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Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka

Roma Youth Activism ‘We are the present!’

Introduction

Roma youth emerged as an explicit policy target group during the 1990s. Initially, they were usually perceived and treated as passive beneficiaries or, in some cases, as implementers of projects and activities; only rarely were youth viewed as equal stakeholders. Over time however, Roma youth have emerged as self-conscious subjects, demanding their place within the structures of Romani ethnic mobilisation. Today, as never before, we see a plethora of youth-oriented initiatives. Roma youth have not only become a specific policy category, in and of themselves, but have increasingly undergone the transformation from being viewed as a passive target group, to being seen as active agents of change, who shape policies and priorities affecting Roma and young Roma in particular.

Roma youth organisations and networks have succeeded in constructing a Roma youth identity, as the foundation of a force for mobilisation. Their members are not Roma activists who happen to be young; rather, they build on their status as youth, embracing it and underlining their differences from the other Romani actors involved. They act, based on a conviction that Roma youth ‘...need to speak with their own voices’ and that their distinct claims, differing methods and approaches in working for and with Romani young people, need to be recognised. To some extent, they also differentiate their aims and forms of activism from that of their predecessors. The emergence of Roma youth activism, or what has been referred to as the ‘Roma youth movement’, has opened a new chapter in Romani ethnic mobilisation.

Adam Bartosz | 4th World Romani Congress in Serock, Poland (from the left: Sait Balić, Marcel Courthiade, Rajko Djurić, Weer Rajendra Rishi, Ian Hancock and Stanislaw Stankiewicz) | photograph | Poland | April 8, 1990 | rom_10147 Rights held by: Adam Bartosz | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Adam Bartosz – Private Archive

Roma youth as a target group

The Roma population is relatively young: 35.7% of Roma are under fifteen years-old, compared to 15.7% of the EU population overall. The average age is twenty-five years-old amongst Roma, compared with an average of forty years-old amongst the general population, across the EU.1

From the early 1990s, Roma activists across Europe increasingly realised the need to invest in the next generation of Romani people, aiming to mitigate the multiple challenges Roma youth faced, whilst also focusing on mobilising and training a new cadre of civic and political leaders. In the context of the International Romani Union’s Fourth World Romani Congress (Poland 1990), a group of younger Roma activists in their late 30s, argued for the recognition of an emergent generation of activists, among them Agnes Daroczi, Andrzej Mirga and Rudko Kawczyński. At this time, newly established Roma organisations increasingly involved educated young Roma on their staff, with some organisations, such as Romani CRISS (established and led by Nicolae Gheorghe, becoming a training hub for promising young future leaders and activists. During this period, the emerging Roma movement was itself young and had been built up by activists who had shaped the interest of international community towards Roma youth. The Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues (CPRSI) at the OSCE, was created in 1994, and encouraged the setting up of an internship scheme for young Roma, the Project on Ethic Relations (PER). The first interns were financed by PER, among them Nicolas Jimenez, Rumyan Russinov, Nicoleta Bitu, and Angela Kocze.

The Council of Europe’s (CoE) Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies (MG-S-ROM), helped to shape the agenda of the CoE in the years following 1995. This expert group, mainly composed of Roma representatives, became a catalyst for other sectors at the Council of Europe, to engage in Roma issues. The first working documents of the MG-S-ROM2 also addressed issues related to Roma youth and were subsequently adopted as Committee of Ministers ‘Recommendations’. Around this time, the Youth Directorate of the CoE began to focus explicitly on Roma youngsters and initiating activities from the mid-1990s directed at Romani youth, through hosting conferences, study sessions and trainings. Roma youth were a major target of the European Youth Campaign against Racism Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism, (1994 to 1996). As part of this campaign, an initial training for Roma youth was organised in Strasbourg in 1995. From then on, the Youth Directorate of the Council of Europe and eventually other divisions, began to focus on funding youth-oriented projects and events. A number of other high-visibility meetings explicitly engaged the topic of Roma youth, helping to underline the importance of the younger generation. One of most important events was the First European Congress of the Gypsy Youth, organised by the Spanish Romani Union in 1997, by its president, Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia, at that time the only Roma Member of the European Parliament. The Congress..., in Barcelona, brought together over 300 youth from across Europe and helped to galvanize support for other youth-oriented initiatives.

The Congress…, in Barcelona, brought together over 300 youth from across Europe and helped to galvanize support for other youth-oriented initiatives. (rom_10106)

Rights held by: Uníon Romaní - Uníon del Pueblo Gitano | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Uníon Romaní / Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia

In the 2003 OSCE Action Plan, Roma youth were referred to in the context of employment (art. 51) and especially education (section v), in a major development of that time; though they did not feature as a specific target group.3 The European Union also supported a number of Roma youth-targeted projects during late 1990s,4 but the emergence of Roma youth-specific measures came much later.

In 2000, the Pakiv European Roma Fund initiative was established at the initiative of senior Roma leaders. Pakiv (a Romani word meaning ‘trust’ and ‘respect’), later became the Pakiv European Network, sponsored by the World Bank, the Freudenberg Foundation and other donors. It aimed at training twenty young Roma leaders in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia,5 specifically supporting local income-generating and employment-related activities. Over the years, Pakiv trained a cadre of younger Roma activists and helped to develop a network amongst them.

In 2005, the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 was launched. One of its central components was the establishment of the Roma Education Fund (REF), aiming at closing the educational disparity between Roma and non-Roma pupils and students. Through its scholarship scheme, REF contributed to increasing the number of Roma at university; many present-day young activists benefited from REF’s scholarships. The Diplo Foundation was another initiative that targeted Roma youth, offering young Roma graduates one-year diplomacy training for Roma between 2006-2006.6 Of the twenty-five project participants, many of them have subsequently played relevant roles in the Romani movement, such as Gabriela Hrabanova, Valery Novoselsky and Ibrahim Ibrahimi.

All of these initiatives represented efforts to train the future Roma leadership; selected young Roma were given opportunities to engage directly in policy-making processes; generally, those with higher-education qualifications and coming from integrated Roma families, with modern outlooks and a knowledge of foreign languages. Beyond creating opportunities and providing training to individual young Roma, these initiatives facilitated an explicit focus on the younger section of the Roma population.

Over the years, Roma youth have emerged as a specific target group that needs particular attention, in order to alleviate problems and challenges of young Roma, but more importantly, should be mobilized to join civic and political action. Individual young Roma were recipients of multiple trainings, internships and workshop schemes, but not a mandate to shape the political agenda.

One of most important events was the First European Congress of the Gypsy Youth, organised by the Spanish Romani Union in 1997, by its president, Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia, at that time the only Roma Member of the European Parliament.

Rights held by: Uníon Romaní - Uníon del Pueblo Gitano | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Uníon Romaní / Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia

Emergence of Roma youth voices

Growing attention towards young Roma and increasing funding for youth-targeted initiatives, facilitated the emergence of spaces for young Roma from across Europe to meet, exchange experiences and brainstorm together. Over time, articulate voices from young Roma emerged; they have increasingly begun to demand a place within the structures of Roma ethnic mobilization, as equal and relevant stakeholders representing the younger sector of Roma population and at the policy table. Roma youth organisations, especially those with international outreach and agenda, have played an important role in this process.

Agnieszka Południak | Roma Youth Movement - The Rationale | Non Fiction | Poland | 2017 - 2018-01 | rom_10182 Rights held by: Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive

Forum of European Roma Young People (FERYP)

The idea of creating a pan-European network bringing together young Roma activists emerged, following the initial Roma youth training course organised by the Council of Europe in 1995. Young Roma from across Europe began to set up the Forum of European Roma Young People (FERYP) as an informal network in 1996, among them Alexandra Raykova, Demetrio Gómez and Emilian Niculae (who eventually became its first president),; in 1997-1998, first meetings of FERYP coordinators took place in Valencia and Strasbourg. Since then, FERYP with the support of the Council of Europe, organised a number of training courses and events.

unknown | Roma Youth participants during the training course in Strasbourg in 1998 | photograph | France | 1998 | rom_10127 Rights held by: Demetrio Gómez | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Demetrio Gómez - Private Archive

FERYP was registered formally as a European Roma Youth Association in Strasbourg, 2002. The objectives of FERYP included providing information and training to young Roma and supporting their development and participation. Since 2009, FERYP has a representative at the Advisory Council, of the Youth of the Council of Europe and has been a member of the European Roma and Traveller Forum (ERTF), established in 2004. Today, FERYP has a constituency of over twenty Roma youth NGOs and over fifty individual members, from eighteen European countries. Although many of FERYPs members are not youth organisations per se, for years FERYP remained the only visible entity representing interests of young Roma, symbolically and advocating for inclusion of the youth dimension in all Roma-related interventions. Nevertheless, FERYP was not able to bring about a paradigm shift in approaches to Roma-youth by itself. This would have required a significant change towards acknowledging Roma youth organisations as equal stakeholders, capable of quality input in policy-making processes. Gradually, a critical mass of Roma youth organisations and activists emerged, helping to position young Roma as active agents and policy stakeholders.

Roma youth as active agents and stakeholders

Agnieszka Południak | Roma Youth Networks | Non Fiction | Poland | 2017 - 2018-01 | rom_10186 Rights held by: Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive

ternYpe International Roma Youth Network

Since 2010 the appearance and dynamic evolution of another actor – ternYpe, the International Roma Youth Network, has brought about this change. TernYpe emerged from discussions among young Roma and non-Roma, who had participated in a networking seminar organised by two Roma youth organisations, Roma Active Albania and Amaro Drom in Berlin (2009). The meeting brought together fifty young leaders rerpresenting thirty Roma youth organisations from seventeen countries. There, a smaller group of people from eight countries shared a common ground and decided to engage in a long-term process, including Karolina Mirga, Hamze Bytyci, Israel Ramirez, Adriatik Hasantari, Jonathan Mack, Juliana Orsos, Maryana Borisova, Graziano Halilovic. The group met and eventually signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), setting up the International Roma Youth Network, or ternYpe, as an informal network in 2010.

Israel Ramírez | Empowerment & Mobilisation of Roma Youth | Non Fiction | Germany | May 5, 2009 - May 10, 2009 | rom_10028 Rights held by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network I Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International I Provided by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network

Signing the MoU took place during the European Roma Youth Summit, organised by ternYpe in April 2010 in Cordoba. This event brought together over sixty young Roma activists from across Europe. The location and date were not coincidental as the EU Roma Summit was held at the same time and place. Nonetheless, youth representatives were not invited to the European Roma Summit, so they decided to mark their presence differently. On the opening day of the event, Roma youth staged a high-visibility, ‘flash-mob’ at the entrance to the venue, where all high-level officials were bound to pass. TernYpe crafted clear messages (such as ‘I see you, can you see me?’) protesting against the exclusion of youth from the event. The action brought immediate results; on the second day, a group of representatives of ternYpe were invited for a short meeting with representatives of the Summit. The invitation was a symbolic acknowledgment of Roma youth activists as stakeholders and partners in a dialogue, marking the beginning of a paradigmatic shift towards young Roma.

unknown | Roma and non-Roma youth, participants of the First European Roma Youth Summit | photography | Spain | April 8, 2010 - April 9, 2010 | Rom_10038 Rights held by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network I Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International I Provided by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network

Through a number of demonstrations, protests and statements, ternYpe repeatedly called for the inclusion of Romani youth, not only as beneficiaries but also as equal stakeholders. During the OSCE 2010 Review Conference, ternYpe issued a statement demanding ‘...a positive compromise by the OSCE, its member states and other relevant stakeholders, in establishing a channel of communication with the youth and including a youth dimension in their programs and policies. These policies should be developed based on a mutual dialogue between young people and the policy-makers.’

Roma youth activism today

Since 2010, both these youth networks have contributed not only to inclusion of the youth dimension in relevant policy documents on Roma, but also bringing recognition of Roma youth activism and youth agency through a variety of actions. Today, as never before, we are observing a plethora of youth-oriented initiatives which have been shaped through an active involvement of young Roma activists, organisations and networks. Roma youth have not only become a specific policy category in and of itself but have also increasingly undergone the necessary transformation, from a passive target group to active agents of change. Currently, Roma youth organisations are involved in policy-making processes (both internationally and nationally) to a much greater extent than ever before.At the Council of Europe,7 he Roma youth stakeholders helped shape the Roma Youth Action Plan, adopted in 2011. As a follow-up to the Strasbourg Declaration, the Youth Department, , organised a Roma youth conference in September 2011 in close cooperation with FERYP and ternYpe, to which sixty Roma youth leaders were invited. During the conference, the participants discussed thematic fields, priorities and activities to be included in youth action plans. Following the conference, Informal Contact Group on Roma Youth (ICG)8 was created at the Council of Europe.

At the OSCE, the potential and importance of young Roma has also been increasingly recognised; since 2013 particular attention is given to Roma youth, children and women. Consequently, OSCE-ODIHR, organised an international conference ‘Roma and Sinti Youth: Activism, Participation and Security’ in Belgrade, December 2014, in close collaboration of Roma youth associations; conference discussions were significantly inspired by research conducted by young Roma activists and scholars.

At the EU level, many EU-sponsored projects focus on, or are implemented by Roma youth organisations, especially within the framework of ‘Youth in Action’ (2007-2013) and the current Erasmus+ Programme (2014-2020), although the EU Roma Framework does not mention Roma youth explicitly and the younger generation are not a specific target group. Roma youth organisations have also increased their visibility via direct involvement; for example, the recent EU Roma Week 2017 was co-organised by Roma organisations and hosted a number of youth-oriented discussions. The dynamic development of Roma youth activism has also pushed other stakeholders to dedicate greater attention to young Roma; for example, the Open Society Foundations has begun to organize Roma Barvalipe (Pride) Summer Camps since 2011.

On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the liquidation of the Gypsy Camp in Auschwitz, ternYpe brought together over 1,000 young Roma and non-Roma participants from twenty-five countries, becoming one of the biggest commemorative events of the Roma Holocaust in history.

On a local level, increasing initiatives aiming at promoting Holocaust education and remembrance, have been taking place. Young Roma activists have been at the forefront of the Free Lety Movement, successfully campaigning for the removal of the pig farm from the site of the Roma concentration camp, at Lety u Pisku in Czech Republic. The work of young Roma in promoting awareness about the Roma Holocaust has contributed to significant results; in 2015, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the recognition of the 2nd of August, as the Memorial Day of the Roma Holocaust. Young Romani people have also contributed to a number of publications on the topic of Roma Holocaust9:

Roma youth activism – main issues

Roma youth activists are passionate about and actively work on a wide range of important issues. There are however, some themes that are at the heart of Roma youth activism in particular, both internationally and locally.

Roma Holocaust Remembrance

The struggle for recognition of the Roma Holocaust has been a driving force for Romani activism; for the Roma youth of present generation, the Roma Holocaust has become an important touchstone of their identity and a theme around which numerous initiatives have been organised by Roma youth organisations.The Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative (RGRI), ‘Dikh he na bister’ (Look and don’t forget), is one example, organised annually by the International Roma Youth Network (ternYpe) in Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau around the 2nd August, since 2010. This initiative constructs a powerful historical narrative, by not only commemorating past events, but also linking to present times and mobilising youth to action, most importantly.

  • ternYpe – International Roma Youth Network | Booklet of 2014 Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative "Dikh h na bister!" | printed material | Poland | 2014-07 | Rom_10009 Rights held by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network I Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International I Provided by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network
  • Artur Čonka | Roma Holocaust surviviors during 2014 Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative "Dikh he na bister" | photography | Poland | Aug. 2, 2014 | Rom_10015 Rights held by: Artur Čonka | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 4.0 International
  • Márton Neményi | Roma Holocaust surviviors during 2014 Roma Genocide Remembrance Initiative "Dikh he na bister" | photography | Poland | Aug. 2, 2014 | Rom_10016 Rights held by: Márton Neményi I Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International I Provided by TernYpe International Roma Youth Network

Antigypsyism and human rights education

Roma in Europe and Roma youth in particular, are exposed to diverse manifestations of anti-Gypsyism, ranging from hate-speech and hate-crimes, to structural discrimination at the institutional level. Tackling the negative effects of anti-Gypsyism has been at the heart of youth-led initiatives; through trainings, seminars and workshops, Roma youth organisations aim to inform their peers about their rights (through the lens of human rights) and strategies to pursue and defend them. Their activities often aim at mitigating the negative consequences of experiences of discrimination; such as phenomena of self-stigmatization, low self-esteem or ‘passing’ hiding their identity). They frequently focus upon positive components (such as a discourse of ethnic pride and the affirmation of identity), as well as providing knowledge of how to act. Roma youth organisations have also been active in lobbying for the recognition of anti-Gypsyism as a special form of racism, particularly targeting Roma.

Romano Centro and Phiren Amenca organised the First International Roma Youth Conference on anti-Gypsyism (Vienna, 2014). Within the framework of the Roma Youth Action Plan of the Council of Europe, a number of publications have been developed in close partnership with Roma youth organisations,10 The European Boogie Man Complex: Challenging anti-Gypsyism through Non-Formal Education’, published by Phiren Amenca is one such example.

Youth participation and community-organisation

Roma youth increasingly concentrate on community-building and participation, at a grassroots level. Through a variety of activities, youth organisations strive to empower local communities and re-connect transnational movements with Romani communities. On the local level, Roma youth organisations also strive for increasing community participation. For example, Romano Avazi association in Macedonia aim at mobilizing constituencies and community participation. They also aim at increasing strategies of Roma youth participation in political processes at all levels. In its 2011 strategy paper ternYpe states that:

‘We have learned that, as an international network, we should not focus on project management [at the] international level, but strengthen our efforts on local, regional and national levels. Participants of international exchanges and trainings often return greatly inspired, but frequently they do not have the possibility of taking responsibility and engaging at home, where there is no structure, such as a youth network to support self-organisation...’

Phiren Amenca annual report 2015 | Books | Budapest | 2016 | rom_10131 Open Access I Provided by: Phiren Amenca

The Roma youth movement on the local and national levels

Young Roma have succeeded in building a movement around a ‘youth identity’ mobilising themselves and their peers. At the same time, Roma youth are transcending boundaries between movements and establishing ties of solidarity across diverse social struggles. By analysing the trajectories of individual Roma youth activists and the initiatives they engage with, young Roma can be seen as essential in the emerging Roma LGBTQIA struggles, contributing to the Roma women’s and feminist movements, building youth alliances (such as the ‘Europe of Diasporas'11), part of vibrant Roma contemporary arts scene and contributing to the field of critical Romani Studies. They are increasingly joining mainstream youth movements, for example, through membership of Youth Councils. On local, national and international levels, Roma youth have discovered the potential of self-organisations and new Roma youth initiatives and organisations are emerging constantly. Roma youth organisations increasingly move into new spaces (such as policy-making) where they were absent before, joining forces with other elements of the Romani movement and broader youth initiatives.

Youth organisations also strengthen participation through promoting volunteerism and collaboration between Roma and non-Roma. The network Phiren Amenca provides a good example of this effort, through using the framework of European Voluntary Service (EVS) grants. They provide volunteering opportunities for young Roma and non-Roma in Roma organisations primarily; in this way, the interests of young Roma are connected to the general issues of the younger generation and the wider youth movement.

Phiren Amenca have also organised ‘So Keres, Europa?!’ (What news, Europe?!) Roma Youth Social Forums with its partners.

Agnieszka Południak | Roma Youth Activism: Perspectives for the Future | Non Fiction | Poland | 2017 - 2018-01 | rom_10185 Rights held by: Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive