Andy Shallice and Zoe Santa Cruz McGivern write about what we can all learn from Roma.
It is commonplace to see the word ‘Roma’ juxtaposed to ‘homeless’, ‘beggar’ and ‘benefits’ – when not tied up with trafficking and stealing children. Unless it’s an absence as in the current UK government’s National Roma Inclusion Strategy (yes, Northern Ireland still doesn’t have its own Roma Inclusion Strategy), which pointedly hardly refers to Roma at all. So we are forced to accept Roma ‘deficiency’ and their need for assistance or support (or solidarity even…)
What a joy then to attend an event in LORAG community centre in South Belfast this weekend where politicians, public sector members, community development workers and varied individuals from diverse backgrounds in Northern Ireland came together to celebrate International Roma Day and honour the hard work of many Romani people in the region. A number of speakers considered the opposite of the many negative stereotypes all too often seen in the media and brought up the question – how do Roma pose an opportunity for Northern Ireland?
We heard Community Workers say that the presence of Romani people in the community had brought us an understanding of the work ethic, and how we can learn to be resourceful and adapt, and – a little but important thing – how important family is – young children understand how to eat together and with adults. In fact, the Roma community have done us all a service by reminding us of the importance of working together to see positive results.
A point the Chief Executive of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Michael McBride made: “we need to make sure our services are accessible to the Roma community. We need to make sure that they are sensitive to their cultural beliefs and background. We are appointing two outreach workers to work with the Roma community to help them access services and help us meet their needs, because they do have specific health needs” shows how co-developing services with Roma could benefit everyone.
A young Roma woman said that she loved living in Northern Ireland, which has been her home for the past 14 years, and that she and her family feel safe and included here. Another Roma woman was congratulated for encouraging Roma integration into the schooling system in Northern Ireland – having been the first mother from the Roma community to have her child attend nursery school in Northern Ireland. Other members of the Roma community spoke of how since living in Northern Ireland they have become aware of their own capabilities and contribution. A Community Volunteer spoke about the importance of family relationships, self-reliance, innovation and adaptability (especially to earn a living) – all those virtues that are supposedly upheld by leading politicians and media organisations.
Ken Fraser of the Racial Equality Unit at Stormont presented members of the Roma community with certificates for their contribution to Northern Irish society and talked about how young Roma people can enable communities to become stronger and more confident, as barriers and misunderstandings get broken down. And finally, we were reminded that Northern Ireland has a long history of people migrating to different countries to live – where they are welcomed for trying to both make a better life for themselves and bringing great qualities to the places they go, and with that in mind Northern Ireland has an obligation to welcome those coming to its shores for the same reasons; “do we want to move backwards? No! Northern Irish people are welcomed all over the world for their great qualities and hard work – here we must do the same and welcome those who wish to make a better life for themselves in Northern Ireland, as many of our natives have done elsewhere.”
There are some critics of migration and EU migrant communities, who focus on the incidents of people who appear willing to work for very low pay in appalling conditions, and families who appear to tolerate substandard and overcrowded-housing. But isn’t this a classic illustration of ‘blame the victim’? Where are the regulations and enforcement actions taken by, for example, HMRC against rogue employers, or by housing authorities against unscrupulous landlords? As was pointed out at the Roma Day celebrations 2015, if we can develop good services with and for Roma, everyone benefits.
The Government must further explore the opportunities that Roma bring. Twenty years ago, there was a strong offer of friendship and potential welcome to the East/Central European states and peoples. But is it only their doctors and IT specialists we want; and at a pinch, the hairdresser and plumber? The Roma communities emerge from decades of forced assimilation or forced exclusion; Northern Ireland offers hope. And the Roma bring with them behaviours and aptitudes that are sorely needed.
What a treat to attend an event where the words ‘Roma’ and ‘success’ and ‘opportunity’ were heard. We must applaud this type of initiative, and welcome a growing movement within Northern Ireland of determined Roma and non-Roma activists who want to concentrate on the potential, rather than allow the mindless stereotypes to prevail in what passes for our national narrative.