by Izabelle Devulder, Journalist
Do you believe that the labour market offers equal opportunities to everyone? Without hesitating, all participants of the workshop move towards the sign that says NO. The YES sign sits there, abandoned.
“If everyone knows this and everybody agrees that this isn’t how it should be, then we should change things”, Astrid Oelpenich says. “Starting with being aware of our own thoughts.” Oelpenich is one of the organisers of the workshop that took place in the European Parliament on Friday, May 9th. She’s on the board of equal rights organisation Phiren Amenca. Together with international Roma youth network Tern Ype, they want to help Roma around Europe, by raising awareness and improving the way Roma are being perceived, by others, but also by themselves.
“It’s easy to feel alone as a Roma”, Jonathan Mack, who works for both organisations, explains. “There is so much discrimination and solutions are hard to find. But we can’t give up. If everybody keeps placing you in the role of a victim, it’s easy to give in and settle into that role. If we let the Roma do that, then nothing will ever change. But how do you keep them from losing their self-esteem if everybody thinks badly of them?”
For co-founder of Tern Ype, Maryana Borisova, there’s no doubt: “This generation has to be different than the older ones.” It’s getting easier and easier to work internationally and to pass information along. Tern Ype and Phiren Amenca use this to work on Roma inclusion. Mack explains that they want to stimulate local youth groups all over Europe, who come together from time to time. “Durable change, that’s what we have to install. One workshop at one European Youth Event won’t solve anything. That’s not how you change social inequality.”
Oelpenich believes that it is possible to change the world, one workshop at the time: “By discussing the topic and reflecting on how we think, we can change the stereotypes and so battle racism and change the society.” She asks the participants at the workshop simple questions and gives them room to fill in the blanks themselves. It doesn’t take long for the problem to emerge: nobody is really close to any Roma everybody assumes things.
With 12 million, the Roma are the most represented ethnic group in Europe. And still they seem so foreign. There’s a great gap between Roma in any country and the natural population of that country. A Belgian participant even claims that there aren’t any Roma in Belgium. “Romanis aren’t just gypsies with guitars and long dresses. Do not limit people to a stereotype. Whether it’s that of a passionately dancing gypsy woman or that of a lazy, alcoholic Roma man. That’s why awareness is so very important”, stresses Mack firmly. “It will be a long-term project, but it can be done.”