On February 13th at the University of Manchester a panel discussion took place which consisted of:
Rt Hon David Blunkett, MP
Dr Michael Stewart, University College London, Dept of Anthropology
Carol Powell, Principal, Gorton Mount Primary Academy, Bright Futures Educational Trust
Fay Selvan , Chief Executive, The Big Life Company
Professor Yaron Matras, University of Manchester, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
Ramona Constantin, Romani Community Outreach worker. Migrant from Romania.
Dr Nissa Finney ( Chair), University of Manchester
In the 90 minute forum, the conversation was wide ranging but it started by addressing some of the issues that were experienced by the migration of Roma from a number of East European countries. The input was generally focused on experiences in the cities of Manchester and Sheffield.
Fay Selvan explained that many migrants started selling The Big Issue to gain a foothold into the job market. Her company was clear that it would not discriminate against anyone, and that everyone had the right to sell the paper. Ramona Constantin started her life in the UK, in 2009, with no English, having moved from Romania. Her first job was selling The Big Issue in Manchester. From these beginnings she was able to secure a job as an interpreter , and then a role within the ‘Big Issue in the North’ company. She explained that for her first 25 years living in Romania – she was not happy. Now, in the UK, with her 3 children, she no longer felt like a stranger.
Carole Powell saw many challenges in her school with the acceptance of 20 children in the 9-11 age range. They hadn’t experienced any schooling , were very independent people by virtue of their life experience, most could not hold a pencil, and did not understand the discipline necessary to be part of a class environment. Through focused and sensitive attention, 5 years later, those children at Gorton Mount were making good progress.
David Blunkett highlighted that when the early Roma arrived in Sheffield in 2007 the numbers were low and were manageable however unfortunately they missed out on the New Deal for Communities programme. He said that no one could have foreseen the massive increase in the migration that happened in the last few years, and the special challenges that this has presented. His view was that the older children were the more problematic as they had experience of the deprivation, social conditions, exclusion and racism in their home country. One of the biggest challenges was the conditions in which they were living in the UK. Some extended families of 15-20 people were living in one house which presented many practical issues.
Michael Stewart provided some stark examples of how people were driven to skin bleaching in their home country to be less recognizable as Roma. Since arriving in the UK, they now felt free, and were beginning to enjoy a sense of freedom of expression in their culture. It was recognized that some cultural traditions, particularly around marriage, and the age at which this took place, presented clashes with UK law. On occasions there were charges of statutory rape.
Yaron Matras summarized some of the key points as to why Roma were perceived as a challenge. A community that has large extended families which like to be near to each other presents basic accommodation issues. For the established communities this gives the impression of being “taken over”. They are generally considered to be less skilled, and with low literacy in English, this significantly reduces the work opportunities for the adult population. There were very few role models that people could aspire to, and no career structure that gave some pathway for development. His view was that the challenge was not to change their culture but to provide “enlightenment”.
The discussion opened up to address the positive aspects of Roma migration.
For the younger people there is a great opportunity to get a better education and develop a career path which was not available to their parents. This does present a cultural debate for the young girls within the family where they would naturally be expected to have a family and bring up the children.
An interesting point was raised that any new group that was trying to engage with public service providers effectively represented a “mirror” for them. An opportunity exists for learning lessons from this to ensure that service provision was able to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of a diverse population.
Despite the challenges that many of the Roma would have been subjected to in their home country, and the general low level of education and literacy, they were considered to have a strong work ethic. This was driven by the need to support the family.
The UK enjoys the involvement of many diverse cultures and the acceptance and understanding of the Roma culture will add to that richness.
The forum was necessarily very general and, in some cases, very academic but provided an informative overview of the situation with the Roma community. However, what it seemed to gloss over was the fact that “Roma” is a very generalized categorization and in some cases is very misleading. Whilst they all may share a common legacy from 1000 years ago, that bares little relevance in the modern world. There seems to be little connection between a British born Gypsy traveller, and a Slovakian born Roma. Their life experiences, challenges, social perspective in the UK and future needs are all quite different.
There were 2 comments that were made during the forum which I felt were most poignant. Fay Selvan addressed the point of how we respond to the challenge of the Roma community by asking a question of the existing population of the UK. “What country do we want to be in?” – a country that is civilized and welcoming to those that are fleeing from deprivation and persecution and that does its best to provide a better future for all, or one that resents anyone who we perceive as taking advantage of our resources?
Ramona Constantin was asked to comment on the level of discrimination she experienced when she was living in Romania. She stated that when she was in Romania she didn’t know what it meant to be discriminated against – that was all she knew. It was only when she came to the UK, and enjoyed a much more inclusive and welcoming society did she reflect on her time in her home country and realized that her continual social exclusion was the source of her unhappiness and that migrating to the UK was what brought her freedom, opportunity and contentment.
Perhaps we should view this whole subject not just from the perspective of the opportunity that Roma can provide to our cities, but the opportunity that we can provide to them?