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.

"We have wedding customs, too," he offers. "Put two thin loaves of bread under the wife's arms, you have sugar cubes in your mouth -- you have to kiss and exchange. Then you put the right hand up outside the door and hit her. If she falls down, she is not good. Then you take glasses and break them. If those glasses don't break, it is not good also. But I did it different here in America, just going to the judge."

His voice is wistful; life seems a little less sacred here, and though, like most Roma, he has little patience for the categories of organized religion, he feels no less religious because of it. "We do believe in God," points out Sanela. "We don't see him, but we feel him -- he is a power that helps us. We just don't think we need to go to a church or mosque to find him." (Back in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "if gypsies went into the mosque they said, 'Oh, look at gypsy also coming,'" adds Mirela, making her voice mean.)

"God put us here," resumes Sanela. "God wants good people to live in the world. Some are rich, some are not; sometimes you will have problems, sometimes you will have luck."

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.

Belief in destiny, luck, the roll of fortune's wheel ... it's all part of an ancient, intuitive worldview. That's why, when a group of Romani women in San Diego were charged with fraud because they'd claimed, and sold, psychic powers, they hired high-powered lawyers who used a First Amendment defense. Now the prosecuting attorney has demanded that they prove their psychic powers.

"It's true; it's real," shrugs Mirela. "We can do it. We also can make magic -- for example, make a man fall in love with a woman. We learn from the old women." Romani psychic practices started with astrology learned in India and evolved over the centuries. Those practices have been distorted by greedy charlatans, but at its root, the Romani word for "fortune-teller" means "healer." Its sinister opposite would be the amria, those famously vicious, vivid gypsy curses used to ward off danger as the Roma moved from country to country.

In the end, superstition is a way of feeling safe. Huskic's grandmother, for example, taught him to watch the gold: "If you see gypsies keeping their gold out, that's a good place. If they take it away and hide it, run from that place."

And here? Will the Roma keep their gold out in St. Louis?

So far they've been pretty wary, turning to each other whenever possible instead of seeking social services. The International Institute has no Roma in the current caseload, and Catholic Refugee Services isn't sure; they don't categorize. South Side churches see Roma at their food pantries, but most St. Louisans haven't even registered their presence. "To be honest with you, I couldn't tell how to identify those people," confesses one school principal, returning to the phone to say they have no Roma students.

There are, in fact, several at that particular school, according to Maria Childress, the St. Louis Public Schools social worker who must round up Roma truants and convince their parents they'll be neither brainwashed nor contaminated in the classroom. "Attendance has been a problem for some of them," she sighs. "I've run up against people who won't let me in the home and are obviously very angry with me because I'm telling them it's the law to send their kids to school. But others are very open with me; they invite me in and offer me food and drink, and they talk freely in front of me.

"I love making the home visits," Childress admits suddenly. "The kids will come greet me and hug me and then take me from home to home. The women are outside washing their rugs, or scrubbing, or making pita -- they have a big shower curtain down and the dough rolled out on the floor." They're living, in other words, the traditional definition of woman -- faithful, hardworking wife and, above all, mother. "It's why people live, only for children," murmurs Mirela, holding her baby girl closer.

In this country, it won't be enough. Furious that the U.S. government doesn't support single mothers the way Europe does, Mirela now wishes she'd gone to school longer and learned to be a hairdresser. Sanela, whose education stopped after elementary school, says what she longs to be is a secretary.

Education, for all the Roma, is now the crux. One scholar estimates that more than 95 percent of the Roma in America are illiterate. "The Roma who are lower-class are lower-class because they do not go to school," Hotic says simply, noting that Roma often marry at the age of 12 or 13 and have many children. We call these ways tribal, but European governments have been rather primitive in dealing with the Roma, failing to diagnose deafness and regularly putting them in ghetto schools for children with mental retardation.

Education is the first sticking point, health care the second. Back in 1946, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that few private hospitals would accept sick gypsies, because their relatives camped in the hospital hallways and built bonfires in the waiting room to brew ancient potions. Illness was, in their view, "prikaza," an unnatural condition.

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