Germany’s Sinti and Roma are a diverse minority that have little more an common than their negative image in society. We asked four young people from the ethnic group to share their stories.
It isn’t easy to measure the degree of prejudice that some groups in Germany face. But that didn’t stop Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency from undertaking a significant effort in recent years to get a grasp of the scope of discrimination. As part of that endeavor, pollsters surveyed around 2,000 people across the country five years ago, asking them to share the image they have of members of different minority groups.
For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
They found that the strongest reservations are reserved for Sinti and Roma, with few respondents having a positive view of the minority. A relatively large number of study participants expressed the belief that Sinti and Roma lead completely different lives from the majority of people in Germany. A significant share of respondents also said they would prefer not having any Sinti and Roma living in their neighborhood.
The survey also included questions about Eastern Europeans, Muslims, black people, Italians, Jews and asylum-seekers. Perceptions of all those groups were generally more positive than they were for Sinti and Roma. Other studies have also confirmed the prevalence of prejudice against Sinti and Roma in Germany.
Sinti Have Lived in Germany for at Least 600 Years
Prejudices are always ill-considered and one-dimensional, but when it comes to the Sinti and Roma, the blanket assumptions apparently held by Germans are particularly at odds with reality.
The Sinti and Roma living in Germany lead extremely diverse lives. They may be united by the fact that they all have ancestors who emigrated from India more than 1,000 years ago. But after that, their lives took different paths.
The Sinti sub-group has been living in Germany for around 600 years, while the smaller group known as Roma have been here for around 150 years. Together, they comprise one of four officially recognized ethnic minorities in Germany and in most cases, they are German citizens.
Other Roma came to Germany as migrant workers from Eastern Europe in the 1960s or fled here in the 1990s from the violence in former Yugoslavia. Many of these later arrivals have only been granted what is referred to as “tolerated” immigrant status, meaning the threat of deportation is always there.
Sinti and Roma
The Roma have retained a common language: Romani is derived from ancient Indian Sanskrit. However, the Romani spoken by the Sinti differs significantly from that spoken by Roma in Eastern Europe, for example. Many words are also taken from the languages of their home countries. Romani has no standardized spelling or grammar and is still mostly passed on orally within families.
Despite the diversity of the Sinti and Roma minority in Germany, there is little public awareness of that variety. The researchers who carried out the 2014 survey on attitudes toward minorities for the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency noted that only 5 percent of respondents said they were able to differentiate between Sinti and Roma, not to mention other subgroups.
The study confirms what the people affected by this prejudice have long reported: Almost all Sinti and Roma suffer equally under the centuries-old cliché of the criminal and dirty “gypsy.” In response, many try to hide their origins.
But there are still some who are willing to go public with their experiences. One Sinto and three Roma shared their stories with DER SPIEGEL about growing up, the obstacles they faced — and how they overcame them.
Silas Kropf, 24: “You don’t look like one at all”
As a child and a teenager, I preferred to keep the fact that I am Sinto to myself. This also has to do with the fact that my family was persecuted during the Nazi era. My grandfather was terrified that something like that could happen again, which is why we didn’t live our culture openly to the outside world and spoke only German at home and not Romani.
My family underwent incredible suffering under the Nazis. My great-grandmother was a Sintesa and she had many siblings whose families were deported to concentration camps. Only a few returned — the others were murdered. In my opinion, there is far too little discussion about the persecution of the Sinti and Roma during the Nazi period. To this day, it’s little more than a footnote in the history books.
Because my great-grandmother was married to an entertainer who was not a Sinto, the Nazis didn’t initially target her for deportation. My great-grandmother suspects that the district head was well-disposed toward her and concealed her ethnic background in her file. She was supposed to be deported later and her children were to be sterilized, but that didn’t happen either. They were lucky.
Nobody Suspected Anything at School
The stories about that period were one of the reasons we kept our backgrounds under wraps. Many Sinti are still highly suspicious of state institutions such as agencies, schools and hospitals. Some are also afraid of getting lumped together with Roma who have immigrated from Eastern Europe since the 1990s and who are also the subject of strong prejudices. About half of the Sinti in my circle of relatives and acquaintances don’t reveal their true identities for that reason.
No one at school knew that I was a Sinto. Like many other German Sinti, I have light skin and light brown hair and don’t stick out at all in Hanau (near Frankfurt), where I was born.
After my high school graduation, I attended an educational conference organized by the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, where I got to know other young Sinti who have always been open about their roots. As a result, I began wondering why I should make a secret of it.
Some Cracked ‘Gypsy’ Jokes
When I came out to my friends and acquaintances as a Sinto, they reacted in several different ways. Some said: “That can’t be true, you don’t look like one.” Others just quietly accepted the information. Still others cracked gypsy jokes.
At first, I would often hear lines that were apparently meant to be funny. When I spilled something on my pants once, someone said: “You gypsies, you’re so dirty.” The term “gypsy” is often used carelessly in our society and some friends let lines slip like: “Look at the gypsies over there,” in reference to people who looked poor or somehow suspicious. They would then quickly back pedal: “Oops, I didn’t mean it like that.”
I let a handful of friendships peter out because I realized that it wasn’t good for me to surround myself with people who foist their prejudices on me. Many people simply know too little about the Sinti. We’ve lived in this country for hundreds of years yet I’ve been praised for speaking such good German.
Hateful Facebook Posts
When I was at university, I was responsible for a residential area that was home to many Roma for a year and a half on behalf of the Youth Welfare Office. The local newspaper reported about it and I wrote an editorial that was intended to help inform people about Sinti and Roma.
The result was three days of hateful comments posted on Facebook and on the newspaper’s website — things like: “The Roma steal from others and have their children defecate on graves in the cemetery. They’re social parasites and asylum tourists.” There’s also a link between these enduring clichés and the reporting: The media too often has a negative slant in its coverage of Sinti and Roma.
We come from different countries and have grown up in different ways. But because we are part of a minority, I think we all have to stand up for each other. We have a stronger political voice when we speak together. And the “gypsy” stereotype affects us all equally.
That’s why I’ve been holding workshops and lectures on antiziganism as a freelancer for the last six years and have gotten involved in organizations seeking to strengthen Sinti and Roma and to raise awareness in the rest of society about prejudices.
Melissa Sejdi, 20: “We could also call it Balkan schnitzel”
My mother is German and my father a Romani. He fled from his former homeland of Yugoslavia in the 1990s due to the war. My parents brought me up very German, and I have always been open about my origins. I never had bad experiences with racism as a child.
I went to a free, democratic school and had well-informed, nice teachers. That’s why it was never a problem for me to be a Romani. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced discrimination since then.
Recently, I was sick and went to the family doctor, but my health insurance card was broken. The receptionist sent me home even though I was really sick, saying I should get a confirmation from my insurance company and then come back.
Some Friends Voted for the AfD
I wasn’t sure if they treated me like that because I have a foreign surname. So, I later asked a friend with a German name to tell this same doctor that his insurance card was broken if he got sick. They saw him anyway.
I feel like aversions to the Roma people are growing in our society. A few of my friends even voted for the AfD (Alternative for Germany). I’ve tried to talk to them about why they would vote for such a right-wing populist party and why I find it problematic. But they’re very stubborn. They reply with things like, “We have nothing against you, but …”
Even though I haven’t experienced that many disadvantages myself so far, it is important to me to stand up for the Roma as a whole and to help reduce prejudices against our minority. That’s why I’m involved in the organization Romano Sumnal, which campaigns for the rights of Roma in the state of Saxony.
I’ll Pass on the ‘Gypsy Sauce’
Most of the Roma I know in Germany have apartments and jobs and it’s important that we show that. Many in my family went to university. I would like to make it clear that the Roma in Eastern Europe also don’t want to live the way they often do — without work and in poverty-stricken parts of the city that they often can’t escape. When people don’t have much, they have to do things like collect bottles. Nobody wants to flee their homeland, but sometimes they hardly have a choice.
I sometimes try to convince acquaintances to stop using terms like “gypsy schnitzel” or “gypsy sauce” as names for food. Some don’t understand how this can be offensive to many Roma and Sinti people, but why do we use words that are inherently discriminatory? We could also call it “Balkan schnitzel.”
Ajriz Bekirovski, 22: “The labor market in Macedonia would have been extremely difficult for me.”
My father didn’t see a future for us in Macedonia. Regardless what you study, getting a job there is very difficult. I had just finished my first year of high school when we moved away. When I got here, I first had to learn German and then had to catch up on my secondary school graduation. I want to finish my trainee program in January. It was too difficult for me to get into a college prep high school here.
But I have at least come to understand why my dad wanted to get out of Macedonia. Everyone there immediately recognizes from the color of my skin that I belong to the Roma. I was always proud of it, but I am sure it would have put me at an extreme disadvantage on the labor market in Macedonia.
I don’t think I ever would have gotten a managerial position there, even if I had gone to college. As a Roma or Romani, you’re always just the help. This applies even to those who have a good education or are college educated. We Roma have been excluded in Europe for centuries, and I still feel that today. Many people don’t trust us at all, and they don’t believe we’re capable of taking care of ourselves.
A Barrage of Prejudice
In Germany, people tend to recognize my qualifications, but here, too, we are constantly confronted with prejudice. Although I have never been called a “gypsy,” there are often moments when I feel discriminated against.
When I went to school to pick up a book, for example, the teacher would send someone to accompany me. Of course, at the end of the day I don’t know what he was thinking or if he would have done that with everyone. But it made me feel like he didn’t trust me — and that he had the cliché stuck in his head that “gypsies” will steal.
Many Families Are Deported
In recent years, many Roma families from Macedonia have been deported, but I don’t have any reason to fear right now because I’ve finished my vocational training. But since Macedonia got declared a safe country of origin in 2014, it has become much more difficult for Roma from the country to stay in Germany. But I think we should have the right to asylum because we are so disadvantaged as Roma in Macedonia.
I want to stay here, pursue my career and earn money, just like other people do. Of course, there are Roma out there who don’t want to work — although the same applies to some Germans. But many Roma are also unable to find jobs because people consider them to be criminal and incapable of learning.
Ignorance is the source of discrimination. That’s why as Roma we have to be more open about change. I contribute to this by organizing events and workshops dealing with, among other things, the centuries of persecution and the genocide against the Roma.
But it is difficult to find Roma who are willing to go public with their identity. The experience they have all had is that if they want to get somewhere in Germany, they have to conceal their origins.
Diana Preda, 30: “I’m proud of myself as I am”
I come from a village near Arad in Romania. My parents were antiques dealers and I grew up with seven siblings in my grandmother’s house.
As a child in school, I didn’t feel discriminated against. That first began in Germany. I moved here 11 years ago, and I look a little different than many women in this country.
I’ve been wearing skirts and a headscarf since I got married. For me this has to do with my religion — I’m a member of the Pentecostal church. Skirts are also a sign of respect for my family.
A Feeling of Not Being Taken Seriously
I don’t know if I sometimes have a harder time in Germany because of my appearance, whether I am at a disadvantage. But it feels that way.
For example, there was this car accident a year and a half ago. I was in my car in a parking lot and a woman drove her car into mine. I got out and before I could say anything, she immediately claimed that I was to blame for the accident. I never expected anyone to lie like that.
I became upset and raised my voice. The police officer who came shouted at me, telling me to shut up. I was shocked and told the policeman I thought it was racist.
What I really wanted to say was that it was discrimination, but the wrong word slipped out. Two weeks later, I received a fine for making insulting remarks and had to pay 500 euros. I felt as though the policeman had treated me like I was the worst person on the planet.
A Two-Year Apartment Hunt
I don’t know if the policeman knew I was Romani. The other woman wasn’t wearing a skirt or a headscarf, and she spoke German better than I do. I think that may have something to do with the fact that the police officer treated her better than me.
For the last two years, I’ve been hunting for an apartment for my mother, who still lives with my brother. Sometimes we have two or three viewing appointments a week, but so far, no landlord has been willing to take us.
I thought about whether I should wear something other than a skirt and headscarf at the viewing appointments. But if it is God’s will, we’ll find a place anyway. Besides, my sister-in-law has been looking for four year — and she speaks perfect German, wears pants and grew up here. She hasn’t been able to find a new place to live either.
I’m proud of myself just the way I am. And I want other young Roma to be comfortable with themselves and their identity. That’s why I conduct workshops all over Germany, where I explain our history and tell people how they can stand up against everyday racism.
Diana Preda moved from Romania to live with her husband in Germany 11 years ago. She works as a translator and social counselor for a Frankfurt-based organization that provides support services for Roma.