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A People Apart: The Gypsy community seeks recognition

By Eetta Prince-Gibson

Ask me question, ask me question!" insists Leila, proud to show off her newly-learned English. "I eight years old. I in third grade," she chatters happily.

Heba, aged eight, concentrates on her drawing. She has never left Jerusalem, but she draws a sail ship on a wavy ocean, a yellow, smiling sun in the upper corner.

Leila, Heba and two other children have come to the Gypsy Community Center, opened only two months ago in a comfortable, bright three-room ground-floor apartment in Shuafat. It is the first time that the Gypsy community has organized proactively to provide for themselves.

Twice a week, the center offers literacy completion courses for 10 adults. The children come three times a week to do their homework and get off the streets; in the winter, they will come to stay warm.

There's an older-generation computer in one corner, and Yassir, almost five, enthusiastically pounds at the keyboard. Framed pieces of Gypsy embroidery and beaded quilts hang on the walls, next to pictures the children have drawn of families in traditional Gypsy dress.

Several rababbah, traditional Gypsy string instruments, lean against the wall, for the children to try to play. The center also offers trinkets, beads, ceramics and jams and hand-pressed olive oil for sale.

"I like Gypsy," Leila chatters on. "I like school. I like teachers. I like small children, but not big children. They call me bad names. Also teachers."

Amoun Sleem, 32, director of Domari, the Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem and founder of the center nods knowingly. It was like that when she was a child and she knows it's like that now for these children, too. Even today, as she walks down the streets of the Old City, passersby call her "Nawariya," a stinging pejorative name for a Gypsy. Sometimes they spit at her.

Sleem, brashly assertive and beautifully exotic, is devoting her personal and professional life to advancing the cause of the Gypsies, or, as they refer to themselves, the Domi.

Gypsies are perhaps the most oppressed and reviled social group in Jerusalem today. Beset by poverty and internal conflict, they are socially marginalized and politically invisible.

The Interior Ministry does not recognize the Domi as a separate cultural or religious group and their nationality is listed as "Arab" on their identity cards.

"To the Arabs, we are Nawari, which means 'dirty Gypsies," says Sleem. "To the Jews and the authorities, we are Arabs. We lose on all sides."

According to attorney Omri Kabiri, who offers legal services to Domari and the Gypsy community at almost no cost, the State of Israel does not formally recognize specific minority communities. In practice, however, the state does relate to the special needs of groups such as the Druse, the Beduin or the Armenians. Similar recognition of the Gypsies would entitle them to numerous services, such as research which might ascertain if the Gypsies have particular medical needs, funds for cultural preservation and establishment of religious institutions, and so forth.

But since the Gypsies do not appear as a category in the national census, no one even knows how many of them there are. Sabine Hadad, spokesperson for the Population Registry, told In Jerusalem that there are only "several dozen" Gypsies in east Jerusalem, although according to the Dom Research Center, located in Larnaca, Cyprus, the Domi community in Jerusalem numbers about 1,000, with an additional 1,000 to 4,000 Gypsies living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As a first and very basic step forward, Sleem wants the authorities to conduct a census. But even without it, it's clear that abject poverty is the first concern.

Most of Jerusalem's Gypsy community lives in Bab el-Huta, an impoverished collection of low-grade houses tucked within a sharp turn near the Lion's Gate. Poorly dressed children wander through the garbage-filled alleyways, begging or selling trinkets and cheap brand-name knockoffs. The school dropout rate is high, especially among girls, but Gypsies benefit from school services such as truancy officers and guidance counselors.

Unemployment rates are high. Most Gypsies rely on National Insurance Institute payments, and the cutbacks of the past two years have hit them hard.

The girls marry young, often before they're 16. "Gypsy women don't have happy lives," says Sleem. "They have no hopes, no dreams. Just eight or 10 children and no money."

Sleem has created a very different life for herself.

Her mother died in childbirth when she was six, leaving her father to raise her and her eight brothers and sisters. As a young child, she was sent, like most Gypsy children, to beg. She refused.

"Begging was humiliating. So I got some postcards and I sold them to tourists," she recalls. "Something in my nature told me that I could build and create things in an honest and decent way."

She knew that education was her ticket out of poverty. But she also knew that her father, who worked as a guard at the Interior Ministry, would never be able to provide her and her siblings with the notebooks or even the pencils that she would need. So she continued to sell her postcards.

She remembers the humiliation at school, no different from what Leila suffers now.

"The teacher would call us to the front of the class, and, in front of everyone, check if we had lice or were dirty. And the other children would laugh when she called us Nawari.'"

At age 12, she left school for a year. No one from social services came to inquire why so bright and motivated a child was truant. She returned to school a year later, completed high school, and earned an associate degree in business administration.

She found work as a manager in the Dutch Guest House on the Mount of Olives. She learned to speak English and Dutch fluently. The European visitors helped to raise her own political and social consciousness. She began to believe that she might be able to develop community awareness and self-respect among the Gypsies. She gained confidence and is now completing a course in business administration at the Hebrew University.

Sleem established Domari in 1999; it is the first organization of its kind in the Middle East, dedicated to advancing the political, social, cultural and health needs of the community.

By custom and history, Gypsies do not think in territorial terms and do not seek a single homeland. Throughout the world, most do not care who the sovereign is, but want to be allowed to teach their own culture and create a better future for their children.

In Jerusalem, the Gypsies have deftly avoided the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But Sleem believes that "the Jews should be kind to the Gypsies. They should understand us, because they were persecuted, too."

She sees painful similarities between the histories of the Jews and the Gypsies. Both were the ultimate "other" - unsettled, scapegoated, oppressed. Like the Jews, the Gypsies developed strategies for living with the "dadje" - the "goy," or the non-Gypsy - and existed in an uneasy balance with the surrounding society, often restricted to ghettos and closed encampments.

And like the Jews, they were singled out by the Nazis for extermination. According to a spokesperson from Yad Vashem, "There are tremendous similarities between the experience of Jews and those Gypsies who were victimized by the Nazis."

The US Holocaust Memorial Research Institute in Washington puts the number of European Gypsy lives lost by 1945 as "between a half and one and a half million."

But the Jews, supported by their own state and politically more powerful, have received more recognition than the Gypsies. It is a striking coincidence that in the same month that Germany dedicated a memorial to the Jews murdered by the Nazis, it began to deport tens of thousands of Gypsy refugees back to Kosovo, where their homes have been destroyed, where they face a volatile and dangerous existence and where they will receive no support from either Germany or the United Nations.

Dr. Katalin Katz, a lecturer at Hebrew University's School of Social Work, has researched the Gypsies in Europe.

"Structure, authority and hierarchy are opposed to their values and lifestyle. They have no central leadership to go to battle for them. But in the past decade, that is beginning to change."

It is beginning to change here, too. Says Sleem, "I learned from my grandmother that when you have an itch, you are the only one who can scratch yourself, because you're the only one who knows where the itch is."

She sees the move to the center in Shuafat as particularly significant, because it shows that the Gypsies have moved out of their "ghetto" in the Old City and into "the mainstream," where they can mingle with other groups.

A few years ago, Domari teamed up with MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Center, to provide career training in catering and cosmetics to men and women in the community. Nearly a dozen people have already participated.

Sleem believes that she senses an increased respect for education within the community. More girls are finishing at least third grade, and Sleem knows of three young Gypsy women who are attending university.

Increasingly, the Gypsies are intermarrying with Palestinian Arabs and beginning to engage in family planning.

Sleem is pleased that the community is advancing but hopes to revive the Gypsy culture, too. Few people remember their traditional customs or language and only a few old women still remember the ancient songs, sung for the bride at weddings.

She would like to sponsor a camp this summer, take the children to a pool or beach and teach them songs and games. But she has no budget. Allen Williams, a philanthropist from Larnaca, has donated the money to pay rent and modest operating costs for the center. A few volunteers, from England and the US, help out at the center, especially with English. But that is the sum total of her resources.

Sleem totters between frustration and optimism. At times, the bitterness creeps back. "We are for human rights, but none of the human rights groups care for us. They do training for Beduin women, but not for Gypsies. Why? We are not garbage."

She points to a bird, chirping and bobbing. "Maybe it's a sign from God that things go well?" She giggles. "I know that's silly. But I am so worried and frightened. I live in a heavy circle."

And not all of her efforts are well received. Sleem has come under severe criticism from within her community.

In 1968, then mayor Teddy Kollek appointed a member of the community to act as "mukhtar" and official liaison between the community and the municipality. The position is no longer officially recognized, but the mukhtar and his family have not been willing to give up their status or prestige. Sleem believes they resent her proactive, higher-profile role, and they refused to attend the official opening of the center.
(The mukhtar was unavailable for comment to In Jerusalem).

And some, men and women alike, oppose the idea of a woman, and an unmarried woman at that, taking a prominent leadership role in their traditional, conservative community.

For several months last year, rumors circulated that Sleem was a collaborator and even an informant for the Israeli authorities. She felt that her life, literally, was at risk. More recently, as attendance at the center grows, however slowly, she feels that her efforts are better-regarded.

Attorney Kabiri is convinced that recognition of the Gypsies as a national minority is crucial and is considering appealing to the High Court of Justice on their behalf.

"It is interesting to determine if the Gypsies are, in fact, a nation," he observes. "And it would be very fitting to decide that question, at least legally, here in Israel.

"We, the Jewish people, gathered in from our Diaspora and declared ourselves to be a people. We are the ones who should be the most sensitive to another people's need for recognition and self-definition."

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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