'They Want To Fit In': An Uphill Struggle For Greece's Roma
The boys are nervous. A big parade at the local Greek public school is coming up, and they can't afford the uniform: navy pants and a white shirt.
But the boys, all Roma from an impoverished camp near the city of Corinth, are desperate to attend.
"They want to be proud," says Maria Larsen, their teacher, as she reaches into a box of donated clothes. "They have been told over and over again at school that they are less worthy than other children. But Greece is their home, and they want to fit in."
Larsen, a 38-year-old Swede raised in Greece, has helped Roma children integrate into Greek public schools for nearly a decade. She runs Children's Ark, an organization that offers classes in a small whitewashed building on the Roma camp.
About 800 people live at the camp. Many of them are children she teaches. She tries to prepare them for the world of discrimination beyond the camp's borders.
"Europe needs to learn more about the Roma because it's a very interesting culture," Larsen says. "The Roma know more about the world outside than the world outside knows about the Roma."
As many as 12 million Roma live in Europe — about 300,000 of them in Greece. The Roma have their roots in India but have lived in Europe for centuries, where they have faced persecution and isolation. Many are illiterate and are more likely to be unemployed, impoverished and in poor health than other Europeans.
"It's important to understand the history of Roma in Europe, the history of persecution, where Roma were hunted like animals in some cases, and sterilized, taken away from their families," says Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights. "The media often forget this. And then they wonder why the Roma are suspicious of the majority population, majority institutions and majority media."
There's been an anti-Roma backlash since the continent sunk into recession in 2008.
But there were also protests in Paris after police dragged a Roma girl off a school bus and deported her and her family to Kosovo.
In Greece earlier this month, police took a blond girl from a Roma camp and arrested the couple taking care of her for child abduction. For days, the media speculated that the Roma had snatched the girl named Maria from Eastern and Northern European parents.
But it turned out Maria wasn't missing at all. DNA tests proved she was the child of a Bulgarian Roma couple who had given the girl to Greek Roma acquaintances because they couldn't take care of her.
"And yet people are still calling us baby-snatchers, or worse, baby-traffickers," says Sotiris Tzamalis, a Roma scrap metal dealer who lives in the camp near Corinth.
"When I read the papers, they say wherever there are Roma, there are drugs and guns and that we sell our kids," he says. "They should be ashamed."
But a woman named Maria Souta says her fellow Roma have sometimes turned to drug-dealing to make money.
"Then our kids take drugs, and who knows what else," she says. "I really want my grandchildren to get an education and get out of here."
She supports her family by picking through trash for aluminum cans to sell.
"I'm illiterate, so there's not much I can do," she says. "But I'm not stealing. I'm making as honest a living as I can."
Larsen says at least 80 percent of the Roma here can't read or write. She also struggles to keep Roma girls in school; many marry as teenagers and then have babies.
"In Roma culture, when there's any suspicion of flirting going on between young people — and that happens usually around 13 or 14 years old — their parents immediately say they have to get married," Larsen says. "So we have a lot of underaged parents. But some of them still stick to their studies, and at the very least, show an enthusiasm to learn how to read and write."
Natassa Panagiotopoulou, a 21-year-old Roma woman, says she plans to send her two toddlers to Greek public school.
"I finished the third grade, and I can do more things than my mother," she says. "I hope my children can finish high school."
She helps her husband run a small cafe and also escorts Roma children when they take the bus to Greek public schools. The journey itself is often a painful lesson on how invisible the Roma are.
"At the bus stop, I often talk to the Greeks waiting there," she says. "They always ignore me. But I still keep trying."
She figures that, one day soon, someone will answer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's spend a few minutes talking about prejudice and how it played out in a dramatic recent incident. A few weeks ago in Greece, police took a girl away from a family of Roma, an ethnic group long called gypsies. Little Maria, as she became known, is blonde and blue-eyed, unlike the family, so the police suspected a kidnapping and the world has speculated about a vast child snatching ring reminiscent of sinister stereotypes of the Roma as baby traffickers. But the family said they were raising the girl for a Roma mother who couldn't care for her and DNA proved her mother was indeed Roma.
Joanna Kakissis has this profile of one woman in Greece who's educating Roma children for life amid prejudice.
MARIA LARSEN: (Unintelligible) That's Marina.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: They all know you.
LARSEN: Oh, yeah, of course.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Maria.
KAKISSIS: I'm with Maria Larsen, a 38-year-old Swede raised in Greece who works with the Roma.
LARSEN: I think Europe needs to learn more about the Roma because it's a very interesting culture. It's a very interesting people. And the Roma know more about the world outside than the world outside knows about the Roma.
KAKISSIS: We're driving through a Roma camp near Examilia, a village near the coastal city of Corinth. Local villagers sometimes dump their trash on the road to the camp.
LARSEN: There's some nice houses and there's some shacks.
KAKISSIS: What are the shacks made out of?
LARSEN: Everything you can find in the garbage.
KAKISSIS: Eight hundred people live here. Many of them are children who attend the classes Larsen teaches that integrate Roma kids into Greek public schools.
LARSEN: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: Larsen stops the car when she spots one of her favorite students, a little boy with a big grin named Vassilaki (ph). Vassilaki, she says, you read your poem so well today in class. She wants him to feel proud. She says it will help Vassilaki on the day he steps out of the camp.
LARSEN: The best way to deal with it with the children is to just prepare them that this is the way the world is. The world is not ready for you yet, but you have to be ready for them.
KAKISSIS: About 12 million Roma live in Europe, about 300,000 of them in Greece. Many are illiterate and are more likely to be unemployed, impoverished and in poor health than other Europeans. There's also been a disturbing anti-Roma backlash since Europe has sunk into recession. Sotiris Tzamalis, a Roma scrap metal dealer inside the camp, is acutely aware of it.
SOTIRIS TZAMALIS: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: When I read the paper, Zelmalis says, they say wherever there are Roma, there are drugs and guns and that we sell our kids. They should be ashamed.
MARIA SOUTA: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: But a grandmother named Maria Souta says some of her fellow Roma have turned to drug-dealing to make money.
SOUTA: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: And then our kids take drugs and who knows what else, she says. I really want my grandchildren to get an education and get out of here. Maria Larsen says more than 80 percent of the Roma here are illiterate, but at least the younger Roma want to learn how to read and write, she says. Natasa Panagiotopoulou is 21, a Roma mother of two toddlers she plans to send to Greek public school.
She also escorts other Roma children there.
NATASA PANAGIOTOPOULOU: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: At the bus stop, she says she often talks to the Greeks waiting there, though they ignore her. But she won't stop trying, hoping that someday someone will answer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
That's reporter Joanna Kakissis with the backdrop to this dramatic story in Greece. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.