New film tells about the Roma or 'gypsies' Canada wants to keep out

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Screen shot from the film Never Come Back. Photo: Malcolm Hamilton

They call them "gypsies," "gitanes," "tziganes," "ciganes," "nomadi" -- and sometimes such nasty epithets as thieves, pickpockets, vagrants and "inadaptables" (a favourite term in the Czech Republic).

They are the Roma, Europe's perennially unwelcome minority.

They are shunned just about everywhere on the continent, whether in Hungary or Spain, the Balkans or Iberia, the Mediterranean or Scandinavia.

Historians and anthropologists say they migrated from Rajasthan, in India, more than a thousand years ago.

In India, the Roma had been itinerant musicians, performers, merchants -- and sometimes slaves -- and they carried on some of those traditional occupations in their new lands.

Years ago, many in the West believed the Roma had come from the Middle East -- specifically from Egypt -- hence the term "gypsies."


Film the idea of a child of Jewish Holocaust survivors

Today, there are an estimated 8 to 12 million Roma in Europe, and as Malcolm Hamilton and I say in the opening line of our new film Never Come Back: "Everywhere, they are considered a problem!"

We made that film over a period of more than a year, starting in the spring of 2010.

It was the brainchild of Jack Jedwab, President of the Association for Canadian Studies.

The idea came to Jack while he was on a Governor General's trip to central Europe in 2008 that included the Roma Museum in Brno, Czech Republic.

In Brno, Jack met some Roma victims of the Holocaust and was both moved and chagrined at the same time.

"Why have I never heard about this before?" Jack asked himself. Jack's own mother is a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz.

That eye-opening experience prodded Jack to suggest that we propose a documentary on the Roma to Rogers OMNI-TV, which has a fund for so-called "third language" documentaries. (We proposed this film in Hungarian and/or Czech, as well as English versions.)

Timely story of the Roma in Canada

In the end, OMNI wanted a film focused on the Canadian Roma community, rather than an historic account of the impact of the Holocaust (or Parraimos as the Roma call it) on the "gypsies" of Europe.

There are Roma who have been here, in Canada, for generations, many of them quite discrete about their "gypsy" origins. (They have not found it to be career-advancing to be known as "gypsies.")

Since the mid 1990s there has been a steady flow -- if not exactly the flood that some politicians portray -- of a new group of Roma refugee-claimants from the heart of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

The first cohort of that new group came mostly from the Czech Republic.

Czech Roma arriving in Canada told stories of a country that had grown cold and callous toward the Roma since the fall of Communism, and of an environment of prejudice verging on open hatred toward them, coupled with frequent intimidation.

It is not as though the Communists were exactly friends of the Roma.

After all, Communist regimes subjected Roma women to forced sterilization (as did some of the so-called democratic regimes that succeeded them, by the way) and forced the Roma to settle, denying them the right to practice their "petit bourgeois" traditional crafts and trades.

But the Communists did provide housing and employment for the Roma.

In the case of the former Czechoslovakia, they moved many Roma into such industrial towns as Ostrava, in eastern Moravia. The Communist regime lodged many Roma in flats that were once home to prosperous merchants and professionals, and put many of them to work in mills and mines.

Communists did not believe in the value of cultural heterogeneity and wanted the Roma to, in effect, lose their distinctive identity.

But they also prohibited open racial discrimination.

They made educational and training opportunities available to the formerly ostracized "gypsies," and a few Roma managed to rise in the professions and the army. Some were even admitted to the Communist Party.

Racism emerges after fall of Communism

With the end of Communism came freedom, which, unfortunately, also brought with it the freedom to express old bigoted attitudes and to practice ethnic and racial discrimination.

As some Roma put it, it was as though someone had rolled over a great big log and all kinds of worms and bugs and slimy, slithering creatures emerged!

At first, Roma noticed that their non-Roma neighbours suddenly felt free to call them names and to shun and avoid them.

Then, things got worse with the rise of racist, skinhead, and, in some cases, openly neo-Nazi groups, who made good sport of harassing and threatening Roma, even to the point of staging aggressive marches and rallies in Roma neighbourhoods.

And so, some Roma decided to sell everything they had, bought plan tickets to Toronto and declared, on arrival, that they were refugees from persecution back home.

These would-be refugees from the Czech Republic were quickly joined by others from Slovakia and, especially, Hungary. The advantage these refugee-claimants had was that Canada did not impose visa requirements on visitors from their countries. All they needed was the price of a plane ticket.

Many Roma get accepted as refugees in Canada

For a number of years, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) looked favourably on Roma refugee claims and many Roma established themselves in certain parts of Toronto and in Hamilton, where they formed a community.

Unlike earlier generations of Roma immigrants, the Roma refugees of the 1990s and early 2000s did not feel compelled to hide their identity. They believed that in the multicultural and diverse Canada of the third millennium they could comfortably and openly blend in.

These are the Roma who were to be the focus of our film.

They work in restaurants, on construction sites and in offices; play soccer and make music; and attend multicultural schools and community colleges.

 Karl Nerenberg

Hamilton  community worker Tibor Lukacs came as a Roma refugee from the Czech Republic. Photo: Karl Nerenberg

They have forged a new piece of Canada's multicultural mosaic; and they are grateful to this country for providing them not only a safe haven, but with a society in which they can finally feel accepted for who they are.

Plan to do a simple, positive film got de-railed

However, we encountered at least two major and disturbing distractions on our way to telling that Canadian Roma story.

First, the attitude of the IRB toward Roma refugee claimants changed dramatically while we were filming.

Many of the Roma say the big change started with the Immigration Minister's statement that it was bizarre that "liberal, democratic" Hungary should be sending the largest number of refugee claimants to Canada.

Many of these would-be refugees from Hungary and neighbouring countries are "bogus," the Minister said, and some, he implied, are part of a criminal conspiracy.

The IRB got the message and the acceptance rate for Roma claimants went down to nearly zero. Deportation started to be a daily fact of life for the young and beleaguered Canadian Roma community.

Re-imposing visas on Czechs was a sign of things to come

The Roma were incredulous that the Canadian government seemed blind to the real conditions not only of systematic discrimination and exclusion but of persecution that they say they face in their home countries.

They should not have been entirely surprised.

There was an earlier, ominous sign of things to come when the Canadian government had re-imposed visas on visitors from the Czech Republic. The purpose was to stop the flow of Czech Roma.

That move proved to be pretty unpopular with Czechs in general, and with the EU. It became obvious that the Canadian government would not get away with trying it for another country.

And so the government wanted to find other ways of discouraging Roma from coming to Canada.

One way would be to deny them refugee status.

When the Minister spoke publicly on this issue he was signaling to the IRB that it should cast a very skeptical eye in Roma refugee claimants -- and the IRB got the message.

In fact, a new narrative started to take hold in Canada -- propagated, in part, by our friends in Europe -- to the effect that the Roma were not only queue-jumpers and "bogus refugees," but also, as a rule, an unsavory and undesirable group of people, who would only cause us grief if we allowed them to settle here.

And that narrative links to the second of the "disturbing distractions" that upset the applecart of our planned benign little film on the Canadian Roma.

Old-fashioned racial prejudice

Making this film has been a bit of a flashback for us to old-fashioned attitudes of prejudice and bigotry.

I was born in the 1940s and brought up in the 1950s, long before the contemporary complex discourse about racism in its various mediated and more naked forms had currency.

I was weaned on old-fashioned notions of tolerance versus intolerance, of integration versus discrimination and open-mindedness versus prejudice.

It was a simpler time, when well-meaning parents and teachers taught that it was wrong to use terms like "nigger" and "kike" and (an epithet then current in Quebec) "pepsis."

Do not judge whole groups by the actions single individuals, we were taught.

Do not prejudge people based on their skin colour, language or religion.

Each individual should be judged on his or his own merit -- as Martin Luther King would later put: "the content of their characters, not the colour of their skin."

Well, when it comes to the Roma, it is a case of back-to-the-future, a nostalgic flashback to an old-fashioned kind of unabashed race prejudice.

Many Canadians harbor surprisingly negative feelings toward the Roma

Since starting to work on this project, Malcolm and I have been accosted by numerous Canadians who warn us about being "naïve" about the Roma.

As one highly educated Canadian professional told us, the Roma have to "deal with their culture of criminality."

Or, as another put it, the Roma "all lie; don't send their children to school; and do not believe in work."

Or how about this screed, on Facebook, from a person involved in progressive politics, who complained about Roma gangs she said she encountered in Europe:

"They're a secretive, closed, suspicious culture that has an affinity to subjugate women & participate in crime. I'm a 'very compassionate person.' I dont like being victimized & harassed by people who are frankly proud to be scamsters. That's not racism, that's disliking being abused."

Were we, as filmmakers, seeing the Roma through rose-coloured glasses?

It dawned on us that somehow, when it comes to the Roma, more than half a century of small-l liberal notions of tolerance and acceptance go out the window.

Even Canadians who cannot claim to have ever broken bread or shared tea with a single Roma will tell you that the Roma are (almost genetically?) bad people, whose culture is one of "criminality and laziness."

And so, if our film depicts scores of good people who happen to be Roma, we must be cooking the evidence, hiding the truth.

Even the Minister of Immigration chimed in with accusations that the Roma all arrive at Pearson Airport with "rehearsed stories," and all immediately ask: "Where can we get the welfare!"

The Minister has yet to offer a single shred of evidence or documentation for these assertions. They are all in the category of: "I have been told..." And that is pretty much the story of most of anti-Roma prejudice.

A film that included the Czech and Hungarian stories

The result of these two "distractions" was to put us on the path of making a rather different film, one with more edge and urgency.

At the urging of many Canadian Roma, we decided, a little more than a year ago, to go to Hungary and the Czech Republic ourselves.

We would witness the situation there with our own eyes and our own camera.

We went expecting to find, as the Canadian government has asserted, poverty and a certain amount of individual prejudice, but nothing more extreme.

What we found was, to two experienced journalists and filmmakers, literally extremely shocking!

In Brno, Czech Republic, we filmed in a school that the headmistress and teachers openly admitted is a segregated, "lower-level" "Roma school." That's not official, of course. Officially, there are no "Roma" schools. But, in fact, they exist everywhere.

In Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, we found Roma living in squalor, in disused and contaminated industrial areas with no services.

 Martha Plaine

Group of Roma dancers at the Roma Museum in Brno, Czech Republic. Photo: Martha Plaine

At the Roma Museum in Brno, a young Czech woman on the staff admitted that her friends and family found it strange and worrisome that she spent her days in the company of Roma. "Watch your wallet," they would tell her. She reported that negative attitudes in her country toward the Roma have increased over the past few years -- a fact borne out by speaking to people on the streets of Prague.

The truly grim story: Hungary

But all that was mild compared to neighbouring Hungary, where in the words of Budapest sociologist Vera Messing: "The Roma feel fear!"

Dr. Messing was referring to the frequent and aggressive invasions of Roma communities by a ballooning group of far right para-military groups.

"They intimidate the Roma," Messing said, "And the police are there, but they do nothing. They do not intervene!"

We visited the village of Gyöngyöspata north-east of Budapest, which an openly neo-Nazi militia had just vacated after effectively occupying the Roma district for about two weeks.

We spoke to local Roma who been threatened with all kinds of violence. More disquieting was the attitude of non-Roma townspeople who seemed to think the occupation was a good thing and that the Roma had to "learn a lesson," and understand that "they are not the majority!"

Even Hungarian media colleagues showed hostility, not only to the Roma, but to us, as foreign witnesses.

When the Roma of Gyöngyöspata, and their supporters, held a peace march from their little slum at the bottom of the hill to the town hall, Hungarian TV crews there to cover the event accused us -- the "Canadians -- of provoking it. The Roma, they said, wanted to put on a show for the "foreigners."

The overwhelming impression we had of Hungary -- and, even, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Czech Republic -- was of racially segregated societies, with neither interest in nor tolerance for any significant degree of diversity.

Societies that do not abide difference

The leader of the Czech Jewish community told us that Czech attitudes toward his people are now quite positive -- a bit late, since there are only about 6,000 Jews left in the Czech Republic.

There are over 100,000 Roma in the Czech Republic and about eight times that number in Hungary, but the widespread view of the majority in both countries is that the Roma are not "really" Czech or Hungarian. They are seen as an inassimilable, heterodox element. The extremist invocation -- "Go back to India!" -- is only an extension of the general attitude.

That is why one Roma man who had lived for a few years in St. Catharines, Ontario before being sent back to Budapest, has a simple message for his fellow Roma still in Canada:

"Never come back!"

In Ottawa, Never Come Back will be shown at the Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street (at Bay) on Wednesday, April 11, at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

The screening is free, but you are invited to make a donation to cover costs.

At 8 p.m., following the screening, there will be a panel discussion on the topic: Canada's Refugee System: the Roma.

Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill for rabble. He has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House. Karl can be reached at [email protected].

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