Conversations on Studying Abroad

Roma Lives

Feb 24, 2023 10:00:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf continues to highlight the Romani experience and outlines the community's history, nomadism, and persecution.

You, you’re a stork
Who has landed on Earth.
Me, I’m a black bird who has taken flight.
Why does your wicked mouth spit on me?
What harm is it to you
That my skin is dark…
And my hair Gypsy black?
From Isabelle the Catholic…
From Hitler to Franco…
We have been the victims
of their wars.

—Sang by La Caita in documentary Latcho Drom ("Safe Journey,” 1993), directed and written by Tony Gatlif.

Unheard Voices

The impact of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, resonated across much of the globe. In contrast, the death of a Romani man, just over one year later, on June 19, 2021 in the Czech Republic, passed relatively unnoticed. Stanislav Tomáš died after a police officer knelt on his neck while two others restrained him. The comparison with the death of George Floyd is obvious. 

The differences are deeply significant; outside of limited media channels, the story created hardly a ripple on international news outlets; no policeman was charged with the murder. African American writer and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates recognizes the relative power and influence of the African American voice abroad: “In the global context, perhaps we Americans are all white” (Coates, 2017). Discrimination is an issue with global dimensions but the voices of the marginalized are far from equally heard; suffering is far from equally visible. Outrage at injustices inflicted upon the weak by the powerful is highly selective. 

Education abroad appears only marginally interested in what has been called “Europe’s most serious human rights problem”: the historical and contemporary dilemma of the Romani people, sometimes called “gypsies.” Many American scholars and students experience Europe as a center of tolerance and inclusion, but that is not the experience of one of Europe’s largest minorities. An estimated 10-12 million Roma reside in wider Europe, some 6 million as EU citizens. [1] They have been, and are, subject to exclusion and persecution in countries to which we send students: Austria, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden—and so on, ad nauseam.

The history of the Romani people is not customarily part of the Europe we teach, marginal in our educational agendas, barely visible in the profile of the region we present to our students. 

They are a people paradoxically ignored and vilified.

Who are they?

The Roma are a distinctive people, created by a combination of history, custom, belief, and external hostility. It is accepted that Roma originated in Northern India and first arrived in Europe at the end of the 13th century, not as a single group but as a diverse, but connected, set of peoples. In that respect, Roma are hardly unique in so far as no peoples have a homogeneous identity outside of ultranationalist mythologies. We are all formed at the intersection of diverse experiences and engagements, often manifest as contradiction and ambiguity. We are all also shaped by the ways in which others have imagined us. The Romani people continue to be constructed by the hostility of others, barely visible victims of global bigotry.

 Ultranationalists demonstrate against Roma

Ultranationalists demonstrate against Roma.
(source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19439679)

Romani peoples have had identities constructed by their enemies over centuries. They have been made scapegoats for disasters natural and political: pariahs and outsiders in locations they have inhabited or passed through.

Co-existent with those stereotypes, they have also been invested with paradoxical, romanticized identities as a people beyond the conventions and constraints that prevail in the wider community. The dark Gypsy woman of popular culture, exemplified by Carmen, is just such an erotic and exotic construction. This Gypsy woman is highly sexualized [2], associated with extreme passion, dangerous seductive powers, access to arcane mysteries: a darkness that is both physical and metaphysical. She is a construct designed to reflect fantasies of masculine outsiders, perverse dreams of liberation from reality. 

Carmen of Prosper Mérimée’s novella and Bizet’s opera

The “dangerous” Carmen of Prosper Mérimée’s novella and Bizet’s opera.
(source: https://eu.freep.com/story/entertainment/music/2016/10/12/mot-opens-bizet-carmen/91848966/)

Nomadism and Mobility

The idea that the Roma are a nomadic people enjoying liberated lifestyles, symbolized by the freedoms of the open road, does not align with history:

Banishment and transportation have been important factors in the dispersion of the Gypsies. They were banished from Germany in 1497, Spain in 1499, France in 1504, England in 1531, Denmark in 1536, Moravia in 1538, Scotland in 1541, Poland in 1557, Venetia in 1549, 1558, and 1588, etc…in 1544 we find one large band of Egyptians (sic) being sentenced at Huntingdon to be taken to Calais, the nearest English port on the Continent, and another being shipped at Boston in Lincolnshire and landed somewhere in Norway (Groome, xix).

Despite a history of forced expulsion and deportation (closer to refugee than nomadic mobility), the single, recurrent characteristic in the inventions of Roma identity is the idea of a nomadic people. As a negative trope, this has led to the perception of rootlessness, without national allegiance, frequently spies, aliens who carry with them disease. They are an affront to patriotic ideals, anathema to the values of Christian communities: pariahs of Europe. 

The Romani experience makes notions of mobility problematic in ways that are instructive in the context of international education; mobility, for us, represents a privileged journey towards enrichment, freedom and liberation, broadening of landscapes. In contrast, in Roma (and Jewish) experience mobility more frequently represented a lack of choice, constriction of freedom, less going towards some desirable objective, more about escape and expulsion. In Christian folklore, mobility was also punishment, perpetual exile, from Eden for example, imposed for sin and betrayal. 

To complicate further the ambiguities of mobility, the Roma are paradoxically represented in popular constructs as the embodiment of romantic freedom distinctive from modern ethical, social, and political restraints: our primitive selves unburdened by the baggage of complex modernity. The reality was that, for almost 500 years, a significant proportion of Roma in Europe went nowhere. In what is now largely modern Romania, the Roma were enslaved:

Much of Europe’s Romani population was held in slavery until the middle of the last [19th] century, and never left the estates at all except perhaps to be driven to be exhibited for sale (Hancock, 1987, 130).

Another reality is that a very small percentage (estimated between 5% and 10%) of the current Romani population in Europe have a mobile lifestyle. The idea of mobility is not, however, entirely imposed. It is also sustained by Roma writers and creative writers. “Gelem, Gelem,” for example, composed by Žarko Jovanović, is frequently used as a form of anthem. It has many geographical variants, but a consistent notion is that mobility is at the heart of identity:

I travelled and travelled far and wide
I met happy Gypsies...
I met lucky Gypsies
Oh, Gypsies, from wherever you came from
With your tents along lucky roads
I once had a large family too
But the black legion murdered them.

The notion of “lucky roads” might resonate with nomadic choice, but “black legion” more readily suggests the status of refugee. By way of comparison, the Cherokee were forced off their lands in 1838 and 1839 as part of an Indian removal policy in the US. This enforced exile, “the Trail of Tears,” is not used to characterize the Cherokee as nomads, any more than the Jewish diaspora similarly suggests that identity. The fact that Roma are rarely granted the status of refugee reflects the fact that they have been subject to paradoxical inventions: a race but not a race, nomads and slaves, innocent and corrupt.

They were designated as “pilgrims” in their first settlement in Spain, investing mobility with a spiritual dimension. In contrast, living the “wandering life” (Leland, 1886, 9) implies travel without purpose, a mobility that idealizes values alternative to modernity. The Nazis used concepts that translate into “vagrant” to suggest an affront to national values, unproductive poverty and dependence, as does the term “itinerant” or, in some circumstances, “tinker.”

Like No Other? Jews, Black Americans, and the Roma

There are inevitably points of comparison and distinction between the Roma and other groups who have suffered discrimination and persecution. However, a critical distinction is that the sufferings of the Jews and African Americans have been, and continue to be, justly documented and commemorated. It is virtually impossible to be ignorant of the enslavement of Black people or the slaughter of European Jews in the Holocaust. 

The Roma were also victims of these barbarities but there was, until recently, no major body of work that described that history and few public voices represented the Roma within the corridors of academia, international organizations, or other avenues of public representation. No Roma were called to give evidence at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders in 1946.

Roma and the Jews

Historical parallels between these two minorities in Europe are striking. From early Christian folklore to the ideologies of the Nazis, the two communities have been connected by hostile enemies.

Roma, like the Jews, are vilified in Christian mythology for complicity in the crucifixion: 

Yet another legend says that it was a Gypsy who forged the nails for the Crucifixion, and this is why the Gypsies were doomed forever to wander the world without a home (Gypsy and Traveller History, 2012).

Roma and Wandering Jew are accursed, doomed to perpetual exile. 

Other points of comparison permeate Christian folklore. As alien outsiders, they were believed to carry a threat of infection. They had both committed acts of denial to Christ and to Mary, in addition to being agents of the crucifixion. Christian children were at risk from kidnap and maltreatment by both sets of mysterious strangers. 

The connections between Roma and Jews go further than legend. They have been subject to a common history of persecution, forced assimilation, and expulsion. Periods of stability proved to be temporary relief from sustained hostility at both governmental and community levels. A clear historical parallel between the Roma and the Jews is demonstrated through their experiences in Spain.

When the Roma first arrived around 1425, they enjoyed some protection as “pilgrims” until the Spanish Inquisition. By 1482, both Roma and the Jews became subject to vicious and often fatal scrutiny as the Inquisition intensified and reached further and deeper into Spanish society. Persecution led to threats of eradication by death or assimilation, and ultimate expulsion in the reign of Philip III (1578–1621). Temporary acceptance followed by persecution, pressure to assimilate, and expulsion is common to both.

The dehumanization of Roma and Jews in history and myth has led to their being characterised as outcasts, cursed wanderers, alien intruders in the inhospitable worlds through which they passed.

Roma rounded up for deportation to concentration camps.

Roma rounded up for deportation to concentration camps.
(source: https://remember.org/witness/wit-vic-gyp1)

Roma and African Americans

The single and most obvious (though perhaps least known) connection between Roma and African Americans is the shared legacy of enslavement. An estimated 600,000 enslaved Roma were emancipated in 1864, one year after Lincoln’s proclamation in the US.Outside of specialized histories, the enslavement of Roma is barely recognized, nor does it perceptibly modify the notion of a nomadic people. This history has not generated any works that might compare with numerous chronicles of Black experience. There is no Roma space wherein memorials might record this history. Instead, it is subject to the fragility of memory; we suffer here from amoral amnesia.

There is another point of comparison. The Roma are characterized by hostile communities as “genetically criminal” (Nicolae, 54). The criminalization of minorities is a common phenomenon in the popular imagination and is widely represented in the media. Both Black Americans and Roma have been subject to profiling and discriminatory policing. There is no evidence that the Roma have a greater tendency to criminal activity than any other deprived minority: there are also environments in which Roma have been excluded from employment and barred from normal retail outlets creating conditions in which petty theft might be seen as a crime of necessity. Furthermore, the perceived proclivity to crime is, in the case of Roma and Blacks, constructed as an “ethnic” or “racial” characteristic rather than as behavior governed by social or economic circumstances.

The criminalisation of minorities is an act of prejudice, used to justify discrimination. It is a failure of civil justice. The criminality of the Enron executives has not been used to categorize all business leaders (though there might be some potential in such a proposition). Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme has not, thankfully, widely been seen as a characteristic behavior of all elderly Jewish males.

A Unique People?

Roma are a dispersed people but only metaphorically a diasporic people in so far as their dispersal has not, in a general sense, created a sense of there being a lost homeland: no dreamed landscape, no Africa of the mind or Zion embedded in spiritual yearning. 

There is another sense in which the Romani people are distinctive. They have remained beyond the consciousness of civil rights activists. Struggles for racial and ethnic justice, gender equality, and homosexual rights have not included Roma. In the battles for civil rights over the last 50 years, they have largely been ignored. They have been, in short, uniquely invisible.

There is a moral imperative to render problematic the view of Europe as a place of tolerant enlightenment. The Roma are systematically subject to discrimination and violence. [3] Their predicament challenges the principles of civil society, as Czech President Václav Havel argued in 1993:

The Gypsy problem is a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society. The two are certainly two sides of the same coin; one is unthinkable without the other...The civil society is related to human behavior (Kamm, 1993).

Europe is failing the litmus test as it has done for centuries.

Gypsy Hunts

Jews were subject to pogroms; African Americans to lynching. Such violence routinely inflicted upon individuals and communities denies the victim human status. Further examples of brutal dehumanization are found in chronicles of Gypsy hunts that were common from the 17th to the 19th century in Europe. These horrific narratives are not widely told; there was no perceptible distinction between Roma and animals. 

Qristina Zavačková Cummings cites evidence from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota:

... in the 16th century began the “gypsy hunts.” Not unlike a fox hunt, the Gypsies were rounded up and hunted for sport. This savage practice was prevalent in Switzerland, in Holland up to the 18th century and reaching as far as Denmark...Honors and rewards were given to those who would participate in Gypsy hunts and capture them. These hunts continued as late as the 19th century. A great Gypsy hunt covering four districts of Jutland took place on November 11, 1835. The day brought in a bag of over 260 men, women and children. A Rheinland landowning aristocrat is said to have entered in his list of game killed during a day's hunting: Item: A Gypsy woman with her sucking babe (Cummings, 2020).

Following expulsion from German territories and the Dutch Republic, Roma were killed for pleasure in officially sanctioned Heidenjachten, heathen hunts: 

The hunts for the Roma travelling to their misfortune through areas under the prohibition of their presence, or hiding from prosecution, assumed the shape of a battue [4], a non-infrequent source of pleasure to their hunters. A proof of evidence…is an excerpt from a 17th-century German chronicle, containing the following report of one such hunt: “one beautiful stag was slain, five does, three sizeable wild boars, nine smaller boars, two male gypsies, one female and one baby gypsy” (Gil, 2018).

Roma were defined as less than truly human. These atrocities are rarely part of a mainstream European narrative. They are hidden from history. [5]

Comparative perspectives on Jews, Roma, and African Americans demonstrate that identities are not inevitable, natural, or necessarily inherited conditions. Instead they are constructs, imaginative acts which can create the necessary conditions for persecution and discrimination. Roma experience is, in this respect, relevant to all our lives. There are two consequent lessons. These histories and myths demonstrate the deadly power of simplistic and hostile stereotypes. In contrast, Roma survival, the determination to sustain a distinctive collective identity, is evidence of the human capacity for resistance to evil.

The Roma were victims of two of the most heinous abuses in human global history: slavery and the Holocaust. However, they have been footnotes (at best) in the narratives of these atrocities. This is an affront to our ethics as international educators and, more to the point, a denial of our common humanity.



[1] To put this into context: the population of the Czech Republic is around 10.5 million, Hungary under 10 million, Austria under 9 million.

[2] Ironically Roma society is usually very conservative in terms of gender behaviors. Women are subject to far stricter constraints than is the norm in wider society.

[3] The European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest catalogues and publicizes human rights abuses: http://www.errc.org/about-us-overview 

[4] This term describes the practice of beaters driving game towards hunters.

[5] I have written on other aspects of Roma experience in, for example:


Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. London: Penguin Books, 2017.

Cummings, Qristina Zavačková. “Hunter to Hunted”, ROMEA. February 10, 2020.

Gil, Krzysztof. “Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy’s Been Hunted,” Henryk Gallery, Eyewitness Poland. Blok Magazine. June 20, 2018. https://blokmagazine.com/welcome-to-the-country-where-the-gypsys-been-hunted-by-krzysztof-gil-at-henryk-gallery/ 

Groome, Francis, Hyndes. Gypsy Folk Tales. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1899.

Gypsy and Traveller History, 2012. http://gypsytravellerhistory.com/node/23 

Hancock, Ian. The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Ann Arbour: Karoma Publishers, 1987.

Kamm, Henry. “Havel Calls the Gypsies 'Litmus Test'”, The New York Times. December 10, 1993 http://www.nytimes.com/1993/12/10/world/havel-calls-the-gypsies-litmus-test.html?mcubz=0 

Leland, Charles G. The Gypsies. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886.

Nicolae, Valeriu. We are the Roma! One Thousand Years of Discrimination. London, New York, and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2013.

Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education