It was quite by accident that I spent two years pioneering in a Roma community in Liverpool. I was on a journey of discovery in Wavertree and Toxteth where within the broken down terraces lived dozens of Roma travellers. My own family experienced uprooting in the pogroms in the Ukraine a few generations ago, and I am married into a family of displaced peoples. It was clear that although the Roma people were greater in number, they were marginalised within this ethnically diverse community. “Bloody Roma’s”, as they were called gathered in groups on the street corner sitting on old bedding plant troughs amidst the litter, dog mess and puddles. I was fascinated because whatever time of day I passed by there were always numbers of school aged children playing in the street or sat outside on their doorstep, during school hours. Some of the families even had a sofa outside their door offering an extended living area, because the houses were cramped for space, with many families having nine children in a small three bedroom terrace. Deanna told me she was blessed of God because she already had eleven children and was only 38. She said she was praying for more!
I became friendly with Deanna after she and her daughter in law, 20 year old Eva asked me to find them pushchairs for their babies. At that time, they named me ‘Sister’ and, my colleagues dubbed me ‘Sister Nappy’ because I handed out baby products. I’d been around the area for about six months when they made that request for pushchairs and, that was after a few friends and I held a Gazebo pop up on the corner of their road. We took a risk and pitched up with some dressing up clothes for the children. Our twee idea of story telling and dressing up as royals and super heroes didn’t quite work as planned because the ‘bloody Roma’s’ stole the lot and all we were left with was the tent frame! I showed an iphone picture to Deanna’s daughter Marta showing her posing whilst wearing a fairy outfit, but she boldly claimed it wasn’t her; it was her sister! I also chased a father across the road after he’d helped himself to my plastic boxes. He claimed he found them!
I had made a big mistake, neglecting to consider cultural differences, especially in relation to possessions. Roma Gypsy culture believes stealing is acceptable and is a way of life, with it being frowned upon if you don’t get your act together, taking what you can when you have the opportunity.
“We do not fool anyone. We just benefit from the opportunity.” — Bulgarian beggar in Sweden who said he “owned” five street corners.
At our next pop up, I asked Jessica what she had in her carrier bag, her reply was to shrug, followed by running away. She came back about half an hour later with her nails painted and as though the incident had never happened. I was bemused. She knew and I knew, she had stolen our felt tips, paper and face paints nail varnish etc but that’s how it was, it had happened and, I felt powerless to challenge it. It felt as if I was colluding with the lie and the only thing that identified me differently and made me feel safe at the time, was my clerical collar, which had to go if I was going to make progress!
In sharing all things it was obvious we needed to cross cultural boundaries and become bound up in another’s feelings, and in so doing, bracket our own beliefs and socialisation process. In other words we needed to enter into ‘interpathy’.
“Interpathy is an intentional cognitive envisioning and affective experiencing of another’s thoughts and feelings, even though the thoughts and feelings arise from another process of knowing, the values grow from another frame of moral reasoning and the feelings spring from another basis of assumptions” (Augsburger P29 1986)
Eva told me the gypsies had taken her pushchair. I was confused. She was gyspy and now there were others?. I discovered that within this community were many factions but that they shared one thing in common; persecution and prejudice. In fact my internet trawling revealed that persecution is within the Roma DNA and can be traced back to the Church in the sixteenth century when racism seems to have grown because of a clash between the Church’s teaching on healing and the Roma lifestyle of fortune telling . That prejudice remains in general as Liverpool City Council at one time set up a Roma Behaviour Group!
In becoming bound up within the Roma culture I resisted the temptation to organise the clothing handouts with British queuing, in an attempt against the grab and fight for your life mentality. It was clear that it was perfectly acceptable for my friends to pull baby grows left and right until there was a clear winner! As the year progressed though, ‘giveaways’ became a shared operation with one or two of the Roma mums and the occasional Pakistani and Indian mother assigning themselves distributor. We then got to know them not just by need but by name!
Calling each other by name appeared to change perception of each other and of our team and, it seemed the perfectly ordinary lifestyle of begging or stealing was suddenly challenged through relationship. Now there was a joint caring. They helped us to unload the cars, offering us their crisps and hugging us when we arrived. I remember the first text I received from Anna about a pushchair and baby clothes. It arrived at midnight! Then, Eva invited me to her home. Her fridge was empty, they all shared one double bed and took it in turns to sleep but the place was absolutely spotless. Eva told me how she longed to see her parents again and hadn’t seen them since she left Romania at 16 years old. She cried on my shoulder in the privacy of her home and, I cried too.
Relationships continued to blossom through the weekly learning zone (Bus 5000). This was staffed by our team and a Roma teacher (non-gypsy) who provided some translation for some of the more important conversations. This learning zone became a shared space where the Roma mums and older children would register the users, hand out the snacks and encourage kids to listen. Our policy was not to exclude but to include which was at times challenging. The only exclusion we made was of a local Liverpool boy after he beat up a Roma boy outside the bus. Alex’s mum thanked me for supporting her son and Moise’s mum gave me that knowing look and nod that said ‘you’re one of us now!’
I sensed a shared acceptance. with humour growing between the women and myself, giving rise to a new understanding of who I was amongst them and what it felt like to be someone who has no voice. They joked with me about the ‘bloody British!’ and they cared for me after a drunken man was abusive towards me near the green.
“Friendship is powerful. It is our connection to each other that gives meaning to our lives. Our caring for each other is often what motivates us to make change. And establishing connections with people from diverse backgrounds can be key in making significant changes in our communities”.( Marya Axner)
It seemed as if we’d moved beyond loving our neighbour and we were relating through interconnectedness and mutual dependence. I did feel anxious though because I was becoming bound up with a culture that still saw stealing as an opportunity and I wondered how this would now be reflected in the image of Christ I bore. We were seeing each other as friends! I wondered if the reason they no longer stole my possessions was because they saw everything that I had as theirs anyway, and in that there seemed to be some equality and belonging.
The children were now fierce guards of the castle booty. There was a shift from grabbing things from my car boot to requesting, to waiting and sharing. Maria told her friends “Don’t ask for anything else because next week when she comes she won’t have anything left to share!” In this statement there is a shift from ‘give me’ to share.
Alisha told me to call the police once when two boys took a few of our refreshment packs without asking. She had been chief ringleader in doing this some months before. I began to realise stealing was a symptom of being disenfranchised rather than of being poor, because relationship in this case brought a new reality and sensitivity.
I’m now left with the question as to whether there has been a change in the community’s attitude towards possessions; who owns what and, who is entitled to what or, whether their perception altered because we became one and in that there was an enigmatic sense of belonging that made no sense but was tangible in some kind of shared identity. I didn’t stay long enough to establish what the identity was but I hope it was rooted in belonging and inclusion rather than thieving and exclusion.