Are refugees in Europe the new Roma?

As I watch the Syrian refugees, I wonder whether they are the new Roma (Gypsies). As a Roma myself, the Syrians trapped at borders or wandering through Europe, isolated in camps, cooking over improvised campfires, sleeping in the streets or train stations, look eerily familiar. Like the Roma, they risk becoming Europe’s unwanted—even more so after recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Berlin.

Syrian refugees in Hungary

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis in Budapest on Sep. 4, 2015. By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The increased fear of terrorism and instability are invoked as reasons to further reject the refugees. But these are merely excuses and here’s why: As Roma we have known this sense of otherness for centuries and it is in fact Europe’s inability to recognize its history of immigration and difference that makes it so difficult to accept waves of refugees.

While Europe’s attitude toward the upcoming refugees is not so welcoming (with perhaps the exception of Germany under the leadership of Angela Merkel who is becoming more insular), this is how the Roma, a population of about twelve million, have always been treated. The Roma oppression culminated with the Holocaust, when Roma—along with Jews, gays, and others—were singled out for persecution.

The Roma ancestors left India’s Punjabi region about a thousand years ago in search of a better future. But to this day in most of the European countries, many Roma still endure conditions similar to those of the newly arrived refugees.

Similar to the Roma, Syrian refugees face violence at the hands of police and other state authorities and remain at the mercy of international aid organizations and nation-states. Roma are frequently scapegoated for Europe’s problems just as the Syrian refugees are scapegoated each new act of terrorism.

Syrians are told to go home (as if that were a safe choice) just as the Roma are still asked to go back to India, as if they had just arrived in Europe and were not also European citizens. Unlike the Roma, who trickled into Europe over a period of some three hundred years, today’s refugees are arriving much faster, leading to a major humanitarian crisis and an unenthusiastic call for “global responsibility.”

Turkey has absorbed more than two million refugees and wants its European neighbors to accept more; some countries, like Germany have accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees; others like the United States, Canada, and Saudi Arabia, are doing little to help; still other countries claimed that they are too poor to help, marked Syrians’ skin to keep track of them or even discourage refugees from approaching their borders. Hungary, for example, blocked transit lines and forced refugees into camps with scarce resources.

After the Paris attack things got even worse in terms of border control and public acceptance of the refugees. Most countries do not really want to deal with “them.” Treating the refugees as pawns on a chessboard comes as no surprise. We’ve often seen such attitudes against the Roma and other vulnerable groups. Calls for global responsibility are in fact nothing but a global disavowal of responsibility!

Certainly, absorbing a large mass of people of different cultures and religions practically overnight poses challenges. But confusing the victims with the aggressors is not a solution. The refugees are escaping the same terror those in Paris or Berlin have recently experienced. Europeans should make this distinction and solve this complex puzzle—or more trouble can be anticipated.

With little help and many uncertainties, where can these refugees turn when they no longer feel safe in their home countries? Or, in the case of the Roma who have no nation of their own, where can they go when there is no place to call home? Refugees’ future needs to be considered. The lens through which the refugees are seen now will define their legal and social status for a long time. Otherwise, pushed to the margins of societies, they risk falling into systemically inferior positions—living under conventions, rules, and regulations that alienate them from society.

For too long, this has been true for the Roma. That was the case with my Roma grandfather who could never reach the same status as other Romanian citizens, even though he had lived in Romania all his life—as did many Roma generations before him. That was also my case: Growing up in Romania as a Roma, I never felt like I fully belonged.

With Roma and other minorities striving to be integrated at the heart of the continent, and with Syrian refugees pressing at its borders, Europe is at a crossroads. It must have the vision to look beyond its current wounds and fears and foresee itself more than a union of “homogeneous cultures,” thus excluding “different cultures” that don’t fit neatly into its historical and national narratives. Europeans should envision “inclusion” as the core value of the “new Europe,” a continent open to the “domestic and foreign other.”

Europe will be unable to solve its current refugee challenge until it accepts “the other”—people like its Roma, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ residents who for various reasons have continued to be demonized as hopelessly different, dangerous, or unassimilable. If Europe (and the world) fails to embrace these differences, the Roma’s past and present plight will become the Syrian refugees’ future.

VOA The Student Union American Culture: Out of the Movies and into Daily Reality

My collaboration with Voice of America (VOA) started with an interview about my Roma identity.  It continues with a series of articles about studying in the United States for VOA’s Student Union Blog. The first article is about the way American culture is exported through movies and other forms of pop culture. Starting school in Romania, immediately after the end of Communism, I grew up influenced by Western culture and democratic values. When I visited the United States for the first time, I was pleased to discover similarities with my American friends, despite the fact that we grew up on different continents. In this article I also share memories from my first very summer in the United States (2006) and describe the way I experienced the American Dream. 

While I was watching American shows and movies on Romanian television, the décor  around me became surprisingly similar to that on the screen. The small colored houses, with ducks and chicken raised in the backyards, were replaced by large, beige homes with perfectly cut grass, bird feeders and playful pets. The gray, block, low-rise buildings became taller, and the more I looked at them, the more they seemed like modern glass skyscrapers. Was I dreaming? When and how did this transformation happen?

One typical American experience - hanging out at the pool!One typical American experience – hanging out at the pool!

The change began with the first waves of democracy and modernity in Romania after the 1989 Revolution. To my delight as a child, long Communist speeches were replaced by exciting Western shows, movies and cartoons. Continue reading

VANDERBILT Between Two Worlds


In june 2011 I was the subject of a profile, in Vanderbilt View, main magazine for Vanderbilt University. My biggest challenge in the last few years, as the title In between Two Worlds very well suggests, was to find a way to explore my newly accepted Roma identity and being part of an ethnic minority while not giving up on my activities and my previously formed identity – of growing up being part of the mainstream society. This article is a synthesis of this dynamics and presents my various interests  and activities, my academic and personal development at Vanderbilt along with my journey of accepting and understanding my Roma roots in a global context. I am very honored for this collaboration and grateful for my story being shared with the Vanderbilt community. 

Cristiana Grigore is outgoing and energetic. She is passionate and proud. She’s a rebel and a reformer.

She also is Roma.

The last label is one she has long resisted but now embraces. Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Grigore’s native Romania and in much of Europe. They are persecuted, marginalized and often live in poverty. Sometimes referred to as gypsies, they are known for their colorful clothing, nomadic lifestyle and dark skin and hair. They are sometimes reviled as thieves and considered intellectually inferior.

Although some idealize the Roma for their Bohemian lifestyle – they are known as travelers who freely live outside the system, for example – recent movements have sought to drive them out of France and Italy. Continue reading