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Who Are Denmark's Roma?

A young Danish journalist and an American university student, both Humanity in Action Fellows, accompanied two Eastern European Roma on a walk in the Danish town of Elsinore. Trying to answer the question “who are Denmark’s Roma?” we took three trips to the city, conducting over a dozen interviews. The following essay is our attempt to piece together a complex puzzle.

DEN·MARK ('den-"mark), 

country in Europe occupying most of Jutland Peninsula & adjacent islands in Baltic & North seas; a kingdom; area 16,629 square miles  (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Who are Denmark's Roma and how do they balance between their own traditions and the demands and values of a society like the Danish? How is this group of people, scarred by a long history of persecution and discrimination, perceived by the population of a small provincial town? To answer these questions we allied with two Roma activists from Romania and Hungary, who are attending a seminar at the International People's College in Elsinore. We walked to a street called North Street, or Nordvej, where the vast majority of the town’s estimated 1000 Roma are living. 

The first Roma came to this area from Hungary in the late 1950's and settled in Elsinore after being refused entry to Sweden. Today most of the Roma are immigrants from Serbia. North Street is infamous among the long time residents in Elsinore for clashes between different groups of immigrants and socially "unstable" people of Danish origin. When you ask locals about the street, one group is particularly mentioned. A 73-year old man told us that "the gypsies are always watching me and my belongings. They camp in my garden when I am not at home and always keep a plastic bag in their pocket in case they spot something they like." It is a fact, according to the local police, that the Roma commit more crime than the average Dane, but they are rarely involved in offenses more serious than pick pocketing. 

But even in a town as small as Elsinore, not everyone seemed aware that Roma lived there. A woman in her fifties swore that she had never met a Roma in Elsinore, because she "would have noticed their colorful dresses and the flowers in their hair." Upon arrival to the street we stumbled onto a 23-year old man, living amongst the Roma, who represents another perspective on the minority. “They play loud music and tend to forget to clean the stairs, but what does it really matter? We still smile to each other when we meet.”

From our interviews and statements made by Danes, it is clear that almost all knowledge of the Roma in Denmark, as in America, has been acquired informally. This happens through fairytale, myth, and phrases like “don’t get gyped”. Schools need to teach children and adults who the Roma are; many people we spoke with expressed surprise that they are “a real race.”

Thomas Action and Nicholae Gheorghe, two prominent intellectuals, described the Western variant as a “down-market version of anti-Semitism- the Gypsy as a cunning fox but, unlike Jews, illiterate.” The Eastern European stereotype reeks of servitude, stupidity and aimlessness. In recent years, the sort of sadistic hatred of the Roma that has been part of many Eastern and Central European societies has threatened to increase in intensity and spread geographically. As part of our research we looked at racist writings targeting the Roma, visiting websites such as www.angry.net, a forum where people complain about annoying bosses and other irritations. Careful not to take what we found on this website as representative of anti-Roma sentiments or to characterize the website based on uncensored contributions from anonymous persons, we still feel that the cruel racism expressed is relevant to our topic. Most Danes, and most Americans, have no idea about the intensity of anti-Roma hatred that exists in much of the world. The hatred expressed is evocative of propaganda used in relation to genocide. Women and children described as animals, arguments about low IQ levels based on race, claims about diseases and infections “brought” by the gypsies into the world, and imagery of hyper-sexualized behavior, incest and drunkenness - all expressed by everyday people (Brits, Czechs, Romanians, and others) with no political affiliations. 

There are over one million Roma in North America, a number that is slowly growing. American conceptions of who they are derive from the Western version, which is curious since the Roma in the U.S. are mostly static, non-traveling and from Eastern Europe. Most Americans and Danes we spoke with seemed to think of the Roma as peripheral and placeless minorities. Often spoke of as living anachronisms, the Roma are difficult to classify and categorize. 

GYP·SY ('jip-sE),

by shortening & alteration from Egyptian; 1537; a member of a traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India and now live chiefly in south and southwest Asia, Europe, and No. America

Whether expressed in facial expressions or articulated in clumsy questions about origin, our walk in Elsinore, Denmark, was punctuated by moments when difference was recognized. But just because difference is recognized does not mean that it is understood. Who is a Gypsy?  Who is a Dane? If one plotted our footprints, the polarization could be seen in how we stood and which way we pointed our bodies, people of seemingly similar backgrounds facing each other. At these moments the difference was one of seemingly simple opposition - they were Roma and we were gadje (Romani for non-Roma). At other times things felt entangled. Our footprints formed a more elaborate pattern, “New Danes” of various ethnicity and religious affiliations confusing our Roma friends for Spaniards while we confused them for Roma. 

An informal education in the visual cues of ethnic origin, this walk exposed us to the awkward and overlapping forces that characterize and constitute cross-cultural interactions. We were never really asking only one question at a time and our answers came in many forms. Full of hesitant excitement, these walks were rich and overwhelming, even for the Roma in our group, who were suddenly meeting “their own” so far away from home. As a blond Dane, one of us felt his identity was pretty non-negotiable.  But the American, who was often asked to explain where she fit in, felt that she not only had space to maneuver, with more possible permutations and hyphenations, but that she also had a responsibility to do so. When discussing our research with some Danish university students, a certain solution was proposed.  One suggested that our group, just as Danes in general, could be divided into those with “the brown touch” and those without. While political correctness and multiculturalism make this approach unpalatable to most, such a dichotomy is especially silly, and potentially dangerous, to the eyes of a Roma. 

The Roma discomfort with a brown/not-brown distinction reveals a facility in negotiating complex identity-construction but more importantly, it exposes a will to reduce these complexities to a different dichotomy. Ian Hancock, an American scholar whose name is inseparable with Gypsy studies and Romani linguistics, writes “the overriding factor of ’gypsiness’ is the firm acceptance of the fact that the world is divided into Roma and gadje . . . which has ensured the perpetuation of the Romani people.” The opposition was expressed in every conversation we had with a Roma, occasionally in an embittered or angered tone, but most often in a matter-of-fact manner. In the Romani language, the words for man, boy, woman, and girl differ depending on whether one is talking about a Roma or non-Roma. Thus, our original question was rephrased by the Roma we spoke to. The critical issue became: who is NOT a gypsy? If this distinction is indeed a matter of survival and perpetuation for the Roma, how does this way of distinguishing a community fit into our general world-view and our multi-state organizations?

NA·TION ('nA-sh&n),

Middle English nacioun, from Middle French nation, from Latin nation-, natio birth, race, nation, from nasci to be born; 14th century;  - a community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government; a territorial division containing a body of people of one or more nationalities and usually characterized by relatively large  size and independent status

The plight of the Roma has become an EU question, a Danish question, and a global question. As members or prospective members of the European Union, both Scandinavian and Eastern European states are being evaluated for their treatment of minorities. How will Europe deal with its stateless inhabitants once the continent is more unified? The endless and debilitating cycle of Roma migration, immigration, asylum requests, forced deportation and repatriation that exists now all over Europe must eventually cease. There are millions of people wanting to move from one place in Europe to another. Temporary visas are being required for Slovakians, for example, out of fear of Roma migration. At the present time many Roma, including those from Slovakia and Romania, make persuasive claims that they are victims of persecution in their states but are rejected. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Trying to think about the Roma in this context is confounding.

Conceptualizing statelessness is as difficult for Roma as it is for EU officials and immigration officers. In certain circles there is pressure and momentum to form a Roma state defined by territory, but this is unlikely to materialize. The two such movements that actually started were flops. One suggested a site on the Ganges in India, from where the Roma are originally descended. The other involved a request made to Mussolini for land in Somalia. 

The Roma’s struggle to come to terms with statelessness has meant frequent comparisons with the Jewish situation in the last century. When we started our interviewing we expected the shared experience of the Holocaust and WWII to be the main way that the Roma identified with Jews. We soon learned how sensitive this issue is. Some of the Roma we spoke with, when asked about the Holocaust, said “always Jews, Jews, Jews. We were exterminated, raped, and experimented on”. We were asked to describe any Holocaust museums we had been to.  Did they talk about Roma? Were the sites of camps commemorated or were there still factories with big dogs in front to prevent the elderly Roma who try to visit from getting in? For many Roma with whom we spoke, it seemed less traumatic to identify with Jewish statelessness than with the Holocaust.

The Roma’s outrage and sadness expressed on this issue needs no justification. Some leaders in Holocaust studies seem to worry that too much inclusion of the Roma story would fragment their own version of the Holocaust, which some would say has been packaged and distributed worldwide without any Roma input. While this situation is changing as we speak, for the better, many Holocaust experts cannot speak comprehensively about Roma in the Holocaust. While efforts to introduce other voices into the Jewish narrative of persecution and genocide have been made, they are often exactly that – a supplement to the Jewish story. The Holocaust can be interpreted as a climax, but by no means a final point, in a long history of efforts to get rid of Roma, to deport them out of states trying to form identities. Several Roma activists told us that genocide (in its literal meaning) went on far beyond the war, with the 90’s seeing the burning of villages, extreme racism and the famous incident in the Czech Republic where a wall was erected to segregate a community. 

In our research, we were struck by how much of what we had learned about the Holocaust resonates in the postwar Roma experience. Sterilization, a favorite Nazi tool, was used on Roma until recently in Eastern Europe, as was the practice of “saving” children of bad birth and putting them in white families, another Nazi tactic. Interpol used Nazi data on the Roma in their own efforts. Himmler wanted to preserve and showcase a few traditional Roma as part of historic preservation, arguing that they were an incredible anachronism. Ironically, similar arguments are used by anti-Roma today, who claim that Roma need to get modern jobs of today and stop living in the past.  Similarly, many Danes will tell you that certain Turks living in Denmark are an anachronism, expensive relics “stuck in the middle ages.” While such claims of minority groups being “stuck in the past” are thrown around, the way we speak about these groups is often antiquated and inappropriate. One example of this is the idea of ghettoization.

GHET·TO, 'ge-(")To,

Italian, from Venetian dialect ghèto island where Jews were forced to live, literally, foundry (located on the island), from ghetàr to cast, from Latin jactare to throw; 1611

1 : a quarter of a city in which Jews were formerly required to live 2 : a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live   especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure  3 : an isolated group 

Did we find a ghetto in Elsinore? Was it reminiscent of the ”quarter of a city in which Jews were formerly required to live” described in the Merriam-Webster dictionary? Was this word, coined in the 17th century, appropriate to throw around as we often did in our seminars? These questions are crucial to our project. Asking whether or not we found a ghetto is an important way of making sure that we address the specific Danish situation and the specific situation in 2001. With such a horrible and complex history, it would be very easy to fall in the trap of conflating the idea of a larger Roma tragedy with the reality of today’s few thousand Danish Roma. 

The first step in avoiding such conflation is to consider the size of social protection offered to the Roma and the extent to which society actively tries to isolate the group. As Elsinore’s Roma themselves told us, it was possible to lead a good life in Denmark, perhaps better than anywhere in the world. While it was difficult to get even a very low-skill job, because of the structure of Denmark’s labor market and language requirements, a family could live well once a job was found and was protected in times of unemployment by generous social benefits. 

The second conclusion may seem obvious, but in our experience was often ignored: people of the same race living in close proximity to each other does not on its own constitute a ghetto! It is condescending to assume that a minority living together is something that is always forced upon them by a superstructure.  In the case of Elsinore’s Roma, it seemed as though a certain cohesion, social stability, and happiness was promoted by living with other Roma. City planners who may want to do minorities a favor by targeting housing for them that is deliberately integrated need to consider carefully. Forcing mixed housing may polarize communities and actually hinder attempts at integration, if done without the wish of the minority. Obviously, communities like Elsinore’s Roma should not be kept in isolation by policy or default. But it should be acknowledged that certain parts of systematized integration can deprive a community of cultural tools. This debate is similar to the debate about education. Does good education mean teaching Roma children to be Danish, in normal Danish classrooms?  

ED·U·CA·TION ("e-j&-'kA-sh&n),


1 a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process, b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process; 2 : the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools

Successful integration of a minority into a society, often judged according to standards of workforce participation, political inclusion, and a lack of racial or ethnic tensions, is said to be dependent on integrating children into the school system. For every Dane we spoke to, this seemed like a given. That Roma should send their children to school was not up for debate. In many “successfully” heterogeneous communities across the world children attend religious and culturally oriented schools that are still regulated by state authorities. This has not been the case with the Roma in Denmark and there is debate about whether it would be a good idea. 

A Roma grandmother, watching the children playing in the parking lot, told us with great sincerity that “all these children go to school.” But that is an overstatement. In Elsinore about 100 Roma children are enrolled in the school system. According to the social advisors we spoke with about half of the Roma children have problems in school, mainly because they do not show up at a regular basis. In light of this the municipality decided to allow the social workers to reduce 30% of the parent’s welfare if the children do not attend school. Apparently the hard line policy has had an effect. According to figures from one Roma class in Elsinore the truancy rate has dropped from an average of 50 % to 30% in six months. But the measures do not solve the main problem, which is, according to the social advisors, that the Roma do not feel that they belong in the Danish school system. The distinction between Roma and gadje is reflected in this self-image, where the children have an often unjustified belief that that will be mistreated in the Danish schools. But according to one of the two social advisors, Bettina Nielsen, another problem is the mentality of the children, often imposed by the parents, where obligation is a negative word. As she puts it: “They simply can not see meaning of it. It is not fun, but hard work to wake up every morning and do your homework every day”.

Elsinore does not have “special” schools for Roma, but a few years ago the municipality decided to create three special classes for children with learning difficulties or a high rate of truancy. A report from 1997, written by a social advisor and consultant to the municipality, states “the classes are the result of a segregation with the purpose to keep order in the regular classes.” The segregation of Roma children in Elsinore is not, according to the social advisors, discriminating at any rate, but simply an attempt to put extra effort into solving the problems the children are facing. 

Rudko Kawczinski, a Roma activist from Germany visiting the International Peoples’ College in Elsinore, tried to explain to us why so many Roma do not want to send their children to school. His reasons were related to prejudice and racism against Roma in general, biases that he believes to be especially apparent and hostile in schools. Equating all European schooling with nationalist brainwashing, he emphasized the need to “show Roma parents that they are not sending their children to a military camp.” Kawczinski, although he claims that he is speaking of European experience in general, is clearly talking about Germany and Eastern Europe, and it would be unfair to uncritically transpose his claims onto the Danish case. This difference was made most clear during a conversation with Stuan, one of our Roma facilitators.  When asked if Danish Roma should be put in “special schools” he responded with a look of sadness and replied that this was not the answer.  While prepared for his opinion that Roma children would fare better in integrated schools, the emotion in his response seemed out of proportion.  The explanation was simple. In Romania, where he is from, as in much of Eastern Europe, Roma children are consistently placed in what are also called “special schools”. They are institutions comprised of Roma children and those with mental or learning disabilities. Once we clarified our conception of a Danish special school as one in which bilingual education and cultural expressiveness constituted the “special” aspect, he was much more willing to consider the idea.

IN·TE·GRA·TION ("in-t&-'grA-sh&n)


1 : the act or process or an instance of integrating; 2 : incorporation as equals into society or an organization of individuals of different groups (as races)

In North Street not only the children are spending their free time playing in the parking lot. Music emanating from their cars, men are standing in small groups discussing this and that while watching strangers passing by. According to the municipality about half of the Roma in Elsinore are unemployed and dependent on welfare support, and most, if not all, attempts to integrate this group into the working market have failed. Ole Madsen, a social worker running a project called “Naput”, where Roma and other minorities in the Danish society are working together, points at the lack of knowledge about the Roma mentality, traditions and way of life as the main problem and obstacle to successful integration. People, including most social advisors, simply do not know who the Roma are. “I had to solve the puzzle myself and after two years of working with the Roma I have some kind of idea about who they are. But the picture is still not clear.”

The leading expert on Roma in Denmark, Professor Heidi Jensen, also points at a lack of knowledge as the major problem. In an interview she stated: “When the gypsies cannot read or write it is not because they don't have the possibility or the ability, or, which is another misconception among social advisors, because they are moving around. They are maintained in the role as ‘poor things’ and this victimization, often sought by the Roma themselves, run through the public system.” She claims that stereotypes about the Roma flourish in the social system and that this is a formidable obstacle. Better knowledge about the Roma would enable the social advisors to make a more successful approach.     

Many Danes who deal with the Roma relay an attitude of amused reverence – there might be a mention of sofa being thrown out of a window “for no reason,” an assertion that a Roma would never go hungry because they take care of each other, and much talk about their amazing music. Romani culture is often described by Danes who work with Roma as a combination of fun, warmth and devotion to family. This attitude is tempered by a “liberal” concern over some traditional aspects of Roma life. But those who criticize traditional aspects of Roma life are likely to make generalizations that are inapplicable to the Roma who actually live in Denmark. Roma culture is an incredibly multifaceted phenomenon. Composed of several different groups, the Roma vary in their traditions and levels of isolation. We were unable to untangle which of the Roma we spoke with were from which group and we chose not to force the question. Our Roma facilitators asked “are you from Serbia?” rather than “are you Kalderash or Vlax?” It remains unclear how many of Elsinore’s Roma marry in their early teens.  Our general conclusion is that the Danish Roma are less traditional than many, but that their cultural practices still differ significantly from Danish society.  In other words, Roma women may marry much younger than most Danish women but are likely to be somewhat older and less isolated than their rural Romanian Roma counterparts.

Due to the number of possible parts of a culture that might be in need of ”integration” according to an authority or an average Dane, we thought it would be important to see which battles were being fought. When thinking about integration, one must ultimately prioritize. The images of multiculturalism and liberalism are reconcilable only up to a point. We found that Elsinore’s authorities were choosing their battles, as opposed to trying to change everything and make all parts of Roma life as Danish as soon as possible.

POW·ER ('pau(-&)r),      

Middle English, from Old French poeir, from poeir to beable, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin potEre, alteration of Latin posse 13th century; 1 : ability to act or produce an effect 2 : ability to get extra-base hits 3 : capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect, a legal or official authority, capacity, or right

“Young Roma mothers are in general bad mothers and lack even the most basic knowledge about children and child care.” The quote is from a document of policy for Elsinore. It was written in 1997 by a social advisor and consultant to the municipality, who was given the difficult task of describing a minority. But as Ole Madsen, the social worker working with the Roma says “Roma mothers are definitely not bad mothers, they just have a different way of bringing up their children, where focus is on family relations and social security within the community.” His thoughts are in direct contrast to what the state has often assumed about Roma mothering. Still, many things have changed in Elsinore since this controversial report of 1997. As the authorities have changed and new people have entered positions of power, the approach to integration has also changed. Especially two social advisors have been taking the lead in creating a new policy, where participation and specialization are key words. 

From September 1st of 2001 all Roma cases, at present 133, will land on the desk of Bettina Nielsen and her colleague as part of a new project called “Mutual Efforts”. The reasoning behind it is that the municipality lacks a common understanding of the needs and potential within the Roma community. For years the municipality insisted that there should be no distinction between clients according to their cultural or ethnic background, but have since allowed for a different approach to be attempted. This will enable the social workers to work on a broader scale with children, parents and grand parents, and to cross borders within the public system. As Bettina Nielsen puts it: “We have to include grandmothers, parents, uncles and children, when we want Roma to participate.” 

This represents a clear change in policy since 1997, where the report mentioned claims following: “The gypsies do not have calendars and the time horizon is no longer than the day of tomorrow. Appointments later than that will not be kept unless there is heavy force behind it.” The two social advisors support the idea of “consequence in action”, including the controversial 30% reduction of the parents' welfare, but the hard line policy has to be followed up by a more personal and broad approach. The report from 1997 also claims that “there is a common and unforgivable belief that work among children can push forward the integration of minorities. The parents are aware that the children are easy to influence and they will simply keep them away from the pedagogues and social workers.” But the two social advisors, with whom we spoke, think that children are the key. They had inspiration from trips to Sweden, where new ways of integrating a larger Roma population have been implemented. Fairytales written by the famous Swedish author Astrid Lindgren have been translated into Romani - giving the children a new channel of information about the society they live in. This could be copied in Elsinore and other European countries dealing with this minority.

When researching integration and talking with Roma in Elsinore, we were constantly struck by the lack of authority or power as articulated concepts. Only Kawczinski, the prominent activist, brought up the issue. Uneasy with the words “integration” and “assimilation,” he wants the Roma to share power. His concept of choice is “participation.” None of the Danes we spoke to mentioned power. Seemingly uncomfortable with the idea of a bureaucratic authority, all discussions of cutting welfare or forcing Roma children to school needed no justification. They might talk frankly about whether their tactics work, but never about what authority permitted them to act. The conceptual and linguistic distance between an “incentive” and a “threat” didn’t seem to matter – they were just doing what they were doing. It was our perception that the Roma, as other minorities, need a consistent framework of power within which to operate. Both their own participation and the penetration of services designed to help them would benefit from a clearer knowledge of who was deciding what and why.

Let’s return to the quote mentioned above. “Young Roma mothers are in general bad mothers and lack even the most basic knowledge about children and child care.” The consultant who wrote this operates from a position of implicit power. The power is significant - to interpret a culture, a way of parenting, and to present this interpretation as a pretext for policy. For the Danish social welfare system power seems to be embodied by discretion. The ability to act without referring to authority constitutes true power. Somewhat ironically, while we found the lack of reference to an authority troubling, it seems to provide the space for people to get things done and form innovative solutions. The social workers in Elsinore, who never mentioned their own authority or that of those above them, had managed to get support and funding for an ambitious new project in only a few years. They are now permitted to ask “who is the woman in front of me, what are her needs and what do I, as an authority, need of her?” The underlying question seems to be - does this type of sensitivity and specialization depend on a vague notion of authority and the assumption of consensus?  Would such a nuanced and dynamic approach be possible in a system characterized by divisiveness and a solidified hierarchy? This tension is critical for Americans and Danes to address as we investigate each other’s systems. In many of our Humanity in Action seminars and in social justice work generally, we hear about how bad the system is. Static and unresponsive, these arenas of power plays and inefficiency keep the underprivileged down. While this image captures reality all too often, the case of Elsinore’s Roma represents a much more hopeful image of integration and creative policy-making.

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Denmark Denmark 2001


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