April 08 2021
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Rasma Pažemeckaitė: „I am proud to be Romani“

The Roma are talked about in the media, but their voices are nowhere to be heard – 91.1% of publications about the Roma community do not feature a Roma voice. Rasma Pažemeckaitė, an active member of the Roma community, says that people are reluctant to speak – they are worried about stereotypes and stigmatization. Rasma says she used to be ashamed to admit that she is a Roma, but now she is proud of her roots and believes that only cooperation will break down the walls of mistrust in society.

Rasma Pažemeckaitė: „I am proud to be Romani“

The Roma are talked about in the media, but their voices are nowhere to be heard - 91.1% of publications about the Roma community do not feature a Roma voice. Rasma Pažemeckaitė, an active member of the Roma community, says that people are reluctant to speak - they are worried about stereotypes and stigmatization. Rasma says she used to be ashamed to admit that she is a Roma, but now she is proud of her roots and believes that only cooperation will break down the walls of mistrust in society.

This interview with Rasma Pažemeckaitė is a part of Media4Change’s series of conversations about stereotypes, attitudes and representation issues regarding the Roma in the media. Vita Kontvainė, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnic Studies, is also participating in the discussion.

Media4Change: When monitoring the media, we see that a very large amount of publications portray the Roma in a negative context. There is also a clear trend in public attitude surveys that the Roma are the least desirable neighbours and colleagues. Have you had to face these attitudes in regular life?

Rasma: It is extremely difficult for the Roma to build bridges. They are stigmatized everywhere. I am out of ideas, I am exhausted. You fight every day. For example, when I told my child’s educator about their developmental disorder, she said, “Oh, so you are like all Roma?”. I asked her to explain herself, and she said that Roma intentionally make their children pretend to be stupid. I’m trying to cooperate, I ask not to attack one another. We need to learn to build bridges and educate, starting with schools.

I am no longer afraid of anything, I can safely say that I am Romani and I am raising a child with developmental disorders. I’m not ashamed. I used to be ashamed that I was Romani. I was able to grow and now I am proud of who I am, thanks to everyone who supported me. As for the others – you cannot change their attitudes.

I don’t need people to represent us like “I am a Roma, please be good to me, do not touch me because I am vulnerable”. No. The media needs to show that we know how to communicate, that we can do something without emphasizing origin, without using guitars, gold, even though they are also part of Roma culture.

Schools that have Romani students should create campaigns, during which Lithuanians and Roma would cooperate, for example, by teaching Roma to make pancakes, as almost all Lithuanians know how to do it. And the Roma could teach Lithuanians how to make savijako. So that we could have some sort of cultural exchange between each other. Because, for example, I called a school and said, “Hello, I have twins and I would like them to attend your school.” The director says to me, “Oh, how cool, twins! But you know, Mommy, a lot of “gypsies” go to our school, would you mind if a few “gypsies” went to the same class as your kids?”. I immediately explained that this is discrimination and asked why they are stigmatizing children, who is Roma and who is not. It was strange to hear this from an educated woman, a teacher. I said, you shouldn’t call us “gypsies” and introduced myself as Roma and said that my twins, also Roma, will come to the school. I suggested to come and talk about bullying, about the Roma experience, how this could be addressed. This proposal was not taken seriously.

Vita: Is there a certain barrier that prevents the Roma from wanting to speak publicly?

Rasma: Roma are afraid to talk. At first, I too could not speak Lithuanian without an accent, and I could not write, but I invested a lot to achieve it. Today, only me or Ištvan Kvik are able to speak out, we know the law; but all the other Roma are afraid and they see it as the norm. They believe that their situation and the stigma towards them will not change. The Roma in Vilnius are afraid to speak out, although their children experience situations when they are beaten or their hair is cut off. But parents do not resort to the help of children’s rights institutions. Yes, they are afraid, they don’t speak out.

Vita: You kind of mention that speaking incorrectly or without an accent is also a barrier for speaking out?

Rasma: Yes, it is. Unawareness of the law also creates a barrier. For example, this girl got a job in a kebab shop for a 3-day trial work period and her colleagues asked her why she speaks like that, perhaps she is not Lithuanian? When the girl said she was Romani, the colleagues called the owner and she wasn’t paid for those three days, even though she worked hard for 14 hours. Colleagues mocked her, did not let her go out; if they saw Romani people walking by, they mocked them, putting psychological pressure on her.

They are also afraid because their Lithuanian vocabulary is not rich. This is important when speaking in public. I’m not saying I talk like a diplomat – I’m down to earth and I say what I think. But it took a lot of courage to get there. And there were times when I would say something incorrectly and cry, but then I thought to myself, “You know what, there will be tolerant people who will understand me.” But how many Roma could stand up and say the same? I don’t think there would be many. As of today, there are only two of us.

Looking at other movements in the world, people are fighting for their place under the sun. Here they call us names as they wish. Partly, we allow a lot of that ourselves. So we need to fight it. And if only two out of 2,000 are fighting, it’s bad.

Media4Change: What do you think would encourage more people to speak out? What is missing?

Rasma: Integration, integration only. There must also be success stories. There is a lot of talk about Roma culture, music, traditions, etc., but why not talk about our holidays? Even teachers do not know much about Roma children – for example, they ask me: “Where do the Roma come from? From Romania?”. I say, “well no, from India.” And when I’m asked where my country is, I am proud to be Romani. Because when the world was at war, we didn’t shed blood, and so we don’t have our own country. All over the world, in every country there is only a little bit of us – we are a minority everywhere.

Tradition is not the main point, humanity is. We should accentuate things like that, without stigmatizing or emphasizing the origin. There are dishes that even the Roma themselves do not know because they came from a very long time ago. Since my mom is 70, she still makes real Romani food. She tells me how it all came from after the war, how those dishes are made and to me, that’s beautiful. We need to talk about history. People don’t know us. Now I am brave to talk about myself because I know my ancestors’ past.

There are Roma towards whom I myself am angry, I ask them “how can you allow yourself to be called “gypsies”?”. They say, “It’s been like that since Soviet times, it’s normal”. Well to me, this is not normal. My kids are growing up. So it is true that the Roma themselves disagree on some things. Both Lithuanians and Roma need to be educated.

Media4Change: In the media, the term “gypsy” is heard often – half of the publications about the Roma used the term in 2020. Is the term “gypsy” appropriate to the Roma community? Why? What would it take to change that?

Rasma: To me, “gypsy” is Hitler’s term. People who are older, born in the USSR, or have a very low level of education often let themselves be referred to as “gypsies”. As you say, journalists use the word in as much as 50 percent of articles. I myself have repeatedly argued with journalists. If a Lithuanian does something, no one emphasizes that it was a Lithuanian who stole. But in regards to us, they say “The gypsy was drunk driving, plus has n amount of fines for speeding.” I am very angry about these things.

Vita: For the older generation, “Roma” may not be a very familiar term, they often need to think about it before speaking. I would agree that younger children do not want to be called “gypsies”, but we at the Institute for Ethnic Studies have also conducted a Roma survey asking which term they would like to use. The younger people chose “Roma”, although there was no clear majority. There was also this Roma leader Josifas Tyčina, who said that no matter what you call us, it is more important not to make fun of us – that the context is important.

Rasma: I would dare to disagree.

Vita: Yes, I think things are changing with the new generation of leaders. Also, speaking of terms, nationality can be indicated on the birth certificate. But “Roma” cannot be selected, only “gypsy”. Since it is possible not to choose anything, it seems to me that most Roma choose not to specify.

Rasma: My mother herself says, “now that I’m old, let me change my passport. I want to be a Roma.” We attempted to do it, but, it turns out, you cannot be Roma, because in Lithuania, according to linguists, there is no such word. When I wanted to participate in Roma projects in Germany, I learned that I could not do so because my passport says my nationality is Lithuanian. But I want to be Roma. And there is no way I can do that.

Vita: This is an interesting topic, because there is not a single document in Lithuania or an integration program that is for “gypsies”. But the term “Roma” is still not a choice, it is not legalized. Recently, people have applied because of the same issue in population census and things were changed: you can now choose “Roma”, not just “gypsy”. But nothing has changed in the birth certificate. It is a ridiculous situation: you cannot be Roma in Lithuania – you can be a “gypsy” or not indicate anything at all.