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.

The couple now has two small children, and Huskic is making payments on a four-family flat big enough to accommodate his wife's extended family. He's also making payments on an Infiniti, bought to impress his people because he eventually hopes to be a gypsy king (a position many now accord to his wife's grandfather). "You have to be straight up to be a gypsy king," explains Huskic, "and you have to have all the information, go to meetings, politics, that kind of stuff. In Bosnia you have to be rich, too, but here everybody knows we can't get lots of money." He works full-time as a custodian for St. Margaret of Scotland, does odd jobs on the side and hopes to rent out the family's fourth flat. "I want to make sure they are nice people," he says, holding himself a little straighter. "I like to be clean, put out flowers."

He's a living contradiction of the "dirty thieving wanderer" stereotype, and he knows it. He also knows why: "Lots of gypsies never have any education, but I went to school for eight years." A math and language whiz, he says the other kids' taunting finally drove him away. "Everybody call us 'Gypsy, gypsy.' First grade they try to bother me, and I start to fight back. I say, 'Why you can tell me that? I have my name; you can call me my name. You have your own; I have my own.'

"When I was older, the boys were fighting with me," he continues, "saying, 'Gypsy-gypsy-gypsy,' and one day I take a chair and break the window and throw everything out. The policeman came, and I said, 'Would you not be mad if somebody tried to make you mad for nothing?' And then I stopped going to school. My aunt was really young, my age, so I took her with me to the office and said, 'I got married -- I'm not going anymore to school.' And the principal bought us a wedding present."

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.

By the time he left school, he'd had a brush with "gypsy crime": "One of my friends had a machine and was making no-good money, crazy money," recalls Huskic. "I said, 'I don't want to be in jail for that. Somebody can kill you like a dog.' He said, 'You can just drive the car.' I said, 'No, I'm just 15 years old!' -- and finally I said, 'OK, let's go.' It had 16 valves, stick shift, really fast," he adds, the glee still alive. "We stop and sell 3,000 German marks, then go to Sarajevo, and he sells another couple thousand. I said, 'Let's go now -- don't do it anymore.' He wanted to sell it back home. I said, 'Anybody knows us there -- let's go, let's go.' Then a policeman caught us both. I told the truth, everything, and they let me go."

Gypsy crime isn't always so benign: "The Roma I worked with in Latvia were dealing drugs," notes Barbara Bogomolov, who now manages refugee-health services at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "In many communities overseas, the Roma are relegated to a criminal fringe role. But I've seen no sign of crime in the Roma I've worked with here."

Europeans would find that hard to believe. Their crime reports throb with a new kind of outrage -- not clever-cute warnings of fortune-teller fraud but a bristling fury at the gypsies' audacity. Roma made headlines Jan. 21 when they cleared 74 acres of forest in the Rumanian village of Afumati, refused to give up the stolen wood and then allegedly attacked the policemen asking them to leave. On Feb. 1, when staff at a supermarket near London were squirted with breast milk by a lactating Romani refugee they'd caught stealing. On Feb. 13 in Tabor, just south of Prague, when they refused requests to leave a restaurant well after closing time. Three were injured in the resulting melee.

These accounts reek of fear -- not so much the traditional fear, of being exploited by thieves and tramps and fraudulent fortune-tellers, but a more primal fear, of the wild strangers who intrude on civilized society and shatter its rules. Roma are quintessentially Other: They pay no heed to conventions of home ownership, propriety or churchgoing morality; they have no stake in society, no mortgage or stock portfolio, few relationships of mutual respect with gadje. So until recently, they've had little incentive to stick around, fill out the census form, sign up to bring a casserole, show up for Little League.

Now economics and social pressures are forcing the issue.

In August 1996, Disney Adventures magazine wrote whimsically about a condition called "gypsyitis," its symptoms being "an urge to run away from it all and dance among the dandelions." Taken aback by protests, the editor insisted that this was "a positive portrayal of the Gypsy spirit." But outside the Magic Kingdom, the Roma are more focused on survival than on dandelion-dancing.

"No sign here of that romantic roving life," announced Richard Blystone, broadcasting for CNN from Usti nad Labem. "Most of East and Central Europe's 6 million gypsies have forgotten it, we were told, and don't really want it anymore -- but haven't been accepted staying put."

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