When I first moved from the United States to Eastern Europe to serve the Roma, I had absolutely no idea of the unexpected delights and overwhelming hardships ahead. Like many others entering another world, I read what I could and made some assumptions I should not have. Since then, I’ve learned a lot by experiencing some of the most challenging situations and exhilarating adventures imaginable. More importantly, I’ve come to love the most beautiful, intriguing, and inspiring people – the Roma. I count it a blessing to be invited in to a little corner of their world.
Many people innocently refer to the Roma or Romani people as “gypsies”. The romanticized connotations associated with the “gypsies” evoke images of glamorous nomadic wanderers roaming about in caravans while delightfully embracing their freedom. The distinctive style of clothing associated with it is equally romantic and beautiful.
While some people with a traveling lifestyle are self-proclaimed “gypsies”, most authentic Roma are highly offended by this misunderstood term. It is a derogatory word that means “slave” and is clearly not an appropriate label for people who fought for their freedom. The Roma emigrated from India westward into Europe in the early 1400s only to become slaves for nearly 500 years. A couple of generations later, they were targeted in the Holocaust. Based on their ethnicity, the Roma were incarcerated, then subject to forced labor and mass murder. At Auschwitz, they were assigned to a separate “Gypsy Camp”. Being labeled “gypsy“ is not romantic at all; nor is the level of marginalization they experience. Through it all, the Roma have persevered to become an incredibly strong people group.
The community of Roma I have come to know are the most vibrant and colorful people group I have ever encountered. They love fiercely and live boldly. Their passion is unmatched as is their commitment to family. They wear their hearts on their sleeves—no emotion is left unfelt or unexpressed. And the poorest among them are often the most generous. I have been offered the last piece of bread more than once. They do not cling to material things and live with an open hand. Once a beautiful dark-eyed girl gave me her only possession: a tiny string of blue beads that I have kept to this day.
The Roma have preferences as colorful as they are. It is not unusual for them to paint their walls vibrant turquoise, hot pink, or neon orange. I am amazed at how many patterns and textures some of the ladies incorporate into one outfit. And oh la la—do they ever love their animal prints. In the past few years, the ladies began wearing big fuzzy robes in the winter, sometimes even to the grocery store. Hey, let’s keep it casual, shall we? Many wear a scarf on their head and are highly impressed that I learned to tie mine like they do.
Over the past 17 years, I shared countless laughs and had loads of fun among the Roma in the communities I serve. Last year, our team started a community initiative to paint a massive colorful mural full of hearts and launched lighthearted community days to paint, play, and share a meal. The tallest guys paint the otherwise unreachable parts, and even the small kids get a chance to paint a heart at their eye level.
The Roma I know taught me a lot about living in the present. They are quick to forgive, quicker to forget, and the least likely to get hung up on the past. I recall the first time one of the moms started screaming at me about something she was upset about and yanked her kids out of the program we were having, loudly swearing to never allow their return. I barely slept for a few days agonizing over the incident and how we could iron things out. The next week she returned with her kids, not even recalling the encounter.
The Roma have taught me a lot about love and grief too. I have prayed for the sick in the hospital, visited the bedsides of the elderly, and wept beside those in the midst of loss. I especially admire how the Romani ladies express their grief at funerals; it opened my eyes and heart about mourning. Their intense pain is felt and heard, as I stand alongside sobbing quietly. It is okay to be different, but I applaud their open expression of pain.
While the Roma embrace the present moment, I love encouraging them to dream, to think beyond today’s circumstances, and cast a vision for the future. In our Dare to Dream project, we capture hopes and dreams, and then ask people to sponsor them. It has been exciting to dream together and watch their dreams come true, one by one.
I have fought for the rights of the Roma that I love and serve. I intervened in many situations so that they receive the same level of care and service others are afforded. Some of those battles got really ugly because of insensitive people with culturally ingrained discrimination. But each little victory was worth it because they are worth fighting for.
There is not one unified Romani people group, language, and culture. So if you know one of the Roma…well, you know just one of the Roma. But should you have the privilege of getting to know one, count it a blessing. These beautiful treasures have enriched my life and will do the same for yours.
About the Author
Annie Glenn is an inspiring leader and author. She launched Daffodils From Heaven, a nonprofit organization, to serve the marginalized. Based on her experiences serving the Roma in Eastern Europe, Annie wrote The Daffodil Diary, a children’s story of two girls that wonder if they are seen, heard or understood. They find the answers in their delightful journey of friendship.