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Moving In

By Yoni Goldstein

There's no sign outside, and even the Gypsy flag - light blue and green with a red wheel in the middle - that adorns the front door is invisible from the street. Even with detailed directions, it's hard to find the new Gypsy Community Centre in Jerusalem, located in the basement of a six-story apartment building down an unpaved path just off the Jerusalem-Ramallah road, in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat.

Inside, the center is tiny. A narrow main room serves as the reception area, kitchen and gift shop, with a small side room reserved for amoun Sleem, the chic director of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, which she founded in 1999 in her apartment in the Old City's Muslim Quarter. ("Domari" refers to the Mideastern and North African descendants of the Indians who migrated westward 1,000 years ago and came to be called Gypsies.) Programming has been sparse and attendance often slim, but the Society, the first organised attempt at bringing the Dom community together for social, educational and outreach activities, has survived.

Almost all of Jersalem's 1,200 Domari live in the Old City, many unemployed, most illiterate, speaking their own Dom (meaning "man") language, which can be traced back to northern India. The Society has moved several times since it scraped together enough money five years ago to enclose an outdoor balcony for its first headquarters, but it always stayed within the Old City. The move to Shuafat is, conceptually, a big one - part of a conscious effort, orchestrated by Sleem, to get the Dom out into the larger Arab and Muslim communities of the city while maintaining the group's traditions and culture. It's a fine line Sleem is trying to maintain: Poverty forces many teenagers to drop out of school and work, often among the Arab community, where they tend to lose interest in the Dom heritage and language.

The tiny center was all spruced up for its March 22 opening: There were drinks, cookies and a Dom dish that roughly translated as "Bread with Meat" in the kitchen corner. Handmade blankets, quilts and jewellery, some displaying the colors of the international Gypsy flag, were on sale against one wall, along with some decidedly nontraditional items, including ceramic coffee mugs and ashtrays with "Jerusallem" monograms. A bookcase incongruously displayed a Bible - the local Dom are Muslims - and a copy of "The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?" by Californian Baptist pastor Rick Warren.

Dressed in tight jeans and a low-cut magenta top, Sleem welcomed the audience of about 40, mostly Dom with a handful of Jewish and Arab supporters. Speaking in Dom and English, she thanked fund-raisers and donors for helping to establish what she termed "the first home for Gypsies in the Middle East," a place to develop a sense of community and culture.

When she speaks about the Gypsies in Jerusalem, Sleem is both sad and optimistic. "Most adults in our community have it rough," she says. "They're uneducated, illiterate and very poor, with no realistic hopes of changing their situation." Sleem sees the basement spot evolving into a sort of clubhouse for young Dom that will offer such programs as after-school tutoring and English-language training - a way of preparing them for the modern world while keeping whem within a Dom context.

The celebrators chatted, tasted the food and examined the items on sale. Most probably didn't notice a small poster leaning against the wall with a message written in block-letter English. It was a motto you'll see in countless houses across America, but here it took on new poignancy: "God Bless Our Home," it read.

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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