FROM ROMA WITH LOVE
“They are everywhere!” one random Stockholmer exclaimed as he saw me snapping pictures of two Roma girls. His eyes were wide with horror that I was interacting with these two women clad in bright coloured clothes, dirty hair and paper cups, whom we had just approached asking if we could take pictures and interview them for this story.
“Please, Please…” one of the women said loudly in a voice tuned like a gospel song. She shook her cup right in our faces and negotiated one hundred crowns before she would talk to us or let us take a picture. When she did speak, it was in a mixture of broken languages, “Three grandchildren, one sick.” She made gestures with her hand to her mouth to indicate food, she held up a picture of a man with three children, she looked me directly in the eyes and we handed over the money. The man watched us curiously, annoyed and shook his head as he walked away.
For the last few years, Stockholm and Europe at large has seen an influx of Roma, or Romani, people on their cobble-stoned streets. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU and the last travel restrictions fell away in 2014, the policies brought with them centuries of unresolved issues with the Roma community. The exclusion and blatant discrimination against Roma people from society has been quietly documented and observed for thousands of years, and it has now reached the streets of Berlin, London, Paris and Stockholm with full force.
For me, the Roma beggars make the streets of Stockholm alive with their vibrant skirts, sweaters, scarves and gold teeth, even the bags they often have surrounding them have a certain flair and charm to them. I often have admired the beautiful patterns and colours that the women wear and imagined their outfits being featured in fashion editorials or just as items and textures in my closet. Many of my favourite designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Marc Jacobs, have been inspired by the “bag- lady” aesthetic and have made beautiful work from this perspective. Roma outfits make a very bold statement, a far departure from the conventional and functional hues of Swedish society. The women sit on the streets for hours, outside grocery stores, bars, beside garbage cans and exits to popular commuter points, while the men walk around on popular streets and alleys with canes, their feet turned inwards or on their knees, hands in front of them like a prayer, pleading with you to put change in their cups. Sometimes they have cell phones and talk into them in hushed discreet tones. I wonder where they go at night. Where do they use the bathroom? It’s all such a curious set up that its hard not to wonder. Some believe the Roma beggars to be an organized ring orchestrated by a cunning individuals taking advantage of the less fortunate, others believe it to be a nuisance.
Romani’s have had a history of unstable migration and persecution in Europe for centuries. There are folk tales and stories behind these so-called “gypsies” with Indian roots that go back to the time before Christ. A story goes that the ancient King of Sasanian requested 10,000 men and women musicians from the King of India. He sent the country’s finest and they were paid well, but when they came back to India they had squandered almost everything and had nothing to show for their time away. Angered by the lack of respect, the king ordered them to pack their bags and they went wandering around the world. That story, however obsolete it might seem, is an interesting parallel to Roma treatment in the 21st century.
During the holocaust an estimated two million Roma were killed by the Nazis. In the 1980s Roma women in Czechoslovakia were forced to undergo sterilization to limit the Roma population, and just last year about 10,000 Roma were deported from France. The Romas are one of the largest minorities in Romania, but the conditions they live and work in prove lethal to many of them, due to lack of adequate food, jobs, shelter, and healthcare.
The Roma have a very bold and distinct culture that has stayed prevalent through the years. Their way of dress and speech could be viewed as anti-assimilation with the larger societies in which they live, which may contribute to their continuous discrimination in most societies.
Seeing Roma in Stockholm has Swedish residents questioning what to do next. Many believe that the aggressive invasion and behavior is creating an uncomfortable atmosphere, and threatening the welfare of the society. Both the Swedish and Romanian government have made statements reassuring Swedes that action is being taken to get the Roma beggars under control. Not only for the sake of the citizens but also for the safety of the beggars. Stockholm political secretary Ole-Jörgen Persson told The Local, “We have seen a need for the social services to play a more active role, and try to find these people and see if they need and want help.” In February last year the Romanian ambassador to Sweden called for a begging ban while other more liberal parties have suggested that Romania should foot the bill for citizens who travel to Sweden to beg. Begging is not illegal in Sweden per se and citizens of the EU can freely reside in Sweden for up to three months. The Stockholm police however believe they are following the Swedish law when they deport foreign citizens who cannot support themselves. In February last year officials evicted inhabitants of a makeshift Roma camp in Högdalen, what was found there was shocking; men, women and children living in filthy quarters, with no heat, no bathrooms and in dilapidated caravans.
Despite the plight of the Roma, their history encompasses many years of culture and beauty. The colourful elements they incorporate into their lives are a fascinating juxtaposition to the bleary circumstances of some of their communities. When I decided to photograph them with my favourite jewelry I was not surprised that the baubles blended perfectly with their bohemian and diversely textured aesthetic. Beauty from all points of view ensued.