In celebration of International Romani Day, the nonprofit Romalitico organized a panel of experts to discuss the representation and contribution of Romani people in academia. Experts tackled topics ranging from whether existing research on Roma reinforces the stereotypical image of Roma or produces new knowledge to the importance of Roma to how universities can facilitate access for Roma in academia.
Emphasizing the role of young Roma in carrying the torch, Crina Elena Morteanu, a legal trainee at the European Roma Rights Centre, thanked those who paved the way and dedicated their lives to the cause.
"In my opinion, stereotypes can only be deconstructed through education and proving to others there are no differences between us and them," Morteanu said. "I believe education – primary and higher – if of the utmost importance to our lives – not only because this is a fight against prejudices, but because it helps us understand ourselves and it gives us the knowledge to fight for our rights. Roma intellectuals have a moral duty to represent the whole and to help the others."
CEU MA student Suad Skenderi addressed how Roma have been portrayed in academic and popular literature, noting that before World War II the discourse was "humiliating." Now, he said, authors tend to fall into one of two categories: those that provide positive arguments showing that Roma are struggling for a better life and contributing to society or opportunist authors who still reinforce stereotypes showing Roma as exotic leftovers and criminals.
"If Roma were provided an opportunity to create their own story, I don't believe Roma would believe they are born as criminals and scapegoats," said Skenderi, a founding member of Romalitico.
From the perspective of Beata Bislim Olahova of the Roma Education Fund (REF), it is important to focus not only on the human rights aspect of the issue but also the economic one. She sees the opportunity for rich research in this area. "It doesn't make economic sense to marginalize Roma and put them into a cycle of poverty." Olahova agrees that more Roma need to enter academia but noted that since 2001 there have been over 7,000 Roma university graduates and REF currently sponsors 37 PhD students who are studying all over the world from Japan to Portugal. "CEU is a good example" she noted. "We have had more than 120 Roma students in post-graduate programs at CEU."
CEU Visiting Professor Bernard Rorke wondered why "Anti-Gypsyism remains the seemingly only acceptable form of racism in modern Europe." To challenge this, Rorke believes that students and activist must call for officials who engage in hate speech to be removed from office. He encouraged the recording of incidents of hate speech and emphasized the importance of documenting this kind of vitriol and intolerance.
"We need allies to stand up and take a stance, to counter hate speech and not tolerate it in their organizations," he said. "The goals from Brussels and Strasbourg need to trickle down to capitals and villages."
Rorke also said he is heartened by the increased presence of Roma students in graduate-level institutions. "I can not overstate the importance of more Roma in academia."
Pointing to an apparent disconnect between the academic study of Roma and the reality of their everyday lives, Iulius Rostas, visiting professor at Corvinus University, said, "We are paying more and more attention to Roma in academia, yet their lives do not improve."
Rostas noted that it is not simply a matter of having more Roma in academia that will improve the discourse but an acceptance of Roma as true academics, not "just" activists who non-Roma scholars believe cannot be objective. Nadir Redzepi from Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma echoed Rostas saying, "We should not isolate Roma research from mainstream academic discourse."
Rostas warned of the danger that stereotypes pose within the Roma community and for future generations.
"If you are taught over and over that Roma are a people without culture, without identity, you believe it," Rostas said. "By getting Roma into academia, they can bring something new to what we call Romani studies; they can build new narratives and that's significant if you think about knowledge production. They can talk about diversity and pluralism inside Roma communities – what unites them. Up to now, Romani studies have struggled to show how different Roma are but what keeps them together, what binds them."
Szilvia Rezmuves from ROMED2/ROMACT spoke about the danger of poor research that lacks proper methodology. She pointed to a 2008 study of the people living in a certain Roma settlement and the results that said young Roma are not interested in working, despite the fact that older generations did work. "There is no background, no evidence," she said. "This can easily be used against Roma."
The event was organized in collaboration with CEU's Human RightS Initiative (HRSI) and Roma Access Programs (RAP). Sebijan Fejzula, founding member of Romalitico and CEU alumna, moderated the discussion.