Dom Research Center   News Clippings: Greece

"Life's no Soap-opera for Greek Gypsies"
in the Middle East Times, November 8, 1998
By Dina Kyriakidou

A hit television soap opera about the doomed love affair between a beautiful gypsy girl and a Greek yuppie has made gypsies all the rage in Greece this year.

Gypsy music has hit the charts and flowery gypsy clothes are photographed in gloosy fashion magazines since the weekly "Whispers of the Heart" broadcast romantic notions of a free-spirited and proud people to Greek homes.

But for the hundreds of thousands of Greek gypsies struggling for survival, life is anything but a soap opera. "We have nothing. No water, no electricity, no food," said Theodora, a 30-year-old mother of seven, clutching a five-month infant on her hip at a waste dump outside of Athens.

"How am I going to feed them?" Her life seems a far cry from the television drama, where colorfully-dressed gypsies adorned with layers of gold chains lounge on thick carpets sipping coffee. A beat-up van is her permanent home and her family sets up a shack of cardboard, plastic and fabric anywhere they can find work. Her eldest son is dying of heroin addiction at 15. Her youngest needs hospital treatment for breathing problems.

Official estimates put Greek gypsies at 120,000 but they say their number is over 300,000, both Christian and Muslim and most speaking versions of the Romany language. Some live in permanent shantytowns near big cities but most remain mobile.

A recent study by the state National Center for Social Research (EKKE) said successive Greek governments have done little to help gypsies adjust to modern life despite repeated calls from the European Union and the Council of Europe.

Theodora was among a group of mothers at a gypsy camp near the main Athens wast dump at Aspropirgos, where half-naked children scavenged for food in piles of rotting garbage, its stench almost unbearable for the group of visiting humanitarian aid doctors from the charity Medecins du Monde.

"It's a disgrace in this day and age for little children to scavenge for food in the garbage in what we call the civilized world," said Vassilis Paiteris, a popular gypsy singer who has striven to bring attention to his people's problems.

At a nearby camp, a nurse asked for soap and water to wash a little girl's hair before applying medicine to treat an infection. A brief search produced a single bar and a cup of water and a crowd gathered to watch the unprecedented event that eventually consumed the family's weekly water supply.

"Their life expectancy is 50 to 55 years. The average life span in Greece is about 75," said doctor Leda Boboti, who comes to the camps to vaccinate children and treat the sick.

She said that because there was no Greek government agency designated to deal with gypsies, virtually no help was given to organizations trying to offer them medical treatment.

"We have been trying to get vaccines for the children from the Health Ministry but after waiting for a year we finally bought them ourselves," she said.

Most gypsies didn't know they could get free hospital treatment if they had poverty status and they rarely had the papers necessary to prove it, she added.

Paiteris, who remembers hanging from his mother's skirt as she begged for coins outside churches, said the state has not only failed to help gypsies but its policies have perpetuated discrimination.

"For example, most gypsies don't have a driver's license because they are illiterate and can't take the test," he said. "They should be given oral tests, not arrested and put in jail." Poverty makes people steal and stereotypes of dirty, thieving gypsies will not go away as long as they continue to go hungry, he said.

Paiteris, who heads a gypsy rights group, is revolted by suggestions that gypsies are by choice nomadic, convention-free people living on the fringes of modern society.

"Nobody wants to live like a wild animal," he shouted. "Nobody wants their family to shit in the streets, do without water, electricity and school. The picture of gypsy children begging at street lights should be an embarrassment for Greece."

With the eclipsing of traditional gypsy crafts, such as blacksmiths and dancing bear musicians, gypsies have turned to street peddling and farming jobs, where they face intense competition from immigrants from Eastern Europe, EKKE said.

Since the mid-80s the state has made some efforts to provide education but with families moving around the country in constant search of work, children are rarely schooled long enough to learn how to read and write, the study added.

"Education is the most important thing. If this generation goes to school the next won't be on the streets," Paiteris said.

Three gypsy teenage brides sitting in a tent furnished with a rare metal bed, gravel on the floor and a battery-operated television said they didn't miss a single episode of "Whispers of the Heart" because it made them feel proud to be gypsies.

Asked if they were disappointed that the show's architect Romeo did not marry his dark-haired Juliet, they nodded and sighed. "But that actor married one of us, a gypsy, in real life," one girl offered as consolation.

It is untrue but has passed into deeply entrenched fact in Greek gypsy mythology.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of each individual author. The views and opinions do not represent those held by the Dom Research Center.

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