Renowned Roma activist Gelu Duminică discusses dispelling myths and revising the definition of the term “gypsy” in dictionaries.
The stench of burnt human flesh is the most vivid recollection Gelu Duminică had from his research in Romania while studying sociology. “After the fall of communism, there were bloody times back then, in the ’90s and early 2000s,” he claims. Individuals were igniting one another with flames. figuratively. Numerous individuals perished in interethnic clashes, whether as a result of tensions between Romanians and Hungarians, Romanians and Roma, or Hungarians and Roma.
Duminică, 46, is a prominent advocate for the Roma community in Romania. He is a man with a pleasant voice and a dazzling, profound appreciation for the topic that he is so intimately familiar with.
His grandpa, who fought for Romania on the Eastern Front during World War II, is largely responsible for the start of his adventure. During the Romani Holocaust, his country was busy deporting his Roma family while he was risking his life to defend his nation. Just two of the 40 family members who were forced to leave came home, including Duminică’s father.
25,000 Romani people were forcibly deported during the Romani Holocaust and sent to Transnistria, a territory then ruled by Romania. Documents reveal that about half of the victims were youngsters, and sadly, over 11,000 of them perished from typhus, acute cold, and starvation.
In the late 1970s, Duminică was born in Galaţi, an eastern Romanian city, into extreme poverty and periodic marital abuse. At the age of three, his father lost his own parents in the Romani Holocaust and resorted to beggaring. Duminică frequently claims that when his father’s and mother’s poverty levels combined, everyone’s level of poverty increased. Stable was the family’s first residence.
“You can’t expect someone to change their behavior without first providing them with information and awareness so they can face their own struggles.”
Duminică was born nine months and ten days after an elder brother passed away from leukemia, out of the five sons. Desperate to keep their kid alive, his parents had torn down their home and sold the bricks to raise money for his medical care.
At his mother’s request, Duminică attended high school even though no one in his neighborhood had completed their education. The greatest ambition of most was to gather bird feathers for a nearby bedding and pillow firm; this was a profession that was seen as easy and clean in comparison to other jobs such as working on building sites, cleaning streets, excavating ditches, and handling sewage.
Since then, not much has changed in the lives of the Roma people. According to studies, 20% of Roma youngsters do not attend elementary school. 80% of students quit school early.
The Roma ethnic group makes up 570,000 people, or 3.4% of Romania’s total population, according to the 2022 census. Unofficial figures, however, paint a different picture: there are really between 1.2 and 1.5 million Roma living in Romania, many of whom choose not to identify as Roma out of fear of social shame.
Experts concur that since 2001, when the government released its first “strategy” to enhance circumstances for Roma populations before its entry into the European Union, Romania has failed to improve conditions, ranging from bullying in schools to prejudice and segregation.
Following high school, Duminică attended the University of Bucharest to study sociology and social work. She finally rose to the position of associate professor and executive director of Agenţia Împreună, an NGO that promotes social inclusion for Roma people. He has taken part in over 50 projects over the last 20 years that have attempted to make life better in Romania’s underprivileged districts.
He was succeeded in his campaign in 2011 to have the meanings of “gypsy” (ţigan) and “Roma” revised in the dictionary. He claimed that by ignoring the fact that the term “gypsy” is used in a disparaging manner, the current explanations contributed to the spread of harmful preconceptions.
You frequently claim that social change takes time, but have you noticed any advancements for Roma groups in Romanian society?
Serious interethnic clashes occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s, the first fifteen years following the fall of communism. The Hădăreni riots of 1993 are arguably the most well-known example of such a confrontation.
When you looked at job postings around that time, you would find phrases like “We’re hiring.” Roma not included. “8989, I am hot,” would even be said on sexy hotlines. Not in Roma.
Things that startle people now were commonplace back then. You were frequently prohibited from going to public places and clubs if you were Roma. Roma communities experienced beatings by the police. For example, during the Mineriad [violent protests by students and opponents of the newly elected government in 1990, immediately following the collapse of communism], over 700 of the approximately 1,300 hostages taken [by Jiu Valley miners on orders from the new president] in Bucharest between June 13 and June 15, 1990, were Roma.
Merely focusing on these problems reveals considerable advancements. It is important to remember that civil and political communities at the time supported all of these discriminatory practices and viewpoints. These days, a corporation or organization will face consequences if an individual is refused entry to a public area on the basis of their ethnicity. At the time, this was untrue. In fact, there has been a significant change in bullying and prejudice throughout the years. Indeed, we have a long way to go before we reach our potential, but we have also come a long way from our beginnings.
Which successful initiatives have been undertaken in this direction thus far?
I recall the struggle to get the word “ţigan” (gypsy) changed in the dictionary when we first started in 2011. We saw that the word “rom” (Roma) was used interchangeably with “ţigan,” and that the description of “a person with bad habits” was included without any reference of its negative meaning. I discussed the stigmatization of Roma people in the definitions of simple dictionaries. I can say that the media was quite encouraging. I would have encountered fierce criticism if I had done this in the 1990s.
It is normal to be resistant to change, yet change does not come quickly. You require knowledge and comprehension. It is impossible to expect someone to alter their behavior without first providing them with the knowledge and awareness necessary for them to face their own struggles.
How has Romanian society contributed to this transformation?
I think that civic society has played a major role in the improvements we are witnessing. It’s also true that the internet has radically altered social dynamics by amiably disseminating knowledge to as many people as possible. As new voices started to gain popularity, they went into the history and presented persuasive arguments for the truth.
However, we have not done well in the educational department. For example, the 500 years of Roma slavery in Romania are thought to be one of the longest periods of servitude in human history, yet we have only lately begun to learn about it. Of course, you would have been met with contempt if you had brought up the Holocaust in the 1990s. Social transformation has been influenced by all types of communication, including music, history, and the media. Prominent media organizations such as the BBC taught journalists and imparted new techniques on them.
While the West has been a democracy and has conducted such thoughts for hundreds of years, we have just recently begun, so yes, we are far behind. We are a young civilization. For the last 150 years, we have been discussing Romanian society, and for the past 100 years, we have been discussing a “national ethos.” We have only had democracy for the past 30 years, while the previous century was spent under dictatorships.
Based on your activism experience, what more measures do you believe are necessary to address racism in Romania?
Some of society’s principles, including humanistic ones like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” are something I believe needs to be discussed. Don’t pass judgment on someone before you’ve seen their actions. Stated differently, evaluate them according to their deeds rather than what YOU believe they are doing. The issue is that, by “culture,” I mean anything that has been non-genetically passed down to us, we are culturally conditioned to behave in a certain manner.
And a whole bunch of bullshit has been pushed at us culturally. In our early childhood stories, the foreigners were usually bad people who came to take our women, land, and water. The antagonist in the narrative was always the Black man. You had to act like a child or else “the gypsy man will come and kidnap you.”
Before anything else, we must agree on a set of ideals. Policies, practical measures, and resources must all be used to promote changes. We need leaders, in my opinion as well. Sincere leaders who deliver on their promises.
We have seen the rise of a new generation of Roma thinkers and activists throughout the last ten years. What effects is this having on the terrain?
I would describe it as a little stream rather than a wave. It takes at least five thousand of these people to discuss a wave. But the individuals you are considering are limited to civil society; no one exists in the political or religious domains.
Even though these individuals are amazing, a closer examination reveals that they are all highly independent in their professional endeavors. The majority of them are centered around their personal narratives (refer to author Rowena Marin’s book, Who Am I in this World?) Publishing books (like Valeriu Nicolae’s We are the Roma), heading NGOs committed to the Roma cause, directing plays and films (like Alina ɞerban, Gypsy Queen), or doing academic studies on prejudice (like Harvard’s Margareta Matache). In contrast, the people follow leaders. Leaders are required if meaningful change is to occur. They are not yet with us.
It is accurate to say that they play a major role in the relatively recent public depiction of Roma identity. It is new since the primary struggle was for rights following the interethnic wars we discussed. In actuality, Romanian society as a whole was preoccupied with economic growth and collective rights throughout the post-communist era. Slavery, the Holocaust, and individual rights were too far removed from pressing concerns.
However, discussion of this nuanced Roma identity—which is not reduced to the notion that being a Roma equates to poverty and discrimination—began only recently. It’s only the beginning for us.
Is it possible to change the conventional narrative that portrays Roma people as, at most, victims by showcasing those who are constructing lives that are at least “normal”?
Life-storying is helpful, in my opinion. The issue stems from our ingrained perception of Roma people as evil. In any case, a Roma person who is completely integrated and functional is not seen as Roma. Bread vendors, cab drivers, bus drivers, and instructors are just a few of the Roma individuals that Romanians see on a regular basis but are unaware of since they don’t display behaviors that are often associated with the Roma community. Rather, we are indoctrinated to think that all thieves, prisoners, and beggars are Roma.
Although they don’t currently, these stories have the potential to serve as role models. Having a Roma woman as a role model would be the most obstacle for you, a Romanian ethnic lady, when reading these stories. to recognize herself in her. Put differently, her nationality [becomes] so inconsequential to her life experience that you may identify with it.
My frequent discussions on my upbringing and family are partly an attempt to demonstrate how similar I was to most others. My narrative is not one of ethnicity. An ethnic narrative indicates a problem.
There is no evidence of my father hitting my mother “in a gypsy fashion” in the violent situations in our household. Just now, he beat her. Numerous families have experienced a like tale, and an individual who is perceptive recognizes that nothing is unique.
“The outsiders in our early stories were never pleasant people; if you behaved well as a child, the gypsy man would come and take you away.”
How are the challenges I face in life different from those of someone who was raised in a low-income family? Perhaps they bore the label of an impoverished peasant or a physically handicapped person instead of the Roma one. It’s true that I experienced “multiple discrimination” because of my Roma designation, as theory puts it, but the idea remains the same.
The narratives I and other Roma share are not culturally specific; rather, they are universal. Whether on purpose or not, we are also Roma, which was a dual drawback.
Because of this, there are no successful stories of affluent Roma people, even if there are those who have struggled throughout their lives due to their ethnic identity. Generally speaking, you only saw impoverished Roma people who worked hard and struggled, but you’ll see that their ethnic identity just made matters worse. The main obstacles were economic.
What drives you to keep up the battle against prejudice? How can you muster the resilience and patience that are required?
You assume incorrectly at the outset of this that I am fighting against prejudice. This civilization will appear as we choose. It’s time for me to stop blaming others and concentrate on what I can change to improve the situation.
How can I persuade others around me that change is necessary for our collective well-being? To put it more plainly, so that I may benefit more. Because I am very selfish and only want the best for myself, my daughter, my family, and my grandkids, I put my all into all I do. Not yours or ours, but my Romania, is what I desire to appear excellent. Because everything Maslow’s pyramid [a sociological model depicting a hierarchy of human needs, with physiological needs at the base and self-actualization at the top] talks about will be present if my Romania looks beautiful. I will feel good, be emotionally and cognitively active, and have self-esteem.
There are already more of us with it if both you and I have it. I’m happy that more people can identify with my self-serving job. But my work is guided by my values. This is, in my opinion, what we require more of. There are far too many rescuers and not few egotists. You are motivated to work for your personal benefit.
When my daughter grows up and is dubbed a “crow” by Romanians and “washed up” by the Roma [a phrase used by members of the Roma community to refer to Roma persons whose skin tone is seen to be lighter than “it should be”]—what can I do? How could I explain to her? Get a toy for her? In no way. I act in this way in order to be able to look her in the eyes and tell her, “My dear, I did the best I could.” If you’re smarter than I am, go above and beyond. I raised you to care because of this.
It bothers me to be called an activist. It has to do with where you stand and your will to keep looking. I’m just an ordinary person who understands that the nation will appear the way I make it appear.
Do you anticipate a more liberal upbringing for your daughter?
I exert every effort to ensure that occurs. While I sincerely hope that this will occur, I also want to live in a better nation. I think the country I live in now is better than it was thirty years ago, as I mentioned at the outset. However, I haven’t just stood by and observed while the nation improved. If everyone waits for someone else to take action, how can things become better?
In what ways do you think teaching about prejudice against Roma people fits into your work as a professor?
I declined to receive tenure as a faculty member. Having a tenure would entail giving in to the university’s wishes and not always getting my way. I have worked for twelve years as an associate professor. Frequently, the salary from the institution barely pays for the petrol.
However, the reason I do this is because these young individuals teach me so much. I get a lot of energy from seeing these individuals grow and evolve, as well as from knowing how information opens hearts and minds. Being with them is a pleasure and an honor. A lecturer shouldn’t only impart knowledge—AI is capable of doing that. Encouraging pupils emotionally so they continue to learn after you leave the classroom is a fantastic accomplishment. Should you succeed in that, you will really be a professor. additionally, if the pupils attend your lessons voluntarily. In my class, more than 90% of the students are present. Students, in my opinion, come because they discover something beyond learning. I am proud that many of my present colleagues were also my students.
I have a lesson on taraf music [a kind of folk music commonly played by the Roma people] next week, and we normally fill the room.
You get chills as the Roma anthem starts and everyone in the room gets up on its own. When you see 300 children go to their feet and listen to the national anthem of a minority group, you know you made a difference.
Roma refugees in Ukraine reportedly faced discrimination while attempting to escape conflict. Roma males also contributed to the military effort at the same time. What does all this tell us, now that the battle in Romania seems closer?
The circumstances and setting influence behavior. During the Second World War, my grandpa served his native Romania on the Eastern Front. His family was being deported by the Romanian authorities while he was battling at the Dom River. Of the forty individuals deported with him, just two went back to their own country. He was asked to protect the nation that was destroying his family. Among them was my father, who at the time was just three years old.
I firmly believe that some Roma would be labeled as such [discriminated against as happened in Ukraine] if the crisis spread to Romania. Since this occurs in every conceivable field.