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.

Klutho tried not to generalize, but those were the pieces that fell into place fast, making a recognizable "gypsy" border. Then he met more families -- like the father who came here to get education and a good safe life for his kids, and Avdija Huskic, who's working full-time at a church and just bought a four-family flat. Those pieces made a completely different picture.

Hafidza Osmic grinds the day's home-roasted coffee with resigned patience, the brass-topped cylinder of the grinder resting in her lap as she slowly spins the crank. Her two grown daughters do most of the talking, showing none of the legendary gypsy secrecy ... except that Osmic is not their real name. "I am not afraid," insists the younger daughter -- call her Mirela. "But here there are more Bosnian people, and maybe in the night somebody might...." She pulls her 18-month-old up onto her lap and smooths the little girl's hair unnecessarily, a mother's fidget.

"Our grandpa, he'd been everywhere in the world," inserts Mirela's older sister, Sanela. "He told us if you put one gadjo on the table and another under the table, whatever the guy on the table thinks, the one under the table will say. So," she concludes firmly, "you cannot trust gadje."

Hafidza and her husband on vacation in Italy, circa 1965
Hafidza and her husband on vacation in Italy, circa 1965
Safe in her grandmother's arms, 18-month-old Hafidza laughs at the world.
Safe in her grandmother's arms, 18-month-old Hafidza laughs at the world.

Hafidza nods once, and her silence carries the full dignity of a matriarch. But it's a role she never envisioned playing from a cheap apartment off South Kingshighway, walls decorated with Japanese fans from Family Dollar. As a girl, she met her husband the traditional way, during the evening korzo, when Europeans stroll their public squares. The couple raised their children in Sanski Most, a small town filled with flower boxes and surrounded by the mountains of the former Yugoslavia. Then, eight years ago, her husband died, and war tore the town into bloody shreds, and Hafidza had to leave with her daughters and two grandchildren. She does not like the way they must live now, "three women alone, always nervous, worried about paying the bills."

"Papa took care of everything," explains Mirela. "We never had to work." She sometimes comforts herself by imagining how appalled he'd be to see them in these straits. "We would have everything if he was alive. He spoke seven languages; he had friends who were doctors and policemen. He knew a lot about the world."

When Mirela talks about her own absent husband, that ease vanishes. Facts drop scant as bread crumbs: He is dark-skinned. He is a Rom. He was born in Serbia, to parents from Albania and Macedonia. He is now in "Italia" with her brother. Finally Hafidza wrinkles her nose and pronounces the husband "not good" -- not good, at least, for her daughter, whose oval face is lovely enough to carve into a cameo.

Sanela, 39, with a teenage son, is more Picasso than Modigliani -- strong features, hooked nose and flashing eyes. "In 1982 I make finish with my husband," she says crisply, clapping her hands twice to indicate finality. "The man I loved, my family did not approve." The sisters talk in turn about growing up in Sanski Most, which they miss desperately. "We lived a normal life," insists Mirela, "working, not stealing. My father was a tailor; he made clothes and we sold them at the market. We lived well -- except that the gadje treated us like animals. Still, we went to school. I always thought if I got to school, maybe one day I'd be something."

Like a changeling who has learned she has royal blood, Mirela is quick to emphasize who her family really is, carefully distancing them from the world's assumptions. "There are two kinds of gypsies," she says. "Cergary, they like to change cities all the time. Some have a good life, some bad, but they live outside. They go from place to place because they are begging and they wear out their welcome." At this, Hafidza sets down the grinder, wraps a towel around her hand and slowly brings her arm up, twisting it to show how cergary pretend to be disabled. Later, when a neighbor drops in, Hafidza greets her and chats -- and, the minute she leaves, whispers distastefully, 'Cergar.'"

Mirela brings a tray of bubbling coffee and pours it into small handleless cups, gracious as a British peer's daughter. While she's spooning sugar, Sanela produces the family photo album, pointing first to a black-and-white shot that looks like a still from an Ingrid Bergman movie. It's their parents, about 40 years ago, on holiday in Italy. Pages flip; the photos take on color; you see weddings and holidays and finally, a little house in the hills. Tension fills the room. "Muslims destroyed," explains Mirela, murmuring the words beneath an angry cascade of Romani from the others.

"When I was small, I was playing with Serb guys and Muslims," volunteers Sanela's 16-year-old son, Elvis, drawn into the living room by the smell of coffee. Tall and skinny, he slumps into the sofa, gulps coffee and leans forward. "I was about 8 years old when the war started, and I thought I would die. People did die; I saw soldiers hit you if you just said something. But I was lucky: If I'd been this age then, I would have had to fight; I couldn't say no, or they would shoot me. It happened to a Rom I knew."

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