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.

Three decades later, the bonfires long doused, Roma continue to distrust modern health care. At Barnes-Jewish, the Roma keep missing appointments (and missing socialized medicine, where they didn't have to make appointments). "Here, if you go to the doctor with a headache, oh my God, you have to fill out papers, and it's, 'Come here, let me see this, let me see this, let me see this,'" imitates Huskic. "I have to take our three kids for the shots still, but I never wanted to go to the shots place. When my daughter was just 4 days old, she got sick. I took her to the hospital -- they said I had to leave her there. But I watch them try to find the vein -- she has these skinny little legs like this (he holds up his pinkie finger) -- and I finally said, 'Guys, what are you doing? That's not a doctor, that's just practicing." He demanded his baby back, telling them they could "call the cops, call Clinton, call anybody you want."

"So that's why I'm not taking my kids to the shots," he finishes. "I go and I'm right away mad. I have enough from the concentration camp -- sometimes I can just start crying for nothing, having too much thinking in my head."

Many Roma have been through similar traumas, and their reactions ricochet unexpectedly. But as long as someone in the family is conversant with Western ways and can mediate, things do eventually go smoothly, notes Bogomolov. "It's when you attempt to bridge that chasm yourself that you're in trouble. You are perceived as bureaucratic, and they have reason not to trust bureaucracy. There are what we'd call compliance issues, because they can't quite make sense out of our rigidity.

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.

"They've also got a suspicion of people who don't seem to be 'true,'" she adds. "They have a good ability to read people -- they've had to -- and they come from countries where health care cannot rely on the technology we have, so the docs treat the symptoms more directly. If you say, 'I need to know X, here's why, and here's what I'm going to do with that information,' nine times out of 10 the person will ask to consult with someone else, and then come back to you and check again, and if you say the same thing the second time, so you seem true, they will give the information."

How the Roma fare in St. Louis will vary widely, depending on what each family wants and whether they feel it's possible to attain here. Amir Hotic's travel agency got a call from a man last week who ordered 21 one-way tickets to Berlin and said angrily, "We don't want to come back." Yet at least half of the 14 aunts and uncles in another family have bought houses here.

Avdija Huskic finally relented on the shots, because he wants his boy to go to the Montessori school at St. Margaret of Scotland. "It is really nice, really safe," he says, "and they will take $100 or so from my paycheck; it's worth it."

Elvis just finished the Job Corps training and hopes to start work soon. He has made some American friends at the poolhouse on Gravois -- "They like that I joke with them" -- but he's letting them think he's Bosnian.

People still come to St. Pius asking for help they don't need, but Ron Klutho says it's become a mutual joke. "They will say, 'Help me, I need money, I need a job,' and we all laugh. They are kind of playing up the stereotype." He chuckles, remembering an exchange or two, then turns serious. "I think they are trying to replicate life as they knew it. Other immigrants are, too, but those people lived more within the system, so it's easier to replicate."

What the Roma end up repeating most readily is the old, deeply entrenched habit of alienation.

"They do seem like they have their own life in this community," Maria Childress says slowly, "but in some ways, that makes them a good fit, because they are doing a good job of meeting their own needs. They're not intruding on the larger culture in a way that would offend anybody, except maybe the kids' not being in school."

In Bulgaria, the Roma formed a political party and won 86 municipal seats, and lawsuits have been filed across Europe for Romani human rights. But when you ask whether Roma in the U.S. will organize, Sanela looks dubious. "A lot of people here don't want to identify themselves as gypsies," she says, adding firmly, "We are not interested in politics. Gypsies have a history of fleeing from troubles."

Troubles, fleeing, a reputation for fleeing from troubles -- the cycle is hard to break. But it's changing. "Back home there was this whole picture of gypsies living under tents in the suburbs," recalls Lejla Susic, who grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "They were at the bottom of society, and I was kind of scared of them. But now I get to know them, and I see them nice and friendly, good people. The stereotype is breaking up for me here."

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