Bucharest, May 2016
What’s your professional area activity?
I don’t know what I am. You can say that I’m a professional activist and for all my life a Roma activist. Even if for me activist is not a profession, it’s a state of mind and soul which drive you to act and react. It happened in my case that I have been paid for it, partially, not constantly. I have always think that I been privilege in this life, because I have been free and help to implement my beliefs. But I also question this model, if activism should not stay a volunteering action. I have always managed project even before the project manager concept was known here. I also have mobilized people for action.
Is it link to your project in a way?
My project in life is my professional activity, and I’m fucking lucky. I have always been a Roma activist, and aside I militate for women gender, human rights and empowerment. And I was still active even when I was breast feeding my daughter… I never been employed as a social worker in the classical way, but I worked all my life in this field and that permitted me to do more than some social workers. I usually work as an expert or as a consultant for the big organizations as foundation and as project manager in Romani organizations. Only a little part of my resources come from EU founds. I have leading and been part of many organization and in particular two organizations in Romania. I founded Romani CRISS and I was a director of Romano ButiQ association and now I’m volunteering as president of the Roma federation that gathers more organizations.
I’m currently involved in a two big European projects one is European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture and in the Democratic Federation of Roma in Romania that I care a lot about. I’m also at the board of the Roma Archives; the project is to collect Roma production in music, literature, and all art in general.
What Made you become an activist ?
I think that my family history influence me about my involvement as an activist. I’m born in a very interesting Romani family. My father comes from a very poor Kalderash Family and he was the first and the only one at this period to have finish school. He ran away from home when he 14, and he came to Bucharest and it was the moment when the communist party had the will to renew the guideline,in a more healthy way.
So the political context permits him to be part of the system and to be educated. Otherwise if He would have grown up in another period I don’ think he would have manage to study and end up the person he became. So he entered a state boarding school, and when he finished his professional high school, he’s been recruited to integrate the police sub-officer school because he had clean juridical file. He became a sub-officer and then during the weekend he studied Law at the university and got graduated. So I managed to become one of the few Romani police officers that didn’t hide his Roma roots. My mum came from a very famous musician Roma family, kind aristocratic one from Constanta. They were known for being good musician, and they were proud of it. So I grow up in an environment where people didn’t hide their origin, and they were even proud of it. I grow up in the philosophy that there nothing wrong in being a Roma. And in the same time I received conflictual messages from part of the rest of the society, as the way that people were looking at me. I always thought that my Romani identity is a public matter, there is nothing to hide about it, so it’s not private. Everybody knew, people of Constanta were calling my father with a nick name, Bitu Tiganu.
In the same time, my family pressed me to be the best in everything, whatever i do, I have to prove that I’m the best, in order to deconstruct the stereotype, « I had to be the cleanest, be the smartest, and be the most competitive, in everything. And in 2014 at an EU somite I said that I was bored to prove to non-Roma that I’m a capable person, that I’m a normal person. So when I turned 40 I realized that all my life has been a demonstration for the others, and that I had very few moments for myself.
When did you start?
I started as a volunteering activist in September 1991. I was a student, at this period in Romania it was a lot of ethnical conflicts, Roma were kicked out of their houses, or the houses were burned in villages and in cities… There are almost 40 cases like this at this period.
Everything comes from what I witness after the events of Mihail Kogălniceanu city. My motivation came from my feeling that it’s an injustice.
At University I was studying tourism management so then I changed after i got involve in solving problems in local’s conflicts situations. I entered the social work studies and get graduated in Bucharest, until I finish a PHD in 2014 which is an analysis of Romani Women and Feminism. It comes from the fact that my environment always tried to split my identity woman, Roma and Romanian, but I’m the all in the same time, that’s who I am, that what I fight for today, I’m very proud to be Romanian but I can’t denied what I’m, and I want Romania to recognized my identity, Romania doesn’t accept that Roma ethnics are part of the Romanian nation, we are all together contributed to the formation of the nation.
Very fast I started to work as volunteer and activist with the ethnic federation of Roma, who was the leader was Nicolae Gheorghe, founder of the Roma civic rights movement, and with a local Roma NGO, Democratic Union of Roma. I was what we can call a local mediator; I was doing help at school, and many other things. This is the way I started. And I don’t want to be hypocrite because since then I have been partially paid for what I have done, partially, not all constantly. One of my advantages was that I learned foreigner languages at school, as French, English and Romani.
I started by doing local community, and I still remember the first that I manage to bring the local doctor in the Roma neighbourhood. And when I came back twenty years after, I couldn’t recognize the neighbourhood. It was beautiful, things have change but the people still recognize me, people still remember me. And for me it’s the biggest reward I ever had in my life. I feel it’s like a seed we plant in people. It’s not what we give them; it’s more about raising in them the awareness of what they can do.
So it was my first steps, solving conflictual situation, and what I saw on the field, the smell of burn houses, and the feeling of fear that was around me get to my skin. This experience has become a hammer which always knocks me, push me to keep going and doing. I wanted many many time to leave this life in the last 26 years, I got depress, I had my own kids, I wanted to live a normal life, but this hammer never allow me to give up.
And another moment in my life touched me deeply at the beginning. I started so young; I feel I was ignorant in a way. In 1998 I had the occasion to go to the holocaust museum in Washington. After 7 years on the field of solving conflicts, and going afterword there I had my first white hair. I realized that what I felt on the field in the conflicts arrived on a larger scale during the holocaust. That was a moment of maturation and enlightenment for me, and deep suffering for me because I realized how neighbours can become tormentor in a moment because of ideology or whatever. Even if I had read books about the holocaust, books don’t impress you emotionally that much. Intellectually sure you get the ideas the information, even more for us that lived under dictatorship. But this event was the point of ideological maturation for me. Until then I was fighting against injustice, my idea was « It’s not fair ». Then I understand what it really means. We were a group really committed to these beliefs.
In the same period I started to work on the gender role in general and gender relationship in the Roma community. In the beginnings of the 90’s, women in Roma communities didn’t access much to leadership position, they were not really well considered…With other people we deconstructed the Roma discourse and after many years things have change a lot.
I haven’t been committed to one community or to one topic. In 2014 I realized that my general interest was not Roma, it was about developing the condition for living in free society and I realized only now that if Roma are living in good conditions or have considerations from the other community this means that the this society function well. The Roma condition is an indicator of the wellbeing of the society, wellbeing in terms of democracy and respect. For me if Roma are treated well then it’s an indication that this society is healthy. If not then we have to work more.
I’m an old style activist and I look for power at a large scale. SO for me the social media are not the kind of tools that I can use properly or efficiently. I prefer to focus on what I know how to do well and some of my younger colleague do not understand me because among activist in general, people in front becomes hero, you lead a thing, you own an idea, but this is about individuals that want to let them finger print in the world. And people do not understand why I don’t want to do like that. For me social activism is not about that, it’s about doing what is right and doing it because you believe in not because of fame. Certainly I’m wrong about this, I know that I’m wrong because the mobilization of the new generation proved in way that those mechanisms work but I can’t use them. This absence of social media makes a confusing image about me. People don’t understand why and get suspicious. For me the important is that I have always been honest, of course I med bad decisions and mistake I’m not perfect but I always try to do the right thing.
I very proud also that younger people told me that I have inspired them, but I don’t measure my success on what I let my finger print on. What is for me the most rewarding is the message I received from people all over the world that say we are thinking about you, it’s really amazing. And it’s my fuel now that want makes me keep going on. I’m not always strategic, I’m sometimes confused, I’m not a very good politician, but I’m still here after 46 years.
Who did inspire you?
Nicolae Gheorge was really inspiring for me, so much that I fall in love with him and became his wife. He was an inspiration for a lot of people actually and it’s unfortunate that Romania don’t speak more about people like Nicolae are Romanian citizens and they have contributing a lot to this country and to the Europe. We have been for seven years part of the women activist network at the European Union. We have contributed a lot to this modern society, and nobody speaks about us.
What do you think about what’s happening now days?
We have to be very careful those days because all this good energy that is happening knows can be turn around in spark, into something contra productive, into racism, into sexism. This can be manipulated by nationalist, extremist. We have to take care about the universality of human rights, for gay or straight, Roma, refugees, whoever it is.