‘I live on Liberty Street. It was meant to be. My spirit. My leitmotif.’
Norica Costache was born in Bucharest and raised in Glina, Ilfov County during the communist period. Nora is the youngest of four and the only girl. ‘Our childhood, I cannot say mine because we were so close, was suffused in music.’ Nora’s brothers studied classical music and play clarinet, violin, and piano. They had a separate music room in the home. Her parents built on land owned by the family. Nora’s father was Lautari; he worked two jobs; an accordionist and music teacher during the day, and a hotel porter at night. Nora’s mother came from a well-educated, middle class family; her father was a clerk for the local government. Nora recalls his beautiful handwriting despite a war wound, which rendered one finger immobile. Both grandfathers were veterans of WWI. During WWII, her maternal grandfather helped to prevent Roma from being deported to Transnistria.
Nora attended the Iulia Hasdeu history and philology college during the Ceauşescu regime. ‘The school was just in back of our house. I could climb the gate and take the short cut. We had some of the best teachers there because they had studied abroad. The principal knew my family and encouraged me. My family called me a “performer.” I used my mind instead of music to excel.’ As a child Nora never thought about being Roma. The family was integrated into a mixed community.
Shortly before her eighth grade graduation, Nora’s father died. She had planned to study philology, the examination of language in historical context. ‘In December 1989 we were marching for freedom on the streets in Bucharest.’ In1990 with diminished financial resources, Nora switched to journalism. This turned out to be fortuitous because immediately after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the media was freed from constraints imposed during communism. ‘I was in the right place at the right time of my life.’ Nora created two final projects to complete journalism school: the first was a mock up of a Byzantine book; modeled on Orthodox Christian prayer books; the second was a bilingual (Romanes – Romanian) newspaper for Roma. ‘I never presented the second project. It was the project of my soul.’
In 1990, Aven Amentza (Come with Us) appeared on posters in bus stations and in announcements on state TV. Roma were invited to a gathering at the Sala Palatului (Palace Hall) in central Bucharest. Nora’s cousin, Carmen, was involved with the Aven Amentza foundation and encouraged her to attend. ‘At the gathering at the Palatului, I saw people such as Nicolae Gheorghe, Ion Onoriu, Vasile Ionescu, and Costel Vasile […] some of the leaders who initiated the Roma movement. This was a turning point in my life. I found the place where I could play an integral part. I met the spirit of the Roma movement.’
Nora began volunteering for Aven Amentza working with Vasile Ionescu on the first newspaper for Roma in Romania publishing articles on Roma history and culture. ‘I learned about Roma slavery for the first time and about the Holocaust. My mother had always spoken to us in Romanes, but I had not grasped the significance of the language to my Roma identity.’
A series of conflicts reverberated throughout the country in the year following the end of communism. The Mineriads of 1990 and 1991 saw supposed miners from the Jiu Valley violently break up protests against the ruling National Salvation Front, a party composed largely of former communist officials. There was a simultaneous rise in violence targeting the Roma. Nicolae Gheorghe a member of the Group for Social Dialogue calling for a democratic Romania and providing a safe space for such discussions, asked Nora to mount a press conference on the Roma situation and translate a document from French to Romanian. She delivered the translation the next day. Nicolae Gheorghe invited Nora to take part in various events and press conferences addressing the growing interethnic conflict.
After the fall of the Ceauşescu communist regime in 1989, thousands of Romanians including Romanian Roma, left the country for western Europe. In 1992, Roma without documents were expelled from Germany and repatriated to Romania. Nicolae Gheorghe asked Nora to conduct interviews with returnees. She learned that many Roma had sold their homes when they left. Some had fled Romania after experiencing interethnic violence such as the torching of homes in the village of Mihail Kogălniceanu near the Black Sea. The Romanian government did not provide the support and assistance needed to resettle the returnees. Nora helped mediate the post conflict situation in Mihail Kogălniceanu. She worked with the mainstream community to help them understand that the Roma were part of their village and fellow Romanian citizens.
Nora believes that the 1993 Hădăreni case was an impetus for the creation of Romani CRISS. An interethnic conflict between Roma and Romanians in the Transylvanian village of Hădăreni resulted in the destruction of the Roma community there and the explusion and murder of Roma and non-Roma with the cooperation of local police. Nicolae Gheorghe established the NGO, ROMANI CRISS (Center for Social Intervention and Studies). Nora Costache was one of its founding members. ‘What happened in Hădăreni, ignited a spark in all Romanian Roma.’
In the mid 1990s, Nora married the activist, Costel Vasile. Their daughter, Sara is now twenty-one and studying law at the University of Bucharest and International Law through the Sorbonne. ‘Costel Vasile was a man of honour. He was an optical fiber mechanic with the Romanian Aeronautic Industry, during the communist period. He would look up at a plane and say to me, “see that plane Nora - if anything happens, I am still responsible”.’
Mr. Vasile founded the Societatea Tânăra Generaţie a Romilor (Young Generation Society of Roma) in 1991 as a civil society approach to the prevention of violence and discrimination against Roma. Zoltan Barany in his chapter, Romani Marginality and Politics in Romania since 1989, highlights the Young Generation of Roma (YGSR) as one of the best managed Roma organizations of the 1990s pointing to its effective projects promoting educational and cultural initiatives for Roma youth and creating dialogue to prevent interethnic violence.
After the loss of her husband, Norica drew upon her considerable educational and professional credentials to secure full time employment. Nora has a degree in sociology and social assistance from the University of Bucharest. She is a licensed interpreter of Romanian-English, English-Romanian; Romanian-French, French-Romanian; and Romanian-Romanes, Romanes-Romanian. Nora Costache has been working at the National Center for Roma Culture in Bucharest for the past two years.
Nora sees herself as part of the continuum of Roma activism from the beginning of the movement to the new approaches examining the roots of Roma culture.
‘A determinant in the initial stage of the Roma movement was the effort to mainstream Roma, allowing us to become more visible and more involved in decision making at a regional, national, and international level. Now it’s time to look into the roots of Roma culture and language. The Romani language is the basis of my identity. It provided me with the foundation needed to confront prejudice and discrimination as I matured. Knowing one’s culture and language in no way closes one off. I also speak “elegant” Romanian. In the modern world, speaking several languages and delving into several cultures opens opportunities and expands our parameters.’