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Strangers in Their Own Land

Displaced by the war in the east of Ukraine, ethnic Roma struggle to find acceptance elsewhere amid enduring racism and prejudice. From Hromadske.

by Anastasia Kanareva and Bogdan Kinashchuk 24 July 2017

According to findings from the Ukrainian National Institute of Sociology, Roma are the least wanted minority in Ukraine, with Chechens the second on the list.

 

Roma refugees from Donbas

 

There are about 50,000 Roma in Ukraine. Some of them had been living in tightly packed communities in the Donbas area (site of the ongoing conflict) and Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014). Many are now internally displaced people who move from place to place in search of a little corner to call home. What is it like to be a Roma migrant in Ukraine? Hromadske found out.

 

Strangers

 

“Son, where are the white socks?” A woman fusses around in a small room cluttered with Soviet furniture. She has taken a boy’s three-piece suit and white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt out of a wardrobe and laid them out on the couch.

 

“Where did those socks go?” A dark-skinned six-year-old boy with disheveled, freshly washed hair, runs out of the bathroom and joins the search.

 

“There they are, Mom!” He peers under the wardrobe.

 

“And how am I supposed to get them out? I can’t move the wardrobe on my own,” the woman sighs. “To hell with them, you’ll wear black socks.”

 

Galina is getting Vova ready for a concert at kindergarten. This is his last day there – after that it’s summer vacation and then first grade. She dresses him in his best clothing, ties his bowtie, and puts his patent leather shoes on his feet.

 

Vova

 

“Look at Vova – he looks like a groom!” his grandmother says. The boy is constantly smiling and does not shy away from the camera at all. Vova has moved from Stakhanov (in eastern Ukraine) to Podvorki, on the outskirts of Kharkiv (in the northeast). Back in Stakhanov, in the Luhansk region, the large Roma family lived in their own home. But then the war began, and Stakhanov came under the control of so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) fighters. Galina, her four children, and her elderly aunt and uncle were forced to escape. The children’s father stayed in Stakhanov, where he has a second family.

 

“My husband did not come with us, it’s better for him there. But I am a mother first and foremost. And I worry about my children,” the woman says.

 

Galina has pale skin and light green eyes – an appearance that is atypical for a Roma. Aside from Vova, she has three children: daughters Regina and Ilona, and son Rustam, her oldest child, who has a mild developmental disability.

 

Galina and her children

 

All of the children go to school. In Podvorki the family rents a three-bedroom apartment. It is modest and needs renovations, but it’s bright and very clean.

 

Galina pays for the apartment herself, with money from a resettlement compensation payment. In the summer, she receives around 2,500 hryvnia per month ($96) and in the winter – twice as much. It is not a lot, but finding cheaper housing for a big family is difficult.

 

“This is the cheapest apartment that there is here. The neighbors look at me cautiously, because we’re Roma, because I’m alone with children. They have all sorts of questions ... But we are not in any way different from others!” Galya explains.

 

At school, the kids are made fun of and teased, and people call them gypsies. Other parents are not excited about there being Roma at their kids’ school.

 

“We are migrants – we have been strangers here, and strangers we’ll remain.”

 

In general, her biggest concern is not the prejudices of the locals. There are times when she has nothing with which to feed her children. In the winter, when they had to pay over 5,000 hryvnia for rent and heating, they survived eating pasta, and relied on humanitarian aid.

 

We find this out from her retired uncle, a gray-haired man in a funny Hawaiian shirt. He is tired, but sarcastic in a friendly way. Podvorki is a small village. Most people work in Kharkov, which is two bus stops away. There is enough work for everyone in the city, but employers ask for employment record books. Galya does not have one.

 

“For now the only offer I have is to wash dishes. From seven in the morning to three in the afternoon for 70 hryvnia [per day]. If I don’t find anything else, I’ll have to accept it.”

 

The doorbell rings. Galya excuses herself and runs out into the apartment building’s vestibule. After a few minutes, she returns with 150 hryvnia in her hands. She borrowed it from her neighbor to contribute to the snack table at the kindergarten concert. Together, we walk outside. The elderly stay home, and the children go out to play in the yard.

 

“You forgot the flower! The flower!” Vova’s grandfather yells as he catches up with him.

 

The little boy turns around and takes a big pink flower. He is very proud of it and of his suit, as he rushes to the kindergarten together with his mother.

 

“The Roma who have moved away from the ATO [the Anti-Terrorist Operation, a term used for Donetsk and Luhansk] to other regions face high levels of discrimination,” says Zola Kondur, a lawyer from the Chirikli foundation. “It is more difficult for them than for other internal migrants. It is harder to rent an apartment and to find a job, and 20 to 30 percent of them do not have official documents, so not all of them can prove to government institutions that they were really living in the ATO area. Many humanitarian organizations who work with displaced people do not consider the Roma a specific target group.”

 

In Tight Quarters

 

“Soldiers started coming into our village, they brought tanks in, and armored cars,” say Tamara, a tired-looking woman making porridge for her children with warm water. “The military settled in on our street. We gathered our things, left our houses and drove away.”

 

A dark-haired, three-year-old girl named Yana tugs at her skirt, wanting attention. They stand in the middle of a tiny kitchen with a big window that is nearly as high as the wall itself. Dull sunlight streams through it.

 

“Going to Russia – there wasn’t even a discussion about that. Strangers from abroad are not wanted there. But Kyiv – that’s our country, our homeland. [But] we were not happily accepted here either. We have been here for three years already, and the neighbors have just now started greeting us. My son Samir is dark-skinned. He told boys in the yard that he’s from Dagestan. He told me: ‘Mom, don’t tell them that we’re Roma – no one will want to be friends with me.’ ”

 

Tamara pours the runny porridge into a bottle and gives it to her daughter, taking the toddler in her arms. She cozies up to her mom.

 

Yana was born in a hospital in Donetsk, and that day the city was heavily shelled. The girl was born prematurely and had to breathe through a machine. Her mom could not take her to a bomb shelter in the hospital’s basement to protect her from the shooting, when other women were hiding their children.

 

“This is where mother sleeps – she cannot walk – Yana, and Alena,” says Tamara. “And the rest sleep on the floor, wherever they find space. Altogether there are 11 of us here, five adults and six children,” Tamara shows us a single room.

 

An elderly woman in a black dress with polka dots and a headscarf sits on a pullout couch. Kids hop about around her. Up against the wall stands a lacquered Soviet sideboard, with laundered clothing hanging on its doors.

 

“The children want to eat meat, and potatoes and candy ... but we cannot always give them that. My oldest son – he’s 17 – is friends with local boys here. They have everything: cellphones and laptops. We don’t even have our own telephone!” Tamara complains. “But, if we were home right now and I was working, we would have all of that.”

 

Her whole life, the woman had sold sheets and bedding at a market in Dokuchaevsk, not far from Novotroitske (in the Donetsk region). She had her own kiosk. But when fighters of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) came to the village, the market went up in flames from the warfare and burned down to the ground.

 

“People think that we have always lived like this, wandering everywhere. But that’s not the case, we had a home!” The elderly woman sitting on the couch, wearing the polka dot dress and thick wool socks, waves some kind of small green branch. From time to time, the branch lands on the neck of a kid who is fooling around.

 

“I want to become a member of the Special Forces. I’m tired of everyone teasing me!”

 

Vanya, an eight-year-old boy in glasses, listens carefully to what the adults are talking about. He says that in the yard, he only talks to those from Donetsk – other internal migrants. Other kids don’t want to be his friend.

 

The Accordion Player

 

The southern outskirts of Toretsk (a city in the Donetsk region) are nearly uninhabited. It’s four in the afternoon. In the middle of a small square is a flowerbed. Behind it is a brick, one-story Soviet building that is so misshapen, it seems like whoever built it abandoned the project halfway through. It is the old movie theater called Start. Films have not been shown here for a while – the building is rented by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Full Gospel.

 

The inside is just as strange as the outside. In the former movie theater, where they now hold services, two huge flags stretch from floor to ceiling: the Ukrainian and the Israeli one. Suspended from the ceiling, a disco ball turns. In the middle of the stage, which is cluttered with paper flowers and music speakers, sits a 50-year-old man playing the accordion. “Blessed are you, our Lord, Master of the Universe” is inscribed above the stage. The accordion is named “Orpheus,” and the man’s skin is very tanned, as if he has spent many days in the sun.

 

Yura

 

“I play the accordion. I play a ‘Yamaha’ [brand of electronic music instruments]. In Mariupol I played in a restaurant,” Yura explains. “I’ve been playing since I was a child.”

 

Nine years ago, Yura and his family moved to Toretsk from the south. He bought a house here, where he lives with his wife Galina, his younger son, and his grandson. He has been playing in

an amateur Roma ensemble, which was started by Petrovna, a social worker. Yura plays the accordion and the keyboard, his neighbor plays the guitar, and women dance and sing. Most of the songs are traditional Roma songs, but some are in different languages.

 

“We are Ukrainians ...We speak Ukrainian and Russian. It doesn’t really make a difference to us. I’ve been to Kyiv, to Zhytomyr, to Zapporozhzhe. In Mariupol, I played weddings everywhere,” the musician remembers, sighing. “I had a black electric accordion. And four speakers. I played christenings, and birthdays. And now, it’s all in the past.”

 

Yura and the newly formed ensemble have performed for the public only once so far. He says he did not like it, because the musicians were not professional enough.

 

“The guys and I were playing and playing but the others ... they just stood around, barely singing. They’re supposed to encourage the audience to sing along, so that the public doesn’t get bored, so to speak. But this way, there’s little point to it. I told Petrovna that it won’t work out if this is how it’s done,” the man complains, “I would sing myself, like I did earlier. But I have no teeth left. I won’t lisp into a microphone!”

 

An eight-year-old boy, also dark-skinned, brings Yura a folder of files and a passport. This is his grandson David. Along with his grandmother, they just received a few boxes of charitable donations. They are distributed right here, in a room next to the movie theater. The man is proud of his grandson. He says he has raised him to never ask people for anything, as is often the case with Roma children.

 

“I once took him with me to a Greek wedding. He was still very little. Everyone carried him around in their arms!” he says.

 

“I lived in Mariupol. Why did I move here, like a fool?” says Galina, Yura’s wife. “People there were nice, it was a port city, on the sea. And what do we have here? In Mariupol I worked as a janitor, like my husband. We had a small room. But at least there was no war, we didn’t have these problems.”

 

Galina adds: “Now we might repair someone’s fence, or do some other work for people. That is how we carry on, doing work that comes by chance. We need money so that our grandson can go to school.”

 

David’s mother is away, earning some money. His father passed away a long time ago. His grandfather and grandmother are raising him like their own son. “I won’t give him up to anyone,” his grandmother smiles. “I have a dream that he will learn English, and will make a better life for himself. If only his grandmother lived to see that.”

 

The war caught Yura and his family at a bad time. He is unemployed, and so is his wife. The three of them, with their grandson, walk to the minibus stop in order to get home. They carry the heavy cardboard boxes full of donations in their arms. Two local women walk by.

 

“What is that, are they giving out donations?” The women ask, seeing the boxes. “They give them out to gypsies at the church,” Yura replies.

 

“Understood. It’s for those who don’t work – that is, those who desert women and leave.”

 

Yura does not pay them any mind. They get to the stop at the intersection of two streets.

 

An armored vehicle with soldiers drives by. They shout at everyone to get out of their way.

 

Armoured vehicle in the streets of Donetsk

 

“Roma life is very short. I’ve rarely seen Roma who live to be 70,” says Olga Rudenko (Petrovna), a Roma advocate in Toretsk. “Roma women are emaciated, thin – they eat poorly because everything goes to their children. It is often said that Roma are nomads. But it is one thing to move around of your own free will, and a completely different matter to be forced to move. During wartime, our whole country has understood the fate of the Roma and felt what it is like to move and search for your place among others. Integration is possible, when there is acceptance. People have to understand that ‘gypsy’ isn’t a stigma. That they don’t all steal, that they don’t all sit around idly. And that they shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of centuries-old stereotypes. I know Roma who work at a timber yard, who are miners. They want to change, to live a normal life, and to maintain their own traditions. Circumstances do not always allow this.”

 

The Artist

 

A man walks across an empty stage between decorations. He arranges chairs, takes a candle, and leaves it on a table on the edge of the stage. He places two packs of slim cigarettes nearby. The auditorium is dimly lit; rugs line the floor and the walls are covered with fabric in a variety of textures. The man, who is over 40 years old, has long salt-and-pepper hair that is brushed back, and his movements are unhurried. He carries himself in a way that makes it clear: he is in charge here.

 

“The communists did not invent the word ‘propaganda.’ We are engaged in cultural propaganda. We wanted to show other nations our culture, its uniqueness, its energy, its problems. These are not just gypsy issues, they are general human problems. Because we all have the same problems.”

 

Igor Krikunov is a People’s Artist of Ukraine (an official title that the government has been granting since the Soviet era), and the creative director of the Romance theater in Kyiv. The theater is a Roma or gypsy one, as the actors refer to it. The troupe is 24 years old, and based in the former Soviet building of culture, which is called Bolshevik, on Shulyavka street in Kyiv.

 

A few minutes later, musicians enter the auditorium. They tune their instruments – keyboards and guitars. Igor Nikolaevich also grabs a guitar. In the neighboring auditorium, which apparently serves as a buffet during performances, women loudly wish one of the actresses a happy birthday. Soon they slowly gather on the stage in bright skirts and floral shawls. Sneakers peek out from their skirts.

 

A show at the Romance theater in Kyiv

 

“You have to understand, that you aren’t just some regular people from the Troyshchinsky market! You have to fully dive into this! If you don’t care then I, an audience member, couldn’t care less.” Igor directs the dancers.

 

The troupe is rehearsing “Gypsy Nights.” This play in verse will begin its new theatrical season in the autumn. It is about Roma culture, which has inspired the creative work of famous poets, including [Federico García] Lorca, a Spanish poet and playwright.

 

“If society becomes culturally aware, the stereotypes will disappear. In every person live both Jesus and Judas. In every nation there is one and the other. How could we be horse thieves, today? People say that we eat children ...We do not eat children! When our civil society transitions to a new level – a cultural and intellectual one – the stereotypes will disappear.”

 

The women dance on the stage, with live accompaniment, and actors perform poetic scenes one after the other. The supervisor sits in the front row and smokes a cigarette, carefully observing what goes on. 

This project was accomplished with the financial support of the Canadian government. Anastasia Kanareva and Bogdan Kinashchuk are Hromadske contributors. The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on Hromadske, a Ukrainian internet TV and multimedia organization. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All images courtesy of Hromadske. 

 

Translated by Anna Bisikalo. 

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