‘It’s hard to be a Gypsy in my town’

The sun sets over a Slovakian Gypsy ghetto, which is home to about 800 people, many of whom cram into these small shacks made from wood and corrugated steel. (Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

NORTHEASTERN HUNGARY — Maybe it’s because of the deep crow’s feet etched into his russet skin, but Milán “Igor” Hudák’s eyes look a little defiant as he scans the small Hungarian villages through a car window one early evening in March.

There is a sameness to the villages – tidy town centers, pastel-colored houses, lofty church steeples, clucking chickens. Then come the “Gypsy rows:” clusters of sagging, splintered huts where members of the Roma minority live on the edges of town.

Editor’s Note:

As part of the Cronkite School’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative, students report on border and immigration issues around the world. This story is part of reporting project that focuses on Hungary’s response to the refugee crisis and life in the country for ethnic and religious minorities like the Roma, Muslims and Jews.

The sunlight fades to lavender as the car continues northeast and passes the invisible border into Slovakia. Hudák, 33, is heading home after a day of high school classes in Sajókaza, Hungary. He is the only one from his Slovakian ghetto of about 800 Gypsies to have ever made it this far in school.

It’s a monumental undertaking, but Hudák knows that to some it will never make a difference because he is Cigány, Hungarian for “Gypsy.”

“The letter ‘C’ is always on my back,” he said through a translator. “Because I will have graduated, people will behave differently with me face to face, but behind my back they’ll still have the same opinions about me.”

For hundreds of years, Gypsies were enslaved, persecuted, sterilized and systematically exterminated in Hungary and other European countries. Even today, they face barriers in almost every aspect of public life. The color of their skin, which is often darker than that of their countrymen, as well as a distinct culture, has kept them largely separate and easily segregated.

Hudák’s village in Slovakia is one of the places where the line between majority society and the Roma is most stark. As the car nears his home, just outside the town of Moldava nad Bodvou, the driver makes a sudden turn onto a dirt road that follows the contours of a hill into a different reality.

Small, disheveled children turn to look at the car as they huddle around a trash can fire, the light flickering off their faces. On the left are the skeletons of two Soviet housing complexes, blackened with soot from wood stoves used for heat and crumbling to reveal the cold, concrete rooms inside. To the right are hundreds of shacks built from corrugated steel and wood scraps, each big enough for only a few people to stand inside but where families of 20 sleep every night.

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In the center of the ghetto, boys laugh and kick a soccer ball, oblivious to the puddles of sewage in which they’re playing. A girl of about 13 watches from the sidelines, smiling with crossed eyes as she inhales from a baggie filled with glue, getting high on the cheap.

Even as they dart through the sea of garbage that fills the air with a sickening smell and pretend to shoot each other with arrows, the kids cackle with careless happiness. It is the adults, who merely peek out of their homes in the fading light, who wear misery like permanent masks.

“It’s hard to be a Gypsy in my town,” Húdak said.

Anti-Gypsy feeling

Most of the Gypsies in Central and Eastern Europe are Roma, an ethnic minority believed to have migrated from India to Europe between the 10th and 11th centuries.

The Roma are Hungary’s largest ethnic minority, and according to the most recent Hungarian census, they make up about 3.2 percent of the total population. But experts estimate they actually make up at least 7 percent because many Roma won’t self-report their ethnicity for fear of discrimination. The Roma say that prejudice, ranging from derogatory slurs on the playground to deadly hate crimes, is a fact of daily life.

“Anti-Gypsy (feelings) are so deep-seated in the public imagination and in the institutions that no state is really willing to deal with that,” said Iulius Rostas, a Roma scholar and former director of the Roma programs for the American human rights group Open Society Foundations. “You are told when you grow up as a kiddo, ‘If you do not behave, I’ll give you to the Gypsies.'”

United Nations research indicates that despite high-profile efforts to provide better public services from schooling to health care to the Roma, results have been mixed and often minimal.

Rostas said that while the federal government could do more, it is not solely responsible.

“If you want something to change when it comes to political power, change has to happen also at the local level, and that’s a bit more difficult,” he said.

An opinion poll conducted in 2011 by German, Hungarian and British-Swiss political research institutes showed 60 percent of the Hungarian public believes “the inclination to criminality is in the blood of Gypsies,” and 42 percent agreed “it is only right that there are still pubs, clubs and discos where Gypsies are not let in.” The poll also showed that sentiment against Gypsies was stronger than it had been in a decade.

Dropping out

In Hungary, the problem of Roma social exclusion is often referred to as “the Roma issue,” even by some pro-Roma activists.

Roma face unemployment rates of nearly 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of State, and make up a disproportionate amount of the poor in Hungary and other European nations. This is due, in part, to their low levels of education. A 2011 European Union survey found that 55 percent of Hungarian Roma dropped out of school before the age of 16.

Hungary now leads the European Union in young Roma attending preschools and kindergartens, but United Nations data show a decrease from 2004 to 2011 in Hungarian Roma ages 20 to 26 who have gone on to complete high school.

During the Communist era from 1948 to 1989, there was an enforced social equality and Roma employment was legally mandatory. Activists attribute the high dropout rate to growing school segregation since the fall of Communism, while others say it’s the product of a Gypsy culture that does not value education.

The reality is complex.

According to a 2011 European Union survey, 45 percent of Roma children in Hungary attend class with all or mostly other Roma students, while 39 percent were in classrooms of both white and Roma children and 16 percent had mostly white classmates.

While segregation is illegal in Hungary, schools can become unofficially segregated by non-Roma families moving their children to less diverse schools, teachers separating classrooms by race and as the direct result of the housing separation that already exists.

About 60 percent of Roma in Hungary live in secluded rural areas, segregated neighborhoods, settlements or ghettos, according to the Hungarian government.

This segregation depletes the quality of education the Roma receive, even before they drop out, and there are virtually no jobs to be had in Hungary without at least a high school diploma.

Facing an aging population and a declining birthrate, the Hungarian government offers financial benefits to those with multiple children. Roma families are typically large, and many use these benefits to scrape by without a secondary education.

In addition, dropping out has become the norm in many Roma communities. This means there are entire villages, like the one Hudák is from, where not a single resident has finished high school.

Tibor Derdák is the principal of an integrated private school that receives funding from Amnesty International. Before the school, located on the edge of a Roma ghetto in Sajókaza, opened in 2007, only three Roma here had high school diplomas.

“It’s not simply difficult, but it’s impossible for this population (to graduate),” he said, sitting in an empty classroom while his students played outside, noting that in other, more integrated towns there are more Roma who do graduate.

But not here, where much of the Roma live in uniform, deteriorating rows of houses without plumbing or electricity, previously occupied by miners when there were more industrial jobs to go around.

A Roma girl runs to two women as they sit and talk in one of the Roma neighborhoods of Sajókaza, Hungary.

A Roma girl runs to two women as they sit and talk in one of the Roma neighborhoods of Sajókaza, Hungary.
(Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

These are “very, very poor families, far from any organized structure,” he said. “They can’t believe it’s worth it to be good in school because they don’t have positive experiences. And no one in their big families has these experiences. For example, an average man in these ghettos has at least 30 or 40 cousins, and no one among these 30 or 40 cousins has ever gone to high school.”

“This village, this segregated neighborhood, is like a black hole,” he added. “It attracts misery, but no one can see what’s inside.”

On the playground of Derdák’s school, a young boy of about 7 crafts a makeshift cigarette by combining the tobacco from butts he finds on the ground and rolling it up in paper. He furrows his brow, nonchalantly puckers his lips around his creation and strikes a match.

Because life expectancy for Roma is short – most in Sajókaza die between the ages of 40 to 60 — life also tends to move fast. Teenage pregnancy is rampant, Derdák said, and contributes to the school dropout rate.

The government asserts it has made significant strides in Roma education since the fall of Communism. It has instituted limited programs to help Roma women get vocational training and Roma students to get into universities.

And the government takes very seriously its enforcement of Hungary’s law prohibiting school segregation, said Katalin Victor Langerné, deputy secretary of social inclusion within the Ministry of Human Resources.

“There are examples like Sajókaza, which is a place where just Roma live, so, in this case, it’s quite obvious you won’t find anyone else in the schools but Roma,” she said as she sat in a tiny wooden chair at an integrated preschool in the village of Ároktő. “In places where Roma and non-Roma children get educated together – there, the authorities try to check it, try to control it, to ensure they work according to the anti-segregation laws.”

Integrated preschools are one of the keys to lasting integration, Langerné said, because they allow children of both ethnicities to interact at early ages and help convince Roma parents that their children can succeed in school.

“The problem of integration is actually the problem of the lack of education,” she said. “If somebody has no education, they cannot have a job. If she has no job, she must get benefits, and those with no jobs and who live on benefits won’t be accepted by the wider Hungarian community, so these problems build on each other.”

“It’s not a cultural problem,” Langerné continued, “It’s the culture of poverty. Because the Roma culture is a real value and people in wider society like it – Gypsy music, dance, literature, paintings and so on. What people don’t like, what people are alienated by, is the poverty and those things that are caused by poverty: dirty people, uneducated people and so on.”

Being Roma

While impoverished communities may contribute to Roma stereotypes, it’s not only those who live in poor conditions who feel the sting of prejudice.

Klaudya Bogdan, 21, recently graduated from Principal Derdák’s school and is now attending college to become a teacher. She has a non-Roma boyfriend who is part of a six-piece Hungarian oldies band, which has both white and Roma members. Although they’ve been dating for four years, she said she stills feels hostility from other band members, including the other Roma, because of the relationship.

Klaudya Bogdan, 21, recently graduated from high school in Sajókaza and is now attending college to become a teacher.

Klaudya Bogdan, 21, recently graduated from high school in Sajókaza and is now attending college to become a teacher. She and her boyfriend, who is white, don’t hold hands in public. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza)

They don’t hold hands in public.

“It’s frustrating because I don’t care what other people think, but (he) does,” she said through a translator.

Bogdan lives away from the Roma ghetto in a house for teachers close to the center of town, but she is still reminded of the color of her skin every day.

“It’s enough to just go outside; they look at me a certain way,” she said. “People assume I stole my clothes or I work in western Europe as a night worker.”

Three years ago, Bogdan and her boyfriend went to a local hospital and, as soon as she walked in, a middle-aged white man began shouting at her, she said.

“He said, ‘F—— Gypsies! We need Hitler back; he needs to finish the job,'” Bogdan said.

During the Holocaust, up to 220,000 Roma were killed in Nazi-occupied territories and concentration camps, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Hate speech is illegal in Hungary, but when Bogdan and her boyfriend tried to file a complaint, police told her to drop it, she said.

Telling the story, Bogdan seemed unmoved, almost amused. Being Roma, you must learn to take things in stride, she said, lest you spend your whole life lamenting.

János Orsós, a college-educated Roma president of a local Buddhist organization, said he tries not to let the little things get to him. But he notices that a security guard follows him every time he walks into a store. Whenever he offers a woman a seat next to him on the subway, she declines. When he tried to buy a cell phone, the store employees told him he probably couldn’t afford it.

But what worries him most is the behavior of the police on the streets and Hungary’s extreme right party, he said. These are the things, he said, that make this a scary time to be Roma.

Institutional damage

Three years ago, Orsós said he was severely beaten by police while attending a gay pride parade in Budapest. He said he frequently can’t walk down a main street in Budapest’s Eighth District, where there is a higher concentration of Roma, without being stopped, frisked and asked to present his ID by police.

According to Open Society Foundations, Roma pedestrians in Hungary are three times more likely to be stopped by authorities than white citizens. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights advocacy group, found in 2001 that about 33 percent of Hungarian prison inmates reported themselves as Roma, although they only make up around 7 percent or 8 percent of the population.

“They make women take their bras off on the street, actually, to make sure they have nothing in there,” Orsós said through a translator. “It’s not actually about weapons; in Hungary guns are basically impossible to get. It’s nothing other than for humiliation.”

Langerné, the government official from the Department of Social Inclusion, conceded Roma-police relations could be improved.

“Police officers are also human beings,” she said. “The point of view must be changed –
how they think about the Roma.”

The government has instituted a program that brings Roma intellectuals to police stations to educate officers in Roma culture and to promote understanding, Langerné said.

But Eszter Jovánovics, the head of the Roma program at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said that program and the addition of a hate crimes special unit within the Hungarian police are designed primarily to score political points.

Authorities “mostly express their views when anti-Semitic incidents happen, so in these cases they usually publish a report and express that they’re very against these crimes,” she said. “When it comes to racist crimes against Roma, then usually there is silence on the part of the government or very weak speeches. … Still, we see the under-classification of racist crimes.”

The civil liberties union is representing four Roma men who were seriously beaten in the summer of 2014 by uniformed, masked men, likely members of an extremist paramilitary organization. Although there were 10 perpetrators, only one has been identified and caught by police, Jovánovics said.

“It is visible that the police could not or didn’t want to investigate effectively,” she said.

A 2014 study by Harvard University found a pattern of hate crimes against the Roma in Hungary since 2009. The report warns that the increased anti-minority rhetoric, central consolidation of power and a general climate of exclusion are classic pre-determinants to genocide.

From 2008 to 2012, the European Roma Rights Center, an international legal group, recorded 61 racially-motivated attacks against Roma in Hungary that resulted in the deaths of seven adults and two children. Few of these attacks were classified as hate crimes, according to the Harvard report.

Ulrich Bunjes is the special representative of the Secretary General for Roma Issues in the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization consisting of 47 member states promoting human rights and democracy. He said the rise of right-wing extremism politics in Hungary is directly related to the reported increase in hate crimes.

“Things are deteriorating in Hungary; they’ve been deteriorating for almost 10 years now in many areas, certainly in the area of hate speech and hate crimes against Roma in Hungary,” he said.

“The central government is quite cooperative,” Bunjes continued. “The progress at the local level is often still very difficult and sometimes very violent because right-wing extremists and small militia gangs are really making life for Roma hell at a local level, and police are usually helpless or not interested to intervene.”

An extreme right-wing political party called the Jobbik has recently gained momentum in Hungary, although it was widely dismissed at its start in 2003. In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2014, the Jobbik party received 20.5 percent of the vote, an increase of 4 percentage points from the 2010 elections. Similar parties have gained popularity in Poland and Slovakia.

Prominent members of Jobbik have made public anti-Semitic and anti-Roma comments, including dismissing the Holocaust as a “scam,” calling for an assessment of the number of Hungarian Jews to determine “national security risk” and referring to the Roma community as a “biological weapon.”

The Jobbik also has repeatedly used the term “Gypsy crime” in its campaign slogans, suggesting that Gypsies have a crime problem specific to their demographic.

A Jobbik party spokeswoman declined an interview request and did not respond to a follow-up request for a statement.

“The way Jobbik talks about Gypsies is the way the Nazis talked about Jeada before the Second World War; the rhetoric is the same,” said Orsós, the Buddhist leader. “There was a certain racism and prejudice inside people’s heads anyway, but five years ago, even if you were quite racist, you wouldn’t talk about it in polite society. It wasn’t acceptable. But Jobbik has made it acceptable – and not only acceptable but actually necessary to win votes.”

Roma activists said Jobbik often scapegoated minorities during the 2008 financial downturn, and that the party is further benefitting from nationalistic rhetoric as the refugee crisis divides Europe over the issues of immigration and integration.

However, they also note that as the party has gained political clout, its discourse has started to shift.

“The rhetoric of Jobbik and the paramilitary organizations has gotten a little bit less violent and less racist, which doesn’t mean they’re not racist anymore,” Jovánovics said. “I think they really want to win the next election.”

‘They should be afraid’

Zsolt Tyirityán is a self-identified racist, Nazi, patriot and defender of the white race. But these beliefs are not rooted in hate, he said.

“Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or other nationalist movements in the 1930s and ’40s – all they were doing is basically defending their own cultural integrity, their cultural identity,” he said through a translator in a quietly bustling Hungarian café known as a meeting place for right-wing extremists. “Every nation and every identity has to defend themselves. In Hungary, in a very unnatural way, this balance of interests has been tipped against the majority.”

Tyirityán is the leader of a paramilitary group called Betyársereg, which roughly translates to “Outlaw Army,” although Tyirityán doesn’t like the English name. It implies his group operates outside laws and morality, he said.

“We want to form the core of a strong nationalistic defense movement,” he said. “We represent the majority of Hungarian public opinion, which is the reason why we are extremely popular. The extreme liberal media makes all sorts of false accusations about us. They engage in libel; they label us terrorists. They label us criminals. In the eight years of this group’s existence, the police have never been able to identify criminal activity on our part, and no charges have ever been filed.”

Tyirityán said he is good friends with Gabor Vona, the leader of the Jobbik party, and the two support each other despite the fact that Vona must publicly distance himself from paramilitary groups. Betyársereg is considered one of the most extreme paramilitary organizations in the country, restricting members to heterosexual, Christian white men with combat or martial arts backgrounds.

The group is notorious for patrolling Roma neighborhoods, shouting about Roma demise and hurling stones through windows.

“For the past 650 to 700 years, the Roma have been unable or incapable of integrating,” Tyirityán said. “If a member of the national Hungarian community is harmed in some way or there is a crime committed against them, we go to where it happened or where the crime was committed with a large group of people. And with our presence we make sure the police take it seriously and help the person who is harmed.”

In response to criticisms that Betyársereg intentionally incites terror in Roma areas, Tyirityán said it’s his duty as a white man to draw attention to “social injustice” against his own people.

“If you mean that we’re causing fear among people who had in previous weeks committed a string of crimes against Hungarians, then yes maybe we do, but they should be afraid,” he said.

He said his group, which consists of 200 to 300 members, wants to be a strong presence throughout Hungary, but has no ambitions beyond the country’s borders. He said other leaders in other countries, such as Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president, should promote progress in other nations.

During an interview in his Budapest home, László Tróscányi, Hungary’s Justice Minister, defended the country’s efforts to halt radicalism. He said the Hungarian government recently passed a law banning paramilitary organizations, and he pointed to a 2011 constitutional amendment that outlaws hate speech and allows minority victims to sue for damages.

“During Communism, we had our fair share of whispering in the pubs over a beer. So we wanted to be open about (free speech),” he said. “We had to see that this can be abused also. … Now there is this thing called the ‘dignity of a community.’ We don’t need to name somebody by name. You can just speak out against the community in hatred … and this is a very important change.”

However, judicial precedent has yet to be set for the enforcement of the amendment, Tróscányi said.

“Extremist positions and opinions exist in every country,” he added. “There is nothing I can do because it’s in every country. What is our task – either through good legislation or with your personal example – (is) to show what is the right way.”

One of the most prominent nationalist paramilitary groups, the Hungarian Guard, was disbanded via court action by the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office in December 2008 for intimidating Roma and violating their rights. However, the New Hungarian Guard formed the next year, and still marches through Roma villages.

Elements of identity

Orsós knows being a Roma Buddhist is as about unusual as it gets. He said he chose his faith for its emphasis on charity and spiritual equality – and because of what he sees as discrimination in Christian and Hindu religions.

Orsós takes the long view of discrimination against the Roma. He said the problem has its roots in Hungary’s development as a nation.

“Hungarians are authoritarian,” he said. “We’ve always been either a dictatorship or a monarchy; we don’t have a history of democracy. We joined with Nazi Germany – and the old people who were alive at the time who supported this decision, many of them are still alive –
and then we have 45 years of a Communist dictatorship, which we became used to. And then we tried democracy for 20 years but this isn’t really working out. Hungarians’ sort of authoritarian, racist nature, which was there anyway, is simply coming back to the fore.”

“It’s not that 2.5 million people suddenly arrived in Hungary who wanted to vote for Jobbik,” Orsós said. “They were here. They were always here.”

Hungarian identity is inseparable from its history, which breathes from its cobblestone streets like a persistent whisper. Hungarians remember their scars, because they are everywhere: the soulless Soviet-style buildings that interrupt the otherwise romantic streets, the Holocaust-era cattle car train tracks in the middle of a newly constructed bar, and even the country’s signature paprika, a spice imported during the Ottoman occupation.

The Roma, too, carry the scars of history.

They are a people apart, referring to the rest of the population as “Hungarians,” despite the fact their families, too, have lived in Hungary for centuries.

Some find pride in this distinction. Hudák said he feels his identity every moment of his life.


Milán “Igor” Hudák, 33, looks on as Gypsy children play in his home ghetto just outside Moldava nad Bodvou, Slovakia. (Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

“Maybe it’s in our blood,” he said. “Gypsies are better than Hungarians. We know some things Hungarians learn in schools, and we don’t need schools to know them. Music, dances, songs come to us with our birth.”

Hudák said he will never move from his Slovakian Gypsy shantytown. People call him crazy, but he smirks as he gives an answer it seems he’s given a hundred times: “This is my family.”

“There are many people around me who don’t understand anything in the world, and they need me to inform them about the world,” he said. “Everyone asks this question because they don’t understand why.”

The sun finally sets on the ghetto after a flare of fiery orange, and the temperature begins to dip. Stray dogs curl up for the night, and somewhere nearby children begin singing in Gypsy dialect.

The notes can be heard for only a moment before they are absorbed by the walls of the huts and the dirt hillsides that surround this place the Gypsies call home.

Two men and a toddler are silhouetted against a sunset on a hilltop over a Slovakian Gypsy ghetto. (Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

Two men and a toddler are silhouetted against a sunset on a hilltop over a Slovakian Gypsy ghetto. (Photo by Emily L. Mahoney)

Editor’s Note: “Gypsy” can be considered a pejorative term and “Roma” is usually suggested as a less offensive alternative. However, the reporter uses both terms in the story because “Roma” also only refers to those who belong to the ethnic group that originated in India. Discrimination in Europe is not limited to the Roma, but extends to whites who practice a similar culture and use similar dialects, who can only be called “Gypsies.”