'I swore on my grandparents' grave I'd work for the Roma'

October 21, 2005

Faisal al Yafai meets Romania's only female Gypsy academic, who wants her people to overcome age-old prejudice

As the lecturer walked through the gates of her university in colourful, flowing skirts, she heard a shout. "You! Gypsy woman! Where are you going?" the security guard demanded. Delia Grigore paused unflustered and explained she had a class to teach inside. It was left to her student to demand an apology.

Even Romania's sole female Roma academic's daily life is touched by discrimination towards the " tsigani ", or Gypsies. Occasionally the doors of her faculty are daubed with swastikas.

"The Roma have been excluded for so long that it has left a huge mark on the nation's collective memory," she says softly. "When you read old Romanian folklore and songs, the Roma is always the anti-hero."

But Grigore does not hide away. As one of the Roma's public faces and a lecturer in Romany anthropology, folklore and literature at the University of Bucharest, Romania's most prestigious institution, she enthusiastically wears bright traditional dresses and ruffled blouses. Her very presence serves as a strong visual reminder of the Roma presence in her country, the heart of Europe's 12 million-strong minority.

To her students, Grigore is exotic, a young woman - she is 33 - who insists on being called bibia , a Romany word meaning aunt. To wider Roma society, she is a hero and her regular appearances on television are a sign of their gradual acceptance.

Many Roma do not openly identify themselves. Officially, there are just 570,000 in the country. The real figure is probably closer to 2 million.

Grigore herself comes from an assimilated family, where her Roma background was a family secret.

"They refused to assume their identity," she recalls. "I was told not to say I was a Roma." Grigore's grandparents were illiterate but the Communist system allowed her parents an education. Her father became an engineer, her mother a teacher.

At 19 Grigore won a place to read Romanian and English philology at the University of Bucharest. It was then that personal circumstances drew her back to the Roma culture. Grigore's parents separated and for a while she was estranged from her paternal grandparents, the most traditional Roma in the family. She learnt that they had died only several months after the event. She was devastated.

"I swore on their grave that I would work for the Roma," she says. Yet Grigore, a successful middle-class woman, had no idea how to do this. A friend put her in touch with a Roma charity and she joined a group of young Roma struggling to raise awareness of discrimination.

Costel Bercus, head of Romani Criss, the Roma Centre for Social Intervention and Studies, recalls Grigore cutting a striking figure. He says: "She wore long red dresses and always had flowers in her hair. She was very highly motivated. I think Romanians expected her to be uneducated as a Roma woman but she was preparing to take her PhD."

Grigore's thesis was on Roma anthropology, and soon after its completion she was appointed to join the three-strong staff of the university's department for Roma studies when it opened in 1998.

Unsurprisingly, she strongly believes that education provides the Roma with a route out of poverty. She notes that Communist rule gave many Roma a better future. "Of course it was assimilation and a policy against identity, but it offered a chance to have an education," she says. But she senses that the pendulum is swinging the other way, and it worries her.

"Now we have parents in their 40s and 50s with a good education but their children in their 20s have two or three years of school. That is the present situation and it is a very bad sign."

Grigore speaks with the passion of a crusader. As well as being executive president of the Roma Centre for Public Policies, a high-profile non-governmental organisation, she has written seven books. Her latest is a secondary school textbook on Roma history and culture that she hopes will go some way to tackling the negative views held by many Romanians.

Such prejudices start young. The day before we speak, Grigore had been participating in a documentary shot in a Transylvanian village. "One young child - he couldn't have even known what a Gypsy is - said very seriously: 'The problems in this village began when the Gypsies came,'" she says.

"From the mouth of five-year-old child! It comes from the parents. It's open racism."

Lack of contact compounds such views. In the big cities, the only representatives of the Roma nation that most Romanians encounter are in the shop-lined underpasses that connect the sprawling boulevards of the capital, Bucharest, where poor Roma congregate, the men often stripped to the waist, the women carrying babies.

Grigore estimates that about 1,000 of Romania's 470,000 students are Roma.

In a move to get more into mainstream education, the country has a voluntary affirmative action programme with lower entry requirements. There are 500 such places. "It's not a privilege or a favour," says Grigore, "it's just a measure to equalise chances and it comes as a reparation for a very long history."

Some take a different line. Gelu Duminica, executive director of Agentia Impreuna, another Roma NGO, says the Roma must share the blame for the situation. "We bear some guilt," he says. "You hear Roma say: 'I don't want to go to school, I don't see the point, I'd rather be in the street.'"

Grigore acknowledges the point: "This internalised stigma is the biggest danger. I have seen Roma myself who have told me: 'I cannot go to school, I am a Gypsy. What do you expect of me?' This happens with many Roma, this self-marginalisation, because they are so excluded by society. They begin to think of themselves in this way."

Gradually, though, attitudes are changing. While she is reluctant to admit it, Grigore is part of the solution, providing young Roma with a role model. She says: "It's very important that we have people who are educated and are proud of being Roma and say it openly. It's very important for the Roma nation."

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