The following is a re-post of my original report on the Human Library Project, with some corrections. Thanks to Lela for her feedback and contribution!
As I wrote earlier this week, I went to the Atwater Library in Westmount this morning to participate in the Human Library project. I had signed up to speak with Lela Savic, a Romani journalist and documentary maker. She was interning at the Human Library project, and considering her background they invited her to be one of the human libraries this year.
If you watch her introductory video, you will learn that Lela was born in Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and when the war broke out when she was five, her family emigrated to Canada. I briefly described to her how I am from Switzerland and in Geneva there is a very negative perception of Romani as beggars, pickpockets and thieves. I asked her to describe her background to me so that I could see a different perspective of Romani.
Lela described how she grew up in Canada as any “normal” kid would. She studied at Concordia University, she has travelled, worked, and maintained her connection with her family roots back in Serbia (in fact, throughout our conversation, she referred to “her village” in Serbia as home, rather than Montreal). She told me she feels that the fundamental difference between Romani culture and others is that it is a very old, traditional culture. It is not that different from many southern European cultures, but it is very insular. For that reason many Romani (especially women) have little interest in education, development or what is going on outside of their group. This often results in issues in healthcare and a lack of empowerment of women (though in her family, she and her siblings were all encouraged to study, regardless of gender). Since so few people know anything about Romani culture, Lela feels that many do not understand her cultural perspective.
It was fascinating discussing Gadjo (or non-Romani) perceptions of her people, but also how Romani groups view each other. She said that here in Canada Romani are viewed in romantic light: when she tells people she is Romani it often inspires images of an exotic “Esmerelda” who dances and sings. Or, she is asked if her family is nomadic and travels around all the time. However, in Europe, she hesitates to disclose that she is Romani. She often gets very negative reactions which range from distrust to outright hostility. Though she said she has one cousin who is a successful businesswoman in Belgrade, she has other cousins who have been shut out of the business world in Europe because they are Romani.
Lela comes from a community that is sedentary and lives in a group of six neighboring villages in Serbia. They have intermarried, grown and established themselves as mostly farmers. There are other groups of Romani who travel, and engage in what are negatively viewed as the stereotypical activities of the Romani, such as pickpocketing, begging, etc. She said that among Romani there is a specific word for these groups, and they are often looked down upon for “giving Romani a bad name.” However, because many Romani share the experience of being marginalized and discriminated against, there is an understanding that these groups often have no other choice. It is a vicious cycle: because they are rejected by society as thieves and beggars, they must become just that in order to survive, thus further reinforcing the negative stereotypes. When one thinks about it, it is heartbreaking to think that a whole group of people is stuck in this wheel.
Lela’s goal is to continue working to educate the outside world about her culture. She would also like to work as an activist among Romani, as she believes Romani people will more readily accept social reform initiated by one of their own, rather than from perceived outsiders. Our conversation was fascinating, though brief, and it accomplished the goal the Human Library project set out to do: it opened my eyes to a different perspective and reminded me to always challenge stereotypes and be open to changing preconceived ideas.
After my conversation with Lela, I had a little time to spare, so I asked who would be available for a conversation starting at 11:30. I had a fascinating conversation with Gabrielle Bouchard, a trans woman who spent most of her life as man, and transitioned to life as a woman in her late thirties. I will tell you more about our chat in another post, though, as this one is getting on the long side.
Happy Saturday everyone, and have a good weekend!
If you are interested in hearing some of Lela’s interviews with members of the Roma community, you can listen to her interview with Kristin Molnar, her discussion on stereotypes, and her conversation about discrimination against Romani people in Croatia. Please note that some of these interviews are conducted in French, so if you were looking for a good reason to learn French, here you have it! I highly recommend you give these a listen.