Where Roma Run the Show

Head for south-eastern Europe now for the Geo Quiz: Roma or Gypsies are spread out in many countries across Europe. They’re often treated as second class citizens and face discrimination. But we’re looking for a European country that’s home to one of the the world’s biggest self-governing Roma communities.

That community is called Shutka, located near the border of Kosovo. It has more than 25,000 residents, its own Roma mayor, TV and radio stations.

So, name this former Yugoslav republic on the Balkan peninsula.

The answer is Macedonia.

In most Roma communities, people live in poverty and have little political power but in Macedonia, Roma participate in a range of public institutions.

And they own and operate one of the only private Roma-language television stations in Europe. Matthew Brunwasser visited the lively neighborhood of Shutka and sent us this report:

When people think of Roma communities, they usually think of scenes like this one: a wedding procession passing through Shutka’s dirty streets.

The small shabby buildings have a rough, do-it-yourself feel. But it makes the place much more homey than many East European neighborhoods, with their endless rows of identical apartment blocks. Another special quality of Shutka is the Roma’s love of music. It is an ethnic stereotype but its also a major component of Roma culture.

One of Shutka’s most famous daughters is Esma Redzhepova. Known around the world as the Queen of Gypsy music. She’s famous for her voice and her lifelong dedication to music and humanitarian causes. She says that Shutka is special because Roma are treated better in Macedonia than elsewhere. Unlike other countries, Macedonia doesn’t force Roma to accept the majority culture and language.

“We are not assimilated and this is a very beautiful thing,”Redzhepova said. “Macedonia has done us a great favor by not assimilating us. They let us speak Romani normally, everywhere, wherever you want. You can study in Romani. Nobody gets in your way and tells you what to do. I don’t think there is any other country which is more democratic. Look, we have two Romani TV stations, we report our own news, we have a daily newspaper, and they do whatever they want.”

At Shutel television, it’s a quiet news day. News director Ramush Muarem is reading the news headlines in Romani language. Shutel is one of the few private Roma-owned and operated Romani language television channels in Europe. It broadcasts on national cable systems — and the Internet — and produces news and feature programs. While almost all Roma here speak Macedonian, director Muarem says its important for Shutel to broadcast in Romani language.

“We are the protagonists,” said Muarem. “The television itself aims to promote within the Roma people their own culture, ethnic identity, traditions, moral values and their own self-worth.”

A staff member reads “dedications” sent by family members to a relative to congratulate them on getting married. The camera films a photograph of the wedding couple taped to the wall. Its a pretty low-tech operation.

Muarem edits the newscast, including his own, as well as managing reporters, the production team and updating the website.

Muarem says Roma in Shutka and Macedonia are more politically organized than in other countries so they have managed to do many things on their own. In addition to TV stations, many Roma are in high positions, including deputies in parliament and a government minister.

Shutka might well be better off than most Roma communities, but it’s still very poor and undeveloped. In one of Shutka’s many simple cafes, Deputy Mayor Adnan Memed tells me that Roma communities lag far behind others in terms of education, income and infrastructure. And there’s still a long way to go.

“We can’t just wait for the state to help us, here in the Balkans or anywhere else in Europe,” says Memed. “Roma are too dependent on the government, in terms of social welfare or humanitarian activities. We have to enter more deeply into more public institutions in order to manage and finance our own development.”

As an example of Roma exclusion, he mentions the Macedonian government’s current nationalist statue-building craze, raising public monuments to a cast of heroes from Alexander the Great to 19th Century Balkan rebels. Memed says the Shutka authorities had to come up with their own plan, to honor the brothers Ramzi and Hamid, Roma who died fighting with the Partisans in World War II.

“We are going to make a bust where the brothers Razmi and Hamid will be,” said Memed. “Now this might not sound good, but we are waiting for the first Roma MP in the Macedonian parliament, Mr. Abdi Faik to die, and then we are going to place a bust of him here too. We dont have have that many people about whom we can say: ‘hey everyone, here is one of our people, let’s make a bust of him.'”

Macedonia recently took over the rotating leadership of the Roma Decade of Inclusion, a commitment by 12 European governments to improve Roma living conditions and social status. Roma hope Macedonia’s policy will provide an example to europe to give Roma more say in running their own affairs.

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