This morning felt early to Dafina and me, despite our premature bedtime last night. It was hard to stay sleepy, though, after walking through the wall of energy filling the university auditorium where ternYpe – International Roma Youth Network Secretary General Karolina Mirga waited to open the conference. The energy in the room was palpable – 450 people, young and older, Roma and non-Roma from throughout Europe (and us two from Canada!), felt united for a common goal: to bring the memory of the estimated 500, 000 Roma killed during the Holocaust into the present.
To me, the murmur in the room sounded at first like distracted teens chatting against the speaker. But soon I realized it was actually a cacophony of live translations, as multilinguals from every country helped their compatriots not to miss a word. This cross-cultural richness continued in our small welcome groups, where individuals were asked to stand up and introduce themselves, and state their reasons for attending the conference. In this setting, the power of Roma and non-Roma coming together became concrete for me. One non-Roma youth from Czech Republic – a country where stereotypes run deep, and drastic human rights abuses against Roma are happening every day – said that she was at the conference to bring concrete arguments home, so that she could help convince the educated, intelligent people in her life to abandon their prejudice. “To be honest,” she said, “I have never been around this many Roma people in my life.” For many attendees, the experience has already helped erode deep-seated stereotypes.
In the afternoon and evening, Dafina and I each attended two workshops. We split up but still had trouble deciding which way to go, with 15 topics offered. “This is why I need 20 participants instead of two!” Dafina said at one point. Despite indecisiveness, we made the most of those events we could attend, sharing our experiences with one another afterwards. One of my events was an interactive session with Polish radio journalist Anna Makówka-Kwapisiewicz, who had participants create their own identity charts to help them consider the ways in which we make assumptions about one another, and how those assumptions can be used to impose harm.
This evening, the entire group trudged across the city to have dinner, and to watch theatre and traditional music at the Galicia Jewish Museum. Though not identical, stereotypes against Jews and Roma in Poland are historically linked, as they were the only two specific groups targeted by the Nazis on the basis of racial/ethnic hatred. The cultural presentation was moving, but the most striking part of the evening was our later conversation with members of the Italian group, during which time Dafina and I learned that one of our wonderful new Italian Roma friends actually lives with his family in a “camp” in Italy. The Holocaust may have been uniquely horrific and destructive, but the present situation for Roma in many countries bears some eerie similarities to this horrible past.