By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Paul Friswold
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
-- Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, written after a visit to a camp of gypsies at Rouen, France
Stand, very quiet, on the corner of Meramec and Gustine, and listen. You're deep in scrubby-Dutch country, where people live on one street their whole lives and order trumps pleasure every time. But if the wind blows right, you'll hear the wild, sad strains of the Roma violin, the shimmer of the tambourine-drum.
It's about the only way you'd know they are here.
We don't recognize the Roma -- some have dark, finely drawn Indian faces, whereas others are "white gypsies," pale as a northern European. They don't have Roma surnames; they have names straight from the tortuous Balkan history that drove them here. They're not quick to announce themselves, either; if they meet someone American-born, they just say they are Bosnian. But they speak Romani -- and often five or six other languages -- and they are indeed "gypsies," the old derogatory term many still use themselves as a shortcut for the gadje who know no better.
Gadje is Romani for the rest of us, anyone who is not Roma. The word itself is pretty neutral, taken from the Sanskrit word for "civilian." But for these immigrants, it's a bruised and wary reference to the other immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ones they say despise them.
To the Roma, religion, race and ethnicity matter about as much as whether a man takes cream in his coffee. They scorn dogma, ignore bloodlines, protect no homeland. And in the past decade's fierce Balkan wars, they paid a price for this neutrality. Some were drafted at gunpoint, some tortured or killed as traitors; some camped amid sewage in Macedonia, ignored by refugee agencies, and at least 100 drowned in the dark waters off the coast of Montenegro, trying to reach Italy. Those who stayed put fared worse. In Kosovo, they were first forced to dig graves for ethnic Albanians murdered by the Serbs, then branded collaborators by the Kosovo Liberation Army, then asked by United Nations officials to dig graves for the Serbs because there was no one else left who would.
For the gadje refugees, war was hell, too. Familiar lives shattered, they streamed into western Europe, then St. Louis and other American resettlement centers. But for the Roma, Eastern Europe has ceased to be hospitable, and most of Western Europe is refusing them entry, suspecting motives more economic than political. Until a recent panic, the United Kingdom was the gentle exception, allowing Roma to enter and then shooing them from town to town or building "accommodation units" in old industrial parks. But now even England is lifting the drawbridge.
So they are here, a tiny, rocky, hidden cove in the sea of 22,000 immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Roma rent flats next door to their countrymen, drink the same strong sweet boiled coffee, listen to music at the Sarajevo restaurant on Chippewa every Saturday night.
But here, like everywhere else they have been, they know exactly what the gadje think of them.
"In Bosnia, gypsies are people who didn't have a house, who live in tents and don't work," offers Senada Delic, who was born in the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. "A lot don't know writing, don't know reading. They go to every house and say, 'Give me money, give me bread,' and people do, because God sees." In her work for a long-distance-telephone company, Delic has noticed a lot of Romani voices lately; she says "they speak Bosnian but not true," and her tone is disapproving. "Gypsies like to sit down; they like a lot of music. They are very happy people; they care about nothing."
Amir Hotic, president of BIH Travel here in St. Louis, remembers watching the gypsies dress up grizzly bears to dance while people threw money from the balconies of Zavidovici. "That is how they lived," he says. "We were always afraid of the gypsies. After the Sunday matinee, the gypsy kids always fought with us. And if you were bad, your mother would say, 'I'm going to give you to an old gypsy woman, and she will take you to Italy.'"
Ron Klutho has heard these stories, too. A lanky, gentle English as a Second Language teacher who coordinates refugee services at St. Pius V Church on South Grand Boulevard, he learned that hundreds of Roma were living nearby and wanted to help them. "Bosnians would tell me, 'Don't waste your time -- they don't want to work, they're not educated, they're lazy,'" he recalls. "They would lick a finger and put it in the air and say, 'The gypsies are like this. Whatever it would behoove them to be today.'"
When Klutho started meeting Roma families, he felt as if somebody had poured the pieces of two jigsaw puzzles into a single box. Some pieces fit what he'd heard -- the apartments on Spring Avenue and Delor Street where he saw children playing outside on school days; the adults who came to St. Pius pleading for money they didn't need and jobs they wouldn't keep. "I got one couple jobs at a cafeteria, and the guy said they worked really well -- and four days later they quit and moved to Florida," he sighs. "They'll be back; before, they moved to Kentucky for a while, and then to Minnesota, and just here in St. Louis they moved from to Ohio to Halliday to Roger to Spring to Ellenwood. I've run out of spaces in my address book!"
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 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."
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 not Muslim, 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.
That's Gypsy Day, May 6, otherwise known as St. George's Day. "It was originally a Serbian festival," says Elvis, "but they like too much the gypsy music, so without us there is no Gurgev Dan. Now," he adds, "the gypsies alone are making the party. If someone in your family is dead and he is not at the day with you, you light a cigarette for him, for his soul."
On a traditional Gurgev Dan, bonfires blaze at dawn and the coffee bubbles strong and fragrant in tin pots. By mid-morning, the sweet crackle of roasting pig has claimed the air. After dinner, the young men, half-drunk, jump the flames, and the poets set candles in Styrofoam and float them on the blackening river. Then the violins start, their music pulling dancers toward a clearing, and the children, eyes filled with the blurred bright colors of their mothers' whirling skirts, fall fast asleep on the hard ground.
The custom probably won't continue here: too many rules about bonfires, and curfew, and river access, and alcohol outdoors. That's the sort of contrast that makes people romanticize gypsy life, imagining it as a passionate freedom from bourgeois constraints; an outlet for what is vivid, soulful and irrational; a repository of ancient lore and mystery.
Early in the war, when soldiers showed up in Zavidovici asking to buy four vans, Avdija Huskic knew what to do. Well-schooled in his grandmother's import- export business, the teenager urged the men to take them for nothing. "I give it to you guys," he said. "If I live in this place, I want it to be safe."
Pleased, the soldiers suggested he come along with them and drive the vans, join in the struggle. The mood changed instantly. "I don't want to kill nobody, I don't want to drive nothing," retorted Huskic, backing away.
One of the soldiers stepped closer. "You see what is happening," he said, his voice raw. "Serbs are killing us."
"To me," the boy repeated stubbornly, "everybody is the same."
The hate he saw in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now sees here, bewilders him. "Many priests tell me about Adam and Eva, the first people," remarks Huskic. "You might say that you're American and he's Serbian and I'm Bosnian -- but we all came from those two people."
Born in Zavidovici, he grew up with his beloved grandmother, and when she died in 1985, he struck out on his own, finding relatives in other countries and learning how to buy Italian robes and linens, carry them across borders and sell them at a profit. Then, sensing the impending war -- "We know trouble before anybody else" -- Huskic tried to get Croatian papers but was refused. Eventually he was found hiding out in a small Croatian town without documentation and sent to a camp on the tiny island of Obonjan.
"For 17 months, you don't see cars," he says, making it as tragic as not seeing the sun. He doesn't talk abut the violence there or explain why his forearms don't completely straighten anymore. Instead, he cheerfully describes the size of the "mice," holding his hands a foot apart. "We shooed them away; we didn't kill them. I tried to put wood up to block them out; I used -- like for a shoe -- laces. Everybody was amazed that I made a door. But the wind was really strong and cold, and you only had one blanket, so you put half under you and the rest tried to pull it over you, and made a pillow with your clothes.
"There were maybe 4,000 people there," he continues. "They said, 'How come you have Avdija name? That is Muslim name,' and I said, 'We don't have gypsy names, we have Serb or Muslim or Catholic -- we have those names. Then a policeman said, 'If you are close to that Serb, I will break your leg.' And I said, 'The man is the same to me as you. He is just a man.'"
While confined on Obonjan, Huskic watched his friend steal the police ferryboat he'd just washed and head, like so many others, for Italy. "I hosed the boat, put the keys back and left, and he came inside, took the keys and made a run for it. The police boat could make that 45-minute ferry crossing in three minutes. My friend had been beaten by the Croatian police, so he told the Italians, 'Go ahead and arrest me.' Later he called me on the phone and said he'd gotten papers as a refugee."
With the help of an American journalist, Huskic, too, secured permission to leave, arriving in the U.S. on Sept. 7, 1995. He stayed nearly two years in Binghamton, N.Y., then, at age 22, came on his own to St. Louis. Standing in line at the crowded, chaotic International Institute, Huskic -- whose thin, sensitive features and smoldering eyes would startle most American women into shyness -- met his future wife, also Romani. She came from Prijedor, a city north of his hometown. "I had a really nice suit," he grins, "and I took my haircut, and I had 1,000 German marks glued under my shoes. So all the time I am checking out my shoes. I saw her walking with her brother, and then I heard her trying to send something to Switzerland, and I offered to write 'Switzerland' for her. She said, 'You're gypsy?'"
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."
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."
The nomadic life started out of necessity. When the Roma arrived in Europe, they didn't own property but weren't serfs, so they had no position in which to stay anywhere for any length of time. Rivers became their bathtubs, and they developed a strict taboo against contamination, or marime. (Ian Hancock, a scholar who has written extensively about his Roma heritage, remembers being taught with utter disgust that the gadje washed clothes and vegetables in the same bowl and let dogs eat off their plates and sleep in their beds.)
Gradually the travelers developed trades natural to a caravan: shoeing horses, peddling wares, performing. They were accused of shiftlessness, yet they could whisper horses, exchange currencies without a calculator, carve treasures from scrap material, turn a violin into theology. "Their music pulls your soul to cry," says Amir Hotic, adding, "Maybe it is because they don't have a set house. Maybe they are crying to be settled, crying to be recognized." He says he hired two Roma at the Marriott West, and that very day a $10,000 LCD projector went missing. The pair were suspected immediately. But management later decided the client had taken the projector with him -- and the Roma proved excellent employees.
"You hear people say they are lazy," remarks Bogomolov, "but if you look carefully, they are anything but lazy about the issues they deem important. If something is not important to them, even if it's quite within their capability, it's rather important for it not to be important. The whole philosophy is that you should not waste your energy and time and precious thought on something that is truly not an issue."
Equally misunderstood is the Roma attitude toward "duty" and "possessions" -- words that, for years, supposed experts have claimed do not exist in Romani. Exasperated by a mistake that gets picked up, repeated and philosophized every time someone writes about the Roma, Hancock finally compiled a list of 10 words for duty and 15 for "possession" from the language's various dialects. No one had bothered to check.
The Roma keep their secrets, that's the excuse; they refuse to teach gadje their language or the rituals that color their lives. Indeed, history and sociology texts are full of elaborately footnoted, utterly inaccurate explanations of gypsy culture, mischievously offered to amateur scholars who'd made pets of them. The secrecy is mainly self-protection, but it widens the wedge, making alienation not only the core of Roma identity but its curse.
Trust cancels the curse. So Avdija Huskic has been trying to teach Ron Klutho the ropes -- how to roast a pig, how to speak Romani. "To be gypsy, you don't need to be really fantastic," he said reassuringly. "You just need to be with the people all the time, have a community, eat together. Five or six people eat from one plate." Klutho got the message: Americans don't know how to share, or live in the moment, or enjoy themselves with abandon. In Huskic's words, "Gadje just eat pita; we eat the whole lamb." (It's not just metaphor: The last time Huskic roasted a lamb outdoors on a spit, neighbors yelled, "What are you doing? You killed a dog!")
In fairness, though, there is much in Roma culture to confuse an outsider. Until recently, St. Louis' only real clues came at times of death, when the gypsies' elaborate rites of mourning caught the media's attention. Back in 1935, when Queen Lily of the Mitchell tribe died, she lay in state in a tent on the grounds of the Hoffmeister Mortuary at 7814 S. Broadway, clothed in pink and red silk, with clean straw beneath her casket and a lighted gasoline stove in front of it. Six years later, another Roma chief, Gus Stevens, lay in state under a tent at a gypsy camp in Bridgeton, where 30 followers kissed his feet and face and drank whiskey in his honor, pouring a sip on the ground for the Old Man before each drink.
According to Anne Sutherland, who has written about cross-cultural medicine in the Patrin Web Journal, a repository of information on the Romani culture, "Reporters, physicians, hospital staff, social workers and police are all aware of a great happening when a gypsy becomes seriously ill and dies. When they ask what is going on, they may be told, 'A gypsy king (queen, prince) has died.' This reply is a way of satisfying reporters and providing a reasonable explanation to hospital staff and police of why the gypsies are flocking into town in large numbers.... Death is a major crisis in a gypsy family that must be dealt with in ritual."
Mourning swallows every other aspect of life; one does not wash or shave or comb one's hair, and no food is prepared during the intense grieving period. Next, all material ties with the deceased must be burned, broken or sold without profit. "After a funeral, depending on how much money you have, you go to a hotel or someone's home," says Huskic. "You put the person down, the family puts a little dirt and then everybody shovels a little, and when you leave, you can't turn back, or he will pull you down with him. After the funeral, people go directly to wash their hands. And then we eat. Some people go back and bring food to the cemetery. If the man smoked, then you smoke. If he drank, you have to spill a little into the grave and then drink.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
Hotic has decided that much of the old prejudice was rooted in the gypsies' homelessness. "If I meet you and say, 'I am Amir, I lost my country, I have no money,' you will not take me seriously, because I have no identity," he says. "Why have gypsies been so hated? I won't accuse them for being what they are; I will first accuse us. Had we done something different, they would have had a different life in our country.
"In any person in the world," he continues, "if we push them down and humiliate them, we are going to awake the revolt in that person, pull the evil out of that person until they say, 'Yes, I am worse than you even think I am.'"
Now even the gadje are re-evaluating their attitudes. "This people is not so bad," relents Senada Delic. "Some are very good people. Some beg or steal, but here, they cannot do that -- they must work. In America, they are changing their life."
For more information, see sidebar, Devoured By Hate.