A 50 year-old Cypriot businessman, Mr Yiannos Xanthou, a resident of Romania for the past 20 years, talks to Aristides Mettas (CY) about his perspective on the culture and the several socio-economic problems that Romani people are facing.
Romania is the country with the second highest percentage of Roma, after Bulgaria, with 3,3% of the total population being of Romani descent. As Mr Yiannos told me, with a rather brooding expression: ‘I know them, I see them every day…they are everywhere.’ Mr Yiannos lives at the heart of Bucharest and this is how he describes the landscape: ‘Even though the city is developing, the Roma keep parts of it underdeveloped because of their standards of living. They live in poor and mostly unhygienic rooms.’ He stressed that these people live in crowded, often makeshift homes and added that the majority of the houses host more than one family: ‘In a normal house where four people would live, there are more than ten.’. This is supported by data from the World Bank as they have concluded that 71% or more of Roma households live in deep poverty.
Despite the fact that Romani people are considered to be one of the most discriminated-against and vulnerable minorities in Europe, Mr Yiannos, has a different perspective. Even though he acknowledges the urgency and the vulnerability of this topic he feels like the Roma do not face discrimination as such. As he puts it: ‘In my opinion they do not face discrimination since they deliberately choose to be marginalised. They put themselves aside. Discrimination is only evident from people who would anyway be discriminating against all minorities and other untraditional forms of race and sexual preference.’ What Mr Yiannos was trying to say was that, he believes that it’s not the fault of society that they are marginalised. As he describes: ‘The majority of the people do not interfere with them. No one is against them. No one is standing in their way. They simply do not want to change.’
Nevertheless, Mr Yiannos told me that he witnessed change. There are many examples of Roma who have changed. This proves that change is possible but it all depends on whether someone makes the decision to take the first step. Mr Yiannos gave an example: ‘I once met a person whose family was living in tents and he grew up in such conditions. Today he is working for the EU, and currently is also trying to help the Roma adjust to the modern society, teaching, without overlooking their traditions and respecting their culture.’ The work of this man is very noble in Mr Yiannos’ eyes but at the same time he struggles to be optimistic. He believes that it’s the traditions of these people, sometimes involving marriage at a young age and child labour, which do not allow them to change and become active members of society.
Moreover, he supports that the means with which change can be attained are available, but their lifestyle does not necessarily allow for any change to occur. Mr. Yiannos argues that the government has often provided them with better shelter but that this has not lead them to alter their lifestyle. The few that have managed to break away from the stereotypes that surround them should act as examples for the rest to follow. This however puts forth a moral dilemma, since change in this case suggest that they simply adapt their lifestyle to fit in the modern society, which hinders their identity. The issue is, as Mr Yiannos, puts it: ‘The lifestyle that the Roma have been following for so many years, and consequently the life that their younger generation is going to lead, revolves around what society would define as an undisciplined nature. Their mentality is such that it does not really allow them to change and adjust to a new social structure and society.’
Following this rather interesting perspective, Mr Yiannos elaborated on his views of the mentality that most of the Roma have. He humorously added to his description of the terrible housing of the Roma by saying that: ‘Even if they weren’t living in such horrible conditions, even if you gave them the most luxurious homes, even if every one of them won the lottery every day, they will still be the same. When the winter comes and they run out of wood for the fireplace, they would take off the window frames of their brand new mansions and use them to warm the house.’ What he was trying to communicate was that in his opinion money and resources is not the issue as the European Social Fund for example has spent 13.3 billion euros on measures benefiting vulnerable groups like Roma. However Mr Yiannos believes that this is a vain attempt since the core of the issue is their mentality and the lack of education.
When asked whether there are equal job opportunities for the Roma, Mr Yiannos tried to give some insight into the situation in Romania. He informed me that Romania has one of the lowest unemployment rates of Europe. To be exact, recent studies have shown that it amounts to 6.80%. In his rather strong opinion, this percentage consists of mostly Roma who are registered and simply deny to work or choose to work in the black market whilst also getting benefits: ‘To be exact I believe that unemployment in Romania is almost 0%. I don’t know any unemployed person, there are simply so many people who work in the black market. Both the Roma people and the Romanians.’ To what extent though can we trust some simple observations? It is these observations however that have shaped Mr Yiannos’, and most probably society’s opinion of these people. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that appearance can often be deceiving and that it is easy to point your finger to some people if you never walked in their shoes.
Nonetheless, Mr Yiannos expressed his hope that the Roma people, despite their often reduced employability, can contribute to the economy through the agricultural sector. He proposed that instead of choosing the “easy way out”, i.e. being part of the black market, stealing, begging and working in temporary jobs, they can support towards the development of the country. The horrifying consequences of the current lifestyle is that it can create an eternal cycle of crime and decline since children tend to copy the actions of parents. Mr Yiannos believes that children should not follow in the sometimes questionable footsteps of their parents: ‘Children should be sent to school, not work! They have access to education but they simply do not choose to go. Parents do not send their kids to school because they prefer to use them for their own benefits.’
After all, statistics indicate that only about 29% of Romani people have graduated from secondary school.
When the interview came to an end, Mr Yiannos wanted to leave me with this final, inspiring quote and stress once more the importance of education as a driver of change:
‘The only way for the situation to change is through an alteration of the mind-sets. A mental reformation needs to occur for their life purpose to change and for the way the society treats them. Education! Only through education! If you manage to gather them all and put them into classrooms and schools then you might be able to see a change. This is the only solution.’
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Media Team of the 80th International Session of the European Youth Parliament nor of the European Youth Parliament (EYP) or any of its affiliates.