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.

Asked whether it was Bosnians or Serbs who made the boy fight, Elvis shrugs eloquently; he neither knows nor cares. "First the Serbs conquered our town," he explains, "and then the Muslims came in '94 and said, 'You guys were fighting with the Serbs against us,' and destroyed our house. We were already gone -- in '93 we went in a convoy to Croatia. Everyone with a Muslim name had to leave."

"We had to sign papers giving up our rights to our property," says his mother. "In Croatia, we went to churches for help and the priests said, 'Nothing for Muslims.' I said, 'We are notMuslim, we are gypsies,' and then one priest gave us food. But there was no life there for us." The family paid a hefty chunk of their savings to a Croatian man who promised to smuggle them to Belgium in his van. At each border -- Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Belgium -- they climbed from the back of the van and sneaked breathlessly across streams and woods, meeting the driver at a prearranged spot safely beyond the checkpoint. To survive in Belgium, they had to beg, says Sanela, thrusting out her hand and looking disgusted. "Moroccan people gave us money. Belgians did not. We were always on the run, sleeping in streets, going on interviews to see if we could stay someplace." Finally they made their way to the Netherlands, where they lived in a camp and Elvis was able to go to school. "I had many friends there," he says proudly. "It was like camp -- corrugated walls, a room about this size for us" -- he gestures at the tiny living room. "We were there two or three years. I wanted to stay; the time for me was really fast there. But they didn't give us status."

His mother wanted to stay, too, mainly because the doctors were kind. She'd started having problems with her nerves in Belgium, when so many days went by without their finding a place to stay. At night, nightmares of war exploded one after another, relentless as machine guns. Sanela still takes strong medicine for depression. She brings the pharmacy bag to demonstrate, handing it over with a worried look. "The medicine is too strong because she is so thin," her sister explains, and Sanela confides that sometimes she gets dizzy and it scares her. "But I have to take it, or -- " she makes her hands shake convulsively. "One time in Holland," she adds casually, "I take all medicine to kill me."

Elvis' eyes are cast down, fixed on the glossy red Job Corps folder in the middle of the coffee table. He left it there on purpose, because it makes his mom happy to talk about his future, which could be bright if he'd stay in school. He already speaks eight languages, picks them up easy as breathing. But all he really wants is to be a mechanic and have a car. "He sleeps, he thinks about car," sighs his mom, and Elvis sighs like a burdened parent himself: "I like cars much too much."

Even a Mercedes wouldn't drive away the nightmares, though: Sanela jerks her upper body to show how her son wakes at night. Hafidza, too, has nightmares, but she refuses to talk about them. "Why people sick like that, it's because they think too much of what is past," she says, glancing at her daughter before rising to clear the cups.

The original "gypsies" came from several different ethnic groups, gathered into a band to fight the Muslims. Scholars have narrowed their origins to northern India but haven't yet figured out why so many left at the end of the 10th century. Slowly making their way up through Iran (one Romani legend says they flew on the wings of a turkey), they arrived in Europe around 1100. They announced themselves as exiles from Little Egypt. Promptly, mistakenly, they were christened "gypsies." The newcomers had no territory, no wealth, no allies or political authority, no place to seek refuge. Swept to the margins of each society they entered, they were burned in medieval pogroms, enslaved in Romania, banished from Napoleon's France, ordered by the king of Hungary to give up their dress and language.

Asked what he knows of his people's history, Elvis shrugs. "Some say we came from India," he says finally, and Mirela nods eagerly. "If you see Indian people, same dances, same life," she says. "They like to eat, drink, dance. Music -- music is something beautiful to us." She looks at her nephew expectantly, and he rises to play a cassette of mournful Roma music. "Only Roma can understand what is pain and soul," he says, his eyes daring you to contradict him. Then the music quickens, its spirit lifting his. "Show the dance," he urges, and while the older women dissemble, Mirela's toddler sways her hips unsteadily, curving her hands forward with perfect grace.

Eventually Sanela leaves the room and returns in a vivid full skirt, bare- midriffed. Lost in the music, she is utterly unselfconscious, taut stomach muscles rippling as she demonstrates their dance. Mirela looks a little uncomfortable. "My people only wear that on Gurgev Dan," she says hurriedly.

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