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[The following post appeared May 10, 2011, on The Mantle. The post was republished May 11 on Roma Transitions.]

BRATISLAVA – The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority – and also its most marginalized. Much is written about their persecution, both historic and contemporary, especially in Central Europe today. Yet Jud Nirenberg trammels new terrain, as editor of the newly published book, “Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy.” (I was delighted to contribute two chapters: one on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the other, early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania.)

Via email, I interviewed Nirenberg, 39, who managed to produce this book while also working as associate director of the U.S. Association for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

MJ: How did you first become interested in Roma issues?

JN: I’m an American of mixed Romani and Jewish descent, grew up in Massachusetts and had a fairly assimilated childhood, which isn’t really the norm for Romani Americans. There are, of course, Americans whose parents were Romani immigrants from Europe and whose lives resemble any other first-generation Americans. A lot of Roma came in the 50s from Hungary, for example. But there is a larger community of Romani Americans who are more often the subject of writing (and who are the focus of one part of this book), whose families came a long time ago and yet who live very much apart from mainstream America.

(more…)

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on Transitions.]

Guards lead sick inmates in the hallway of the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

Romania’s prisons are slowly gaining ground on tuberculosis, but the prognosis on AIDS is less encouraging.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

JILAVA, Romania | In 2007, Octavian Balescu was sentenced to seven years in jail for trying to sell less than half a gram of heroin.

He was thrown into Romania’s Jilava prison, just outside the capital, Bucharest. Jilava, once notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, is where, in November 1940, Romania’s fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu and his Legionnaires executed 64 opponents. And it was where, during four decades of communism, the paranoid regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would send anyone it deemed a threat.

Today, Romanian prisoners are surely better off. With the country a new member of the EU, it has adopted Western-style prisoner rights, of which inmates are informed.

Still, prisoners have something to fear: Jilava could make them gravely ill, as it has done to Balescu. “My most basic right is to do my time without getting sick,” he said. But somewhere along the way, he contracted tuberculosis and landed in the Jilava prison hospital, the largest in the Romanian prison system.

His plight is hardly surprising in Romania, which has the highest TB rate among the 27 EU countries. Observers say the prison system is a primary source of infection, not only for the inmates, but for their visitors and their jailers as well.

There’s positive news, though. Romania’s TB rate is declining, and officials continue to reverse a Ceausescu policy built on lies. They are no longer denying the problem exists and are accepting Western assistance. (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 13 on ForeignPolicy.com.]

With Web-savvy “radical nationalism” — and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting — firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary’s disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | JULY 13, 2010

Gyongyos, Hungary – While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the “Hungarian Guard” — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

“It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system,” says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. “That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment.” (more…)

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[The following appeared June 4 in Transitions Online (TOL).]

Ali Berat is a role model for many in his community, but others criticize him for exhorting Roma to abandon their traditions.

by Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani 4 June 2010

SUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia | Ali Berat is a rarity in the Balkans. A rarity even among his people: not only is he a Romani imam, but he also hails from a devout Muslim family, within a vast Roma diaspora known for its mild religiosity.

Imam Ali Berat. (Photo: mjj)

Berat, however, studied for six years in the Islamic holy city of Medina, then returned to his Macedonian hometown on a mission to preach to his people. In his crosshairs are Romani traditions he says help stunt their development.

“I would like to ask one question about all these traditions,” says the bearded Berat, 36, while seated in his elegantly upholstered living room. “Have they changed the education levels of our people? Have they lifted us from poverty? … When we say we are Muslims, that is not saying we are not also Roma. But all these traditions are taking us one step back.”

It’s not unusual for a charismatic Romani leader to offer religion as a salve for suffering: researchers track a pattern across Europe dating back 60 years, particularly among Evangelical and Pentecostal Roma. What’s interesting today is how this is happening to the Roma of Macedonia – a country polarized by inter-ethnic, inter-religious tensions between the majority Macedonian Orthodox and minority Albanian Muslims. The dominoes have also tipped toward local Roma. Which is also cause for concern among some observers, who suggest Roma identity is at risk.

“Islam in Suto Orizari does not show respect toward Roma culture,” says Romani activist Enisa Eminovska. “Increased religiosity among the Roma concerns me because the price of being ‘real Muslim’ is abandoning Roma culture.” [For more text and photos ...] (more…)

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[The following appeared May 14 in The Mantle.]

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Beyond the fact Prague is one of Europe’s great cities, you can’t walk down a street here – or anywhere in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, for that matter – and not spot a metaphor that illuminates how dramatically life has changed here, twenty years later.

A bilingual preschool in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

And if I didn’t have this blog, there’d be no one for me to tell. (Sniff, sniff.)

This week’s window onto the transition comes courtesy of Czech education. I was in Prague for a workshop on how to use multimedia journalism to better explain education issues in a more compelling way. My partner, the multimedia guy, and I, a print guy, showed eight colleagues how to assemble a written and visual project for the Prague-based magazine, Transitions Online.

And what a unique crop of journalists it was: six young women from post-Communist Eastern Europe, one from South Africa, and a fellow from Kenya. Divided into three teams, each was handed a pocket-sized video camera to use here, then take back home to produce more journalism for TOL.

I could go on for hours about how challenging this shoulder-to-shoulder training was for all of us, but more blog-worthy were the three faces of Czech education it revealed:

A Roma-specialized school in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

*The widening gender gap in the IT industry, and how little is done to encourage more women to pursue well-paying jobs in software or hardware development.

*That more and more Czechs are savvy enough about their children’ future – and enjoy the deep enough pockets – to send their kids to a growing number of bilingual preschools.

*A network of nine Czech schools that specialize in teaching Romani students, in a country that even the European Court of Human Rights condemned in 2007 for anti-Roma segregation in schools.

(more…)

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Nedzmije Selimi (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared in the April 29 edition of Transitions. For more photos, see the post below.]

After 10 years, many Romani refugees from the Kosovo conflict can neither return to their old homes nor build new ones abroad.

By Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani, 29 April 2010

ŠUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia, and POMAZATIN, Kosovo | The anguish is etched on Nedzmije Selimi’s face even before she starts talking.

In a gray-and-white headscarf and threadbare vest, she lets loose with her lament. First, she lost her husband to a brain aneurysm, which left her to raise their son alone in Kosovo, a society on the brink of war. After NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes, she grabbed her 8-year-old boy and fled a bloodthirsty climate, south to neighboring Macedonia.

Selimi and tens of thousands of other Kosovo Roma feared vengeance from ethnic Albanians returning after their own cleansing, at the hands of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. While the Albanians blamed Serbs for the campaign, they also accused the Roma of collaboration.

At 53, Selimi has been a refugee for 10 years. She lives on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje – and on the edge of a country that has shown little hint of hospitality. She describes her struggle to raise a son, now 18, amid joblessness estimated at 80 percent for the Roma here. Since the NATO bombardment, her son suffers anxiety and nose bleeds. He hasn’t been to school in 10 years. So she goes job-hunting for him.

“It’s hard to keep a child on the right track, to teach him not to steal,” she says, on the verge of tears. “If there were jobs here, I’d gladly work myself.”

Selimi is one of the Kosovo conflict’s oft-forgotten refugees, the Roma.

Kosovo today is independent but fragile. And one of the most sensitive postwar issues is how to restore “multiethnicity,” to beat back the notion that ethnic cleansing ultimately triumphed. Most symbolically, the question is how to secure the return of Kosovo Serbs to their historic heartland while not triggering another round of revenge killings that strains regional stability.

But without the Kosovo Roma, who constituted a significant slice of the prewar population, any claim of a multiethnic Kosovo would ring hollow.

(more…)

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SHUTKA, Macedonia — As described in the article above, 1,600-plus Kosovo Roma refugees continue to live in limbo in neighboring Macedonia. My batch of photos here illustrates their existence today. Click here for my earlier photo essay on the ethnically cleansed Roma who were resettled into toxic UN camps.

Roma boys play football in Shutka, the Skopje suburb where most of the Kosovo refugees remain.

Refugee leader Musharem Gashnani accuses the international community of abandoning them.

For more photos … (more…)

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Anişoara Mihai, seated behind her husband, before he told her to leave. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – For another perspective on what internal pressures the Kalderash Roma face to abandon their tradition of early-teen marriage, tonight we visited the stately home of Ilarie Mihai.

Around the large conference table in his office, Mihai, executive president of the National Council of Roma in Romania, railed against those dowry-driven Kalderash who marry off their children for the biggest booty:  some dowries of gold coins are said to run up to 50,000 euros.

“We’ll never become civilized if we continue this way!” he roared as his wife, Anişoara, served us coffee in delicate porcelain cups. She then took a seat behind her husband, in a chair against the wall.

In maroon headscarf and braided hair, 55-year-old Anişoara was the picture of a tradition-bound Kalderash woman, listening impassively as her husband spoke. At some point, though, she uttered a few words to him in Romani. It wasn’t clear exactly what she said, but his reaction sure was: with a wave of his hand, he ordered her to leave the room.

Except, she didn’t. In fact, as my colleague Petru Zoltan carried on interviewing Mihai, my interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I motioned for Anişoara to join us at our end of the table. We’ve heard too many men talking about a women’s issue – the right to choose when to marry. So, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear from a Romani matriarch … (more…)

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