Roma in Central and Eastern Europe are in a unique situation compared to other ethnic groups—they are not indigenous to the continent, nor do they have a homeland like national minorities. However, the socioeconomic disadvantages and discrimination that they frequently face parallel those of other populations throughout the globe, whether they are indigenous peoples, refugees, migrants, or other groups.
Two young Roma leaders, Erika Adamaova from Slovakia and Florin Nasture from Romania, had the unique opportunity in April and May to travel halfway around the world to New Zealand to participate in a youth leadership Study Session on “Democracy in the Pacific.” The program introduced them to some of the parallels and contrasts between Roma and New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population and sparked ideas for new approaches to Roma development programs.
The program was organized by the Pacific Centre for Participatory Democracy—a youth-led NGO based in Gisborne, on the east side of New Zealand’s North Island—and was funded by the New Zealand government, including the Ministry of Māori Development and NZAID. The World Bank Institute also provided support.
The session involved 28 young leaders from New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and Indonesia. The organizers were interested in involving Roma to include a diverse set of perspectives. The program aimed to support an inter-cultural and inter-generational dialogue and to identify strategies for sustainable and innovative community development initiatives. During their visit, Erika and Florin also had the opportunity to visit schools, government agencies, and Māori organizations.
Who are the Māori?
Roma and Māori are vastly different ethnic groups, each with their own unique and rich histories and cultures. Māori are an indigenous minority of approximately 620,000 based largely in New Zealand, with small diaspora populations in Australia and other countries. Roma are an ethnic minority spread across the world, but concentrated in Europe, where an estimated 9 to 12 million live. Although Roma originally migrated into Europe from India, they do not have territorial claims there.
There are also similarities. Both Roma and Māori societies are historically based on oral traditions, which made codifying language and creating a written historical record particularly important. Both groups are striking in their internal diversity.
A More Traditional International Conference
The study session incorporated and exposed the participants to Māori culture and traditions. It was held on a marae, the traditional Māori meeting house, which is central to every aspect of Māori life, including weddings and funerals, and serves as the center of the community. Participants were welcomed through Māori ceremony, including the Māori language and music.
“Being on the marae, I finally understood why workshops, conferences and study sessions organized for Roma activists do not achieve their intended impact and effect,” said Erika. “Organizing such events in a four-star hotel is comfortable and pleasant, but to stay in direct interaction with the community and culture motivates and helps the participants to better understand the way of living, thinking and cultural values…The whole Study Session was held in the spirit of Māori culture and traditions.”
Learning from Each Other
Roma attendees compared and contrasted their status in Central and Eastern Europe with that of Māori in New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi sets the framework for relations between Māori and the Government, and has influenced the status of Māori in New Zealand. The Treaty was signed in 1840 between representatives of the British government and chiefs of iwi (Māori tribal groups) from across New Zealand. While there is ongoing debate about the meaning of the Treaty, it has been an important basis for recognizing the rights of Māori in New Zealand. In recent years, the Waitangi Tribunal has been hearing claims by Māori against the Crown of breaches of the Treaty. The Government has signed settlements with about 12 iwi.
Increased use of the Māori language has been part of a Māori cultural renaissance in New Zealand. Māori is an official language alongside English. A Māori Language Strategy supports the incorporation of the language across society, including within public services, media, and the arts. Keeping alive the Māori language is seen as critical in sustaining a strong and proud cultural identity. The Roma participants were impressed by the emphasis on language use. Florin noted, “The way to preserve culture is by introducing the Roma language into the schools were Roma children are studying.”
Roma and Māori women face similar challenges. “Talking to Māori women, I realized that the privileged status of men over women is not a part of Māori culture,” said Erika. “An effective approach to promote educational attainment among young Roma mothers would be to implement policies that will encourage young Roma mothers to stay in school.”
Contributing to the lack of education among Roma in Central and Eastern Europe is the unofficial policy in many countries of enrolling Roma children into special schools intended for the mentally and physically disabled. Many of these children eventually drop out, as they have no prospect of attending secondary school or university.
New Zealand, however, has effectively banned special schools, something that some CEE governments still resist. However, many Māori parents—and a small but growing number of non-Māori parents—choose to send their children to bilingual or immersion schools that expose students to Māori language and culture.
A Renewed Sense of Identity
The Roma participants returned home having learned important lessons about fostering cultural identity, improving living standards, and increasing social inclusion. “Many Roma feel there is a gap between the community as a whole and its leaders and elites,” pointed out Florin. “Community participation is key to closing this gap, and it will in turn strengthen Roma identity and a feeling of belonging.”
Florin also emphasized that the whole approach to Roma integration should be turned on its head. “In our region, we take a negative perspective, focusing on the disparity between the Roma and the majority, and creating the appearance of a helpless Roma population.” Māori, on the other hand, are more positive. “They build on existing successes to channel their potential. Like them, Roma should not be people with problems who create problems; we should have the power to overcome our obstacles.”