Picture Credit: Nandini Kochar
I have the pleasure of interning at ROMEA, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of the Czech Republic’s marginalized Roma population. As part of the internship, my friend Vitoria and I recently had the opportunity to spend a weekend in the small town of Rumburk with Romani high school students. What started off as an educational trip focusing on interviews and photojournalism quickly evolved into a thought-provoking and humbling experience where our preconceived notions about the Roma people were fundamentally challenged and dispelled. We went from viewing the Romani students as victims of discrimination to normal teenagers with dreams and experiences no different from our own.
Rumburk is a town near the northern edge of the Czech Republic with a population of around 11,000 people. Twenty-five Romani students gathered in Rumburk on the last weekend of February for ROMEA’s eighth meeting of its BARUVAS (or “growing” in the Romani language) program that is part of its Roma Scholarship Program. The program focuses on educating these students about their shared history and culture, as well as imparting relevant skills to them through workshops and seminars on media representation, networking, theatre and more.
During the course of these workshops, we pulled aside the participants one by one and interviewed them. We asked them about their families and childhoods, their schooling experiences, their passions and their challenges with identity.
Our first interviewee was Natálie Kuchárová from Chomoutov. She is an aspiring singer, currently studying music at the Prague Conservatory. Natalie told us about her battle with identity in middle school, where she found it difficult to take pride in being Romani. Her peers used to think that she was Hawaiian, and she chose not to correct them because, as she said, “it was easier that way.”
But after attending her first workshop with ROMEA, she began to find strength in who she is and reclaim her identity. “Soon after [the workshop], I decided to go up to my friends and confess that I’m actually Romani,” she said. “I told them that if they’re weren’t okay with it, then I didn’t want to be their friend.”
Another interviewee, Mario Dzurban, shared his experience of being treated differently at school. “The most difficult time for me was in ninth grade when I wanted to pursue higher education, but my teachers refused to support me,” he said. “That’s where ROMEA came in. They gave me funding so I could obtain extra tutoring. And I’m now in business school.”
Picture Credit: Vitoria Ikeda
As Vitoria and I spoke with more Romani students, what struck me most was not the extent of discrimination they had faced, but rather their resilience in refusing to let those experiences define them. They didn’t want to be seen as victims. Because they are not.
It was at that moment that I became acutely aware of my own biases: I was so influenced by media’s one-sided depiction of the Roma and their marginalization that I had failed to see them beyond their social standing. But our personal interactions with them quickly destabilized and shattered this reductive image.
As women of color ourselves, Vitoria and I related to the Romani students’ experiences of identity struggle and feeling like an “other.” By the end of the weekend, our relationship with them had shifted from interviewer-interviewee to friends. They invited us to their farewell party where we were able to witness the ‘gypsy dance,’ as they call it, and jam with them to Romani folk songs.
During the weekend, I was reminded of something the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had said in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” She says:
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.
I will forever be grateful for my weekend in Rumburk because it saved me from falling into the pitfall of a single story of the Roma people. There are countless stories and experiences of people existing outside of the boundaries of that one dominant narrative. Once we realize this, we begin to see that our similarities outweigh our differences and that we share so much more than we think we do.
Editor's Note: A version of this article originally appeared on NYU Prague’s Global Dimensions website.