Plight of the Gypsies

Home is where they have to take you in. But for the Roma refugees who've come to St. Louis, there's no such place.

They excite the hatred of the bourgeois even though inoffensive as sheep.... that hatred is linked to something deep and complex; it is found in all orderly people. It is the hatred that they feel for the bedouin, the heretic, the philosopher, the solitary, the poet, and there is fear in that hatred.

-- Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, written after a visit to a camp of gypsies at Rouen, France

Stand, very quiet, on the corner of Meramec and Gustine, and listen. You're deep in scrubby-Dutch country, where people live on one street their whole lives and order trumps pleasure every time. But if the wind blows right, you'll hear the wild, sad strains of the Roma violin, the shimmer of the tambourine-drum.

Hafidza Osmic grinding coffee for her family. She is patient, resigned to whatever comes, and her silence carries the full dignity 
of a matriarch.
Hafidza Osmic grinding coffee for her family. She is patient, resigned to whatever comes, and her silence carries the full dignity of a matriarch.

It's about the only way you'd know they are here.

We don't recognize the Roma -- some have dark, finely drawn Indian faces, whereas others are "white gypsies," pale as a northern European. They don't have Roma surnames; they have names straight from the tortuous Balkan history that drove them here. They're not quick to announce themselves, either; if they meet someone American-born, they just say they are Bosnian. But they speak Romani -- and often five or six other languages -- and they are indeed "gypsies," the old derogatory term many still use themselves as a shortcut for the gadje who know no better.

Gadje is Romani for the rest of us, anyone who is not Roma. The word itself is pretty neutral, taken from the Sanskrit word for "civilian." But for these immigrants, it's a bruised and wary reference to the other immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ones they say despise them.

To the Roma, religion, race and ethnicity matter about as much as whether a man takes cream in his coffee. They scorn dogma, ignore bloodlines, protect no homeland. And in the past decade's fierce Balkan wars, they paid a price for this neutrality. Some were drafted at gunpoint, some tortured or killed as traitors; some camped amid sewage in Macedonia, ignored by refugee agencies, and at least 100 drowned in the dark waters off the coast of Montenegro, trying to reach Italy. Those who stayed put fared worse. In Kosovo, they were first forced to dig graves for ethnic Albanians murdered by the Serbs, then branded collaborators by the Kosovo Liberation Army, then asked by United Nations officials to dig graves for the Serbs because there was no one else left who would.

For the gadje refugees, war was hell, too. Familiar lives shattered, they streamed into western Europe, then St. Louis and other American resettlement centers. But for the Roma, Eastern Europe has ceased to be hospitable, and most of Western Europe is refusing them entry, suspecting motives more economic than political. Until a recent panic, the United Kingdom was the gentle exception, allowing Roma to enter and then shooing them from town to town or building "accommodation units" in old industrial parks. But now even England is lifting the drawbridge.

So they are here, a tiny, rocky, hidden cove in the sea of 22,000 immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Roma rent flats next door to their countrymen, drink the same strong sweet boiled coffee, listen to music at the Sarajevo restaurant on Chippewa every Saturday night.

But here, like everywhere else they have been, they know exactly what the gadje think of them.

"In Bosnia, gypsies are people who didn't have a house, who live in tents and don't work," offers Senada Delic, who was born in the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. "A lot don't know writing, don't know reading. They go to every house and say, 'Give me money, give me bread,' and people do, because God sees." In her work for a long-distance-telephone company, Delic has noticed a lot of Romani voices lately; she says "they speak Bosnian but not true," and her tone is disapproving. "Gypsies like to sit down; they like a lot of music. They are very happy people; they care about nothing."

Amir Hotic, president of BIH Travel here in St. Louis, remembers watching the gypsies dress up grizzly bears to dance while people threw money from the balconies of Zavidovici. "That is how they lived," he says. "We were always afraid of the gypsies. After the Sunday matinee, the gypsy kids always fought with us. And if you were bad, your mother would say, 'I'm going to give you to an old gypsy woman, and she will take you to Italy.'"

Ron Klutho has heard these stories, too. A lanky, gentle English as a Second Language teacher who coordinates refugee services at St. Pius V Church on South Grand Boulevard, he learned that hundreds of Roma were living nearby and wanted to help them. "Bosnians would tell me, 'Don't waste your time -- they don't want to work, they're not educated, they're lazy,'" he recalls. "They would lick a finger and put it in the air and say, 'The gypsies are like this. Whatever it would behoove them to be today.'"

When Klutho started meeting Roma families, he felt as if somebody had poured the pieces of two jigsaw puzzles into a single box. Some pieces fit what he'd heard -- the apartments on Spring Avenue and Delor Street where he saw children playing outside on school days; the adults who came to St. Pius pleading for money they didn't need and jobs they wouldn't keep. "I got one couple jobs at a cafeteria, and the guy said they worked really well -- and four days later they quit and moved to Florida," he sighs. "They'll be back; before, they moved to Kentucky for a while, and then to Minnesota, and just here in St. Louis they moved from to Ohio to Halliday to Roger to Spring to Ellenwood. I've run out of spaces in my address book!"

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