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PROFILES

A 2009 piece I wrote for Southeast European Times.

GYPSY NOT A DIRTY WORD

Clean-cut, dressed nattily and well-groomed, Jaha Samir is about as far away from the Gypsy stereotype as he can get. He is educated, articulate and industrious — a poster child for a new generation of activists who are out to change the way the world thinks of his people. And, no, he does not mind if you call him a Gypsy.

Samir acknowledges that his people use the term, and that they do not object strenuously to others doing so as long as the intent is not to disparage. “Gypsy”, Samir explains, “originally meant ‘dirty – do not touch'”. The dirty label has stuck to his people ever since it was first applied to them centuries ago. In 1973, a concerted effort began to replace the term Gypsy with Roma, a term he is more comfortable with.

Against long odds, Samir is attempting to erase the stigma that his people bear. He says a new team of leaders is now emerging in Europe to lead the Roma nation out of the social exile it has existed in since it first migrated from India a millennium ago.

In the 1980s, modern-day Roma, with a great deal of help from various international organisations, started to claw their way out of the ghettoes, both real and mental, that they have been locked into, says Samir. “That was the first time Roma were admitted into European universities in significant numbers,” says the 25-year-old father of one, who is the director of the Montenegrin NGO Young Roma. That trend has continued over the past two decades, and today 250 Roma graduate from Macedonian universities every year.

Roma NGOs across Europe have been actively recruiting Roma university students. “Those students understand that they can build successful careers and help other Roma at the same time,” says Samir.

There are only ten Roma enrolled in post-secondary education institutions in Montenegro. To date, only two have emerged with degrees, one of whom will soon be employed by the Montenegrin Ministry of Minorities. Samir plans to become the third to graduate; he is working on a degree in early childhood education and hopes to have it wrapped up next year.

A schoolboy writes a phrase in Romany in a Buchraest classroom. A new generation of Roma hopes to overcome centuries of poverty and stigma. [Getty Images]

Although he will be qualified to teach pre-schoolers, Samir doubts he will abandon his directorship of Young Roma. “I can’t see myself getting the same level of satisfaction from teaching kids as I do from helping my people,” says Samir.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) trained Samir, endowing him with the skills necessary to run an NGO in 2005. Other organisations, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI), quickly took note of his skills and determination, and have partnered with Young Roma on various projects since then.

Tamara Srzentic, Roma Program Coordinator for FOSI’s Montenegrin office, says Samir is “one of the most remarkable and engaged young Roma that our foundation has worked with in the previous ten years of our engagement in Roma issues in Montenegro”.

Prior to being trained for civil society leadership by the OSCE, Samir learned the vocation from his father, who became an organiser in 2000. Young Samir worked with his father’s NGO until the elder Samir quit, for health reasons, in 2003 and Jaha left home to begin his university studies. In 2005, however, Samir returned home to Herceg Novi, where he found himself largely unimpressed with the work the organisation was doing and the direction the new leadership was taking it in.

“I tried working with them [the new leaders], but it didn’t work out and I decided to start my own NGO,” says Samir, with a shrug. The first projects Samir and his new Young Roma group started working on involved Roma who had been shut out of the education system.

“The aim of the projects was to offer them a second chance to join formal education,” says FOSI’s Srzentic. The focus was on Roma aged 9 through 18 who found themselves disqualified from starting primary school because they were too old. After these initial projects, Samir was able to build donor trust and has multiplied his activities.

Presently, Samir is concentrating his efforts on acquiring personal identification documents (ID) for approximately 5,000 of Montenegro’s 11,000 Roma. Most of those 5,000 came to Montenegro from Kosovo during NATO’s 1999 Balkan intervention. Without citizenship documents, more than half of the country’s Roma do not fall under the protection of Montenegro’s social safety net, which includes the right to a formal education.

“Obtaining ID for them is the most important thing we can do right now,” says Samir. The process is a labourious, Kafkaesque nightmare of red tape and application fees, taking, on average, more than a year and costing between 500-600 euros per person.

Montenegro’s aspirations to become a full EU member oblige the country to make large strides towards bringing the country’s Roma population into its fold. For Samir and others set out to accomplish that mission, it is often frustrating, soul-destroying work, “It’s hard, sometimes, working with people who are illiterate and don’t always understand or appreciate what we are doing for them. I can burst into flames quickly but I am learning to deal with it.” Asked how he manages to get out of bed and go to the office and out into the field, day after day, Samir smiles and replies, “My family”.

Even Samir’s personal life is deeply political. When he married, five years ago, he was breaking a strict taboo – his wife, six years older than him, is an ethnic Serb. The two worked in shops across the street from each other in Herceg Novi. Samir would go to his future wife’s store under the ruse of buying magazines and she would come to his shop to buy fruits and vegetables. Knowing theirs was a ‘forbidden love’, it took Samir two months to work up the nerve to ask her out on a date — two, “very lllooooonnnngggg”, months, Samir laughs.

The couple very discreetly dated for six months. Samir’s parents went to Germany halfway through the courtship. When they returned Samir had some bad news for them. He had lost his job, broken the family car and fallen in love with a Serb. “They were not pleased,” Samir says, with a sheepish smile. “Especially about my wife.”

Samir’s family acquiesced. His wife’s did not.

When the couple exchanged vows, none of the bride’s relatives attended. It was not until their child was born that Samir’s father-in-law finally accepted reality and embraced the three as part of the family.

When Samir won over his father-in-law, he made one of his countrymen understand that Roma are not ‘dirty’. That’s one down, and over 600,000 more to go.

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