. Her application was refused but after Slovakia joined the EU
the family decided to settle because of the employment opportunities. And so
the exodus began with family and friends and more family coming to Glasgow to
visit. Her husband, Juraj, works seven days a week in a local cash and carry
and although Irina is not working at the moment she has been employed in a
local pizzeria and in a factory packing meat. Despite the recent violence she
says her experience of Scotland has been very positive; the mother of three is
more concerned with having had no hot water for more than a year, despite
raising the issue with her landlord several times. “I didn’t like Scotland
initially but after a few months I got used to it. Now it is home and when I
visited Slovakia recently I felt homesick,” she says. 

 

Translating is Marcela Adamova who also hails from Pavlovce and knows many of
the Slovakian Roma families well. Since March she’s been carrying out research
on Glasgow’s Roma for a charity called the Braendam Link, as well as providing
translation services and advocacy work for her people. Marcela says that
despite initial teething problems the Roma people are adapting to life in
Scotland and gradually settling in. “The main motivation for (the Roma) coming
to Glasgow is the prospect of work and to improve quality of life. In Pavlovce
unemployment is 100% so the men come and work and send money back to their
families in Slovakia. Out of 100 Roma I interviewed only seven were
unemployed,” she says. Most Roma get work through employment agencies taking
jobs sorting potatoes or packing meat. They earn around £200 per week. Others
less fortunate are dependent on gang masters who take a fee, usually £50. But
Marcela says the Roma will continue to apply for these jobs because they have
low levels of education and are generally unskilled.

 

She acknowledges there have been tensions between Roma, Scottish and Pakistani
individuals but says her biggest fear is that the Roma are being stereotyped
and misunderstood. Journalists are viewed with great suspicion and indeed we
found it extremely difficult to get access to the Roma both in Glasgow and
Slovakia. Many refused to speak or have their photograph taken and said they
feared they would be “stitched up”. Marcela says the image of the “begging,
scrounging gypsy” is inaccurate and that such portrayals only promote
ignorance and prejudice. “In Slovakia the media vilify the Roma which only
feeds racism,” she says. Some recent media coverage in Scotland has not been
helpful, Marcela adds, and has only reinforced stereotypes.
One recent report came under the headline: “Romanian families muscle in on the
Big Issue market” with the article stating the “Roma/gypsy” community have
been “bulk buying” the famous homeless magazine and taking over lucrative
spots from “traditional Scots vendors”. The article came shortly after the
March street battle and at a time when feelings may have been running high in
Govanhill. “The Slovakian Roma don’t sell the Big Issue but people will read
the piece and class all Roma as the same. The Slovakian Roma mostly work. Many
are homeowners back home in Slovakia. They are middle class Roma,” she says.
Michael Luby, distribution manager for the Big Issue, agrees and describes
some recent coverage as “absolute rubbish”.  “It (the report) was totally
misconstrued and unbalanced and did not provide a comment from the Roma. I can
categorically say that no local vendors have been turned away because some
Eastern European people are selling the Big Issue. Let’s make this clear, if
someone meets the criteria to sell the Big Issue then we do not discriminate
on grounds of creed, colour or religion. The story targeted one family who
come up from Ayrshire once a week to buy a couple of hundred magazines to
sell, not the thousands as stated. Believe me these people live in absolute
squalor and work very hard selling the Big Issue. These type of stories do not
help race relations,” he says. PC Stevie Scott, a diversity liaison officer
for Govanhill who’s been working with the Roma for three years, also warns
that public ignorance and people’s perception of the Roma community could be
problematic. “There is a level of ignorance among some local people who think
the Roma are asylum seekers and say they should not be here. They (the Roma)
suffer horrendous racism in Slovakia and just want to work in Scotland,” he
says. Scott says there have been problems with the Roma but adds the situation
has improved greatly recently, despite a couple of outbreaks of street
fighting between youths. He stresses there has been no increase in crime in
Govanhill since the Roma came. “These (street fighting) were isolated
incidents. We deal with gangs like the Gorbals Team round here and believe me
any issues with the Roma pale into comparison. The Roma have a different
culture and have learned that some things here are not acceptable. They used
to do things like throw litter out windows, which was disgusting - but bear in
mind they are not the only people in Govanhill to do this. But through
education and engaging with them this is changing and we are gaining their
trust. Govanhill is very multi-cultural and they are adapting…it took the
Pakistani community a while to settle in” Scott says.

 

To support the Roma community there’s been a multi-agency approach and Glasgow
City Council (GCC) has provided advice on housing issues, health and education
services. GCC says that both Glasgow and Scotland have benefited greatly from
the 7000 people, including the Roma, who have arrived in the city from the
eight countries that joined the EU on May 1st, 2004. “Their effect on the
economy has been positive. They have addressed particular areas of skill
shortage and are generally seen as very reliable employees,” a council
spokesman said. Immigration from abroad has meant that Scotland's population
grew by more than 22,000 in the year to June 2006, standing at 5,116,900.
Linda Fabiani, Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, said the
nation benefits from the diversity that migrants bring to communities.

LIFE can be bitter sweet for the Roma. Juraj had worked for four years in a
warehouse loading and picking until he injured his back recently. He is sorely
disappointed because, despite his thoughts on the nation’s social ills, he
views Scotland as a great country to come and earn money. “In the cash and
carry I earned £250 per week. It was a wonderful place to be and seven of my
cousins worked beside me. I worked 17 months without one day off because I was
so happy,” he says. Although he plans to return home to Slovakia to bring up
his daughter, Juraj says he will miss the many Scottish and Asian friends he
has made. But the grind of city life has become too much and both Juraj and
Eva want to return to a quiet life in rural Pavlovce and to have a house with
a garden. But isn’t there much more racism in Slovakia? “There are problems in
every community. Not all Scots are drunks and drug addicts, are they?” Juraj
replies.

Copyright, Billy Briggs, 2007


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