Updated: Jul 17, 2019
Writing about the disenfranchised of Rome is difficult because of the many layers that exist in the homeless communities. As beautiful as the ancient ruins and hazy, amber vistas are in this city, crusted with the past and the present in textures of old and new, the presence of the lost can also be seen where cities of make do shelters and tents cluster in unwanted places. Just like most metropolises, Rome has its signs of failures to the system where people hunger, seek human kindness, and weather the end in ways that as human beings we should fight against for one another.
What I want to write about is one, beautiful, tragic woman who was sitting in a shallow doorway near the hotel that I stayed in when I was Rome. She was an aged Madonna, wrapped in loose weave black cloth, and appearing like she was a part of the architecture that surrounded her frail body. She was likely in her 70s, pale and toothless as she sat in that chipped framework, begging for help from those who passed her by. As my heart sunk, seeing this elderly woman sitting in the open and asking for help, I reached into my pocket and pulled all of the Euros that I had in coin and slipped them into her hand. The hand was thin, skin as soft as petals, but frail from years of going without.
I don’t know how much I gave her, but she held my hand and thanked me over and over in a language that was not quite Italian. She held my hand to her cheek, as the sidewalk full of people behaved as if this spectacle was not going on just inches away. I was as if to give her the attention that she needed, they were encouraging her to ask for help. However, what else can a person do who needs help other than to ask anyone who can do something to alleviate suffering that comes from institutionalized avoidance of the real remedies that people need?
It is likely that she was an immigrant, or part of the Romany who live in European countries, but in many instances have no citizenship. Generations may live in their camps, but they are not given the membership that they need to be a part of the national system that provides people with a sense of identity, as well as the benefits that come from having documented proof of belonging.
Her frailty spoke of death, her bright, but sunken features told me that she did not have long in a world that clearly was not providing for her in the twilight before her rest. It has been twelve years since I saw her in that doorway, her body curled where she sat, her small feet beneath her in a modest pose. Nothing but her hands and face were visible to me, and yet, I remember them vividly. I regret having done nothing more, but as I could not speak to her in a language that she could understand, I did not know her story, nor did I know anything that would indicate her fate.
Then my memory fast forwards to a stop in Athens, Greece. After taking the journey up the long steps to see the Parthenon and the Acropolis, and then taking the long staircase back down and sitting along a stone edge for a rest, I was suddenly confronted by women in black dresses who had extraordinarily large tote bags filled with the most exquisite table cloths. They were soft, creamy white, and had many patterns and textures. The women were pushy, to say the least. They would not be satisfied with selling just one. They pushed several onto each person, with only the strongest holding out against the aggressive sales tactics of deal making and demands that were done in flawless, but heavily accented English.
I had five by the time I left.
I had in my mind for years after to wonder who these women were, and what it meant that they were so aggressively selling table cloths near the Parthenon. I eventually discovered that they were part of the Romany, selling the table cloths as one of the many ways that they were able to work and survive in a land where their existence was usually thought of as a nuisance.
Understanding these people is not easy. Their history is very different, only somewhat comparable to that of the Irish Travelers.
The Romany were often referred to as Gypsies, a word that is a highly derogatory term that I will no longer count as a part of my vocabulary. It was used because the people of this heritage were often believed to be from Egypt, but they are actually from a region that spans India and Pakistan, nomadic and having a large portion of their estimated 15 million in population in Eastern Europe. They were once slaves in Europe. They were also outlawed – literally outlawed in England when in 1554 the English Parliament made it illegal to be one of the Romany, with a punishment of death should someone be found to be a member of that population.
The Romany were targeted by Germany during World War II and were considered “Zigeuner”, which means untouchable and it also referred to the belief that they were racially inferior. Many atrocities were committed on the Roma during the time of Hitler. They shared the concentration camps with the Jewish people, as well as the atrocities committed by Josef Mengele who experimented on twins and little people who were common within the Romany people. Approximately 220,000 Roma were killed in the concentration camps of World War II, with the camp called Zigeunerlager being dedicated to only their population.
Family is one of the highest values of the Roma. They have no homeland, but instead travel in family groups of as many as ten, setting up in camps in places that become stable communities, but still able to disassemble with the political change of the wind. They usually spend little time in school, marry young, and celebrate their heritage in elaborate spectacle and dress. However, there are also high levels of illiteracy, poverty, and domestic abuse.
Those who succeed to integrate into society very rarely divulge their family heritage. However, despite having no homeland the International Romani Union was established in 1977,with the 5th World Romany Congress in 2000 declaring the Romani as a non-territorial nation. This means that they have an established national heritage, even without a specific home territory.
Knowing this now, my mind travels back to that lovely woman, wrinkled and worn by the sun, covered in black cloth, and sitting in the doorway begging for help. She may or may not have been Roma, but learning their history and thinking on her sitting there in need and with little dignity left, I wish I had worked harder to do more.