Who are the Roma? While believed to have originated from Egypt (hence the slang term ‘gypsy’), the Roma people can actually trace their origins back to northern India. From around 700AD onward, they migrated across Europe, working as entertainers, artisans and farmworkers. For a long time, they managed to get by in this fashion without issue.

Moving Through Europe

As time went on, cracks began to appear in their initial acceptance. It seemed that everywhere the Romani people went, the ruling class wanted to tie them down or expel them. If they went to places such as Wallachia and Moldova, for example, they would find themselves enslaved. Moving to western European countries like Spain meant death or forced assimilation.

After the last emancipation of the enslaved Romani people in 1864, it seemed as though the Roma group had begun to make some progress. In the years after the first World War, the Roma began to make moves towards social and political lobbying. The first Romani organization, The General Association of Romanian Roma, appeared and The World Roma Congress had its first meeting in 1933.

Then, the Nazi regime began to target the Romani people along with the Jews. During World War II they faced the stripping of their nationality, deportation to labor camps and even mass executions. It is estimated by historians that at least 220,000 Roma were killed in Europe during World War II, but the exact numbers are unknown.

Who Are the Roma?

Now, ask the question today: who are the Roma? One would assume that, in a modern-day society that focuses on social inclusion, the Romani people would fare better today. Yet, even in the present day, the Roma remain the group the most discriminated against in Europe.

The Romani people today find themselves the victims of hate crimes such as having their homes burned or physical assault. In many of these cases, the local police fail to provide them with the protection or justice that they need. The police are also known to discriminate against the Roma and treat them with less dignity than non-Roma.

They also struggle in everyday society due to the disadvantages of prejudice. Despite regulations, situations such as segregated schooling for Romani children and lower wages for Romani workers still exist in Europe. Some Romani people even have trouble purchasing land on which they could build homes. This means that even those who want to work for a better life might have trouble achieving it.

Thus, the Romani people could remain trapped in their current disadvantaged situation. Consider the fact that 70 percent of the Roma population throughout the world lives in poverty. Many of them live in slums without electricity or running water.

Where Can the Roma Turn to in Search of Hope?

Government intervention seems the only possible way to provide the Roma with the assistance that they need to rise out of their current situation. And indeed, the governments of multiple countries have created programs of varying success, such as the Phare programs of the early 2000’s.

Yet, a 2013 Brigham Young University Paper indicates what might prevent the success of Roma assistance. The paper stated that at least in Romania, the local governments focus upon the integration of the Roma into society. They do not focus on integrating Romani people in a way that will not kill their culture.

Indeed, many Romani people still live traditional, nomadic lives and are unwilling to leave them even if it means living in poverty. This culture, however, clashes with the current sedentary European culture. Unless these two cultures can find a compromise in the future, some Roma might still live on the fringes of society.

There are groups like The Minority Rights Group International and Amnesty International that are working to educate people about the Romani people by working with the Roma communities and governments. The U.N. has been working with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to address providing business opportunities and social services to the Romani people in the country through enacting a two-year “Action Plan for the National Roma Strategy.” They hope to find solutions to many of the problems the Romani face every day.

Ask the question again: who are the Roma? They are a people who have faced countless tragedies in the past and now face an uncertain future. Yet, when given the assistance and understanding that they need, they may be able to find their own place in society where they can thrive.

– Elizabeth Frerking

Photo: Flickr

Racial Inequality in South Africa
The World Bank recently released a 147-page report extensively detailing the root causes of economic struggle in South Africa. Researchers found that one of the most prominent factors behind poverty is racial inequality in South Africa.

Apartheid, the government-enforced segregation and discrimination against non-white people, came to an end in 1994 with the introduction of a racially mixed, democratically elected parliament under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. But although discriminatory policies stopped being imposed by the government, that unfortunately does not mean that racism vanished from the country. In fact, South Africa remains the most racially unequal country in the entire world.

The residual effects of apartheid have had tremendous impacts on the poverty rate, and the remnants of racial inequality in South Africa are still playing a role in the nation’s economic structure to this day.

Employment Disparities Remain After the End of Apartheid

Because apartheid took place relatively recently, many non-white people in South Africa who lived through it are still recovering from being discriminated against during that time. The report states that non-whites statistically have fewer skills, simply because they were excluded from the workforce for so long. This means that they are still more likely to be unemployed than white people. In fact, black South Africans saw a 31.4 percent unemployment rate in 2017, while among white South Africans the rate was only 6.6 percent.

Employment is hard to come by for non-whites because of how the education system was set up during apartheid. White education focused on reading, language and math, while non-white education mainly trained people to become unskilled laborers so that white people would not have to compete with non-white people for high-paying jobs.

This plan worked exactly as it was intended to, and many non-white people are doomed to a life of working low-paying jobs simply because they were never taught the skills to advance in their careers. As of last year, white South Africans still bring in an average income that is five times greater than that of black South Africans.

Race-Based Displacement Caused Lasting Inequality

Another measure taken to promote racial inequality in South Africa during apartheid was the passage of the Group Areas Act of 1950. This resulted in millions of people being forced out of their homes and sent to live in specific areas based on their race. White people were able to live in the most developed areas, while non-whites were usually placed in barren rural townships. Even if non-whites happened to live in decent areas, their neighborhoods could be demolished to make room for white residences if the land appealed to them.

Because of this mass displacement, many non-whites still live far away from developed regions (even though it is no longer mandated by law) because it is too difficult to find somewhere else to live. For instance, the Western Cape province–home to Cape Town, one of South Africa’s biggest tourist destinations–is the most developed province in South Africa. The Western Cape has the lowest black population out of all the provinces at 32 percent. However, the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s most underdeveloped province, has the highest black population at 86 percent.

The distance from their townships into more populous cities makes it harder for non-whites to find employment in commercial areas, and even if they are able to secure a job, the cost of transportation to get there is very high. In fact, the average South African commuter spends about 40 percent of his or her income on transportation.

Government Efforts to Address Racial Inequality in South Africa

The South African government has taken measures to combat poverty related to racial inequality. The first of these was the establishment of minibus taxis, a cheaper form of public transportation from rural areas into cities. This has helped alleviate some of the cost and inconvenience that comes with living outside of populous areas.

Another important step taken by the government to overcome racism was the passage of the Employment Equity Act. This act made it illegal for employers to discriminate against their workers based on race and requires employers to promote diversity in the workplace through affirmative action programs.

Though these are great initiatives for helping those who were unfairly affected by apartheid and the racism that still lingers today, much more can be and needs to be done to reduce poverty by battling racial inequality in South Africa.

– Maddi Roy
Photo: Flickr

At 110 years of age, Alice Herz-Sommer lived longer than most and had experienced something that a diminishing number of people living the world today may claim: surviving the Holocaust.

As the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust, for the past 70 years Herz-Sommer has served as a living reminder of the perils of hubris and inaction — specifically, for the nations who failed to act when reports of Adolf Hilter’s ethnic cleansing plans first came to light.

Alongside her husband and son, Herz-Sommer was imprisoned in 1943 at Theresiendstadt, a concentration camp in Terezin, Czech Republic. Two years later, she and her son were among those released from the camp after the Soviet army liberated the camp.

Of the estimated 140,000 sent there, fewer than 20,000 remained alive by the war’s end.

These numbers don’t inform the reader of Herz-Sommer’s accomplished piano skills nor do they tell us about Herz-Sommer staged concerts at the concentration camp, an activity that enlivened both herself and her fellow inmates.

We have all learned about World War II. We have studied how Adolf Hitler warred against the allied forces and nearly conquered Europe. We have listened to lectures about his efforts to cleanse his empire of Jews, homosexuals, the Roma and Sinti, the disabled, blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other targeted groups.

Herz-Sommer’s reminded us of the human experience behind a man-made tragedy. History may be compressed into facts and statistics, but she, herself, could not.

Since WWII, more genocides have occurred, some more publicly than others. The Bosnian and Rwandan genocides occurred within the past 3o years while the more recent burning of Kiev, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic, and the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war, all illustrate conflicts plaguing the world today.

The death of one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors should serve as a stark warning that even the most horrific crimes against humanity will eventually fade away into the annals of history.

While the irreparable erosion of memory and experience is inevitable, preserving an international consciousness of these crimes is an inalienable human obligation. By doing so, such an effort will both memorialize the victims and survivors of the past and help to safeguard potential victims in the future.

 – Emily Bajet 

Sources: New York Times,, Al Jazeera
Photo: Daily Mail

It is no secret that the concerns and rights of ethnic minorities in China fall to the wayside in favor of the Han, the ethnicity with the majority in the country. Inner Mongolia serves as an example of the cultural and economic strife caused by marginalizing one group over another. The result is what the Mongol minority believes is outright economic exclusion and the watering down of their culture.

One of the key issues within the region is the migration of the indigenous nomads from their native grasslands to the cities. The Chinese government waves off the migration as a move into modernity for the nomads. A removal from what Chinese authorities refer to as a “backward” culture, but as Nick Holdstock of the U.K. Independent points out, the natives have no say whatsoever when it comes to moving to the cities. This outflow of ethnic Mongolians to urban centers has raised fears among Mongolians that their culture, language and lifestyle are being threatened.

Another point of tension lies in the regional mining of rare-earth metals. Various mining companies have entered the region to take advantage of the lucrative prospects, especially since the value of these metals is demonstrated in their ubiquity among high-tech electronics. However, the mining has been accompanied by a degradation of the surrounding environment as well as the health of the nomads.

For example, the town of Baotou, a major mining hub, has seen its groundwater polluted to toxic levels, their crops ruined and much of their livestock destroyed. Moreover, the use of underground water sources, essential to the removal of impurities from the coal, has lessened the water available to crops and livestock. Many farmers, unable to deal with destruction of their livelihood, have moved away. The Guardian points out that the population within the surrounding villages of the Baotou plants has decreased dramatically. Those that have remained in the area are plagued by severe illness.

All of these factors have coalesced, creating serious economic problems for the ethnic minority. Environmental devastation of their grasslands has degraded some of the main forms of their economic livelihood; the mining industry in the region tends to hire workers from other provinces, excluding the nomads from many of the economic benefits the industry might bring.  Furthermore, those who have migrated to urban areas have discovered cultural barriers to finding gainful employment, namely an inability to speak passable Mandarin.

Tensions have, moreover, reached the point of violence in some instances. In 2011, a herder was killed by a passing coal truck when he attempted to prevent coal trucks from crossing into his land during his protest against the mining industry. Several days later another protester was killed by a forklift driver. Tensions finally boiled over and several thousand Mongolians went out to voice their opposition toward the mining activities.

Unfortunately, the case of Inner Mongolia is a harsh reminder among ethnic minorities in China of their second-class citizen status. Perhaps in time, the Chinese government will listen to the voices of protest among the disenfranchised minority groups that populate many rural areas throughout China. Until then, Mongolians and other ethnicities face major economic and cultural challenges.

Zack Lindberg

Sources: The Independent, The Guardian
Fabio Ghioni

In 2006, The Pew Global Attitudes Project poll revealed that 79 percent of Lebanese people thought that homosexuality “should be rejected.” Such a high percentage can be considered as quite high by some western and more liberal regional standards (Israel and Turkey were in the 50 percent rejection range.) Compared to more conservative Middle Eastern countries, however, Lebanon is considered to be more progressive concerning the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens.

In Egypt’s Pew research poll only one percent of people said that homosexuality should be accepted. On the other hand, however, in other countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, a gay person can be jailed, lashed, or put to death.

More liberal attitudes on homosexuality are largely associated with Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, where there is an underground, but lively gay culture.

It is in Beirut that Helem became the Arab world’s first LGBT advocacy group in 2001 and continues to this day, to be a powerful force against homophobia and abuse. Their stated primary goal is to rid Lebanon of Article 534, which outlaws “unnatural sexual intercourse.”

Though the law is not commonly used against homosexuals (a landmark 2009 ruling stated that Article 534 did not pertain to them), the wording of the law still provides justification for action to be taken against LGBT individuals within the safety of a vague legal framework.

Police took such action in July 2012, raiding a movie theater after a television show called it a “gay house.” They arrested 36 people, who were subsequently subjected to anal exams to allegedly confirm or deny their homosexuality. Even a doctor who performed the exams bluntly stated, “These tests prove absolutely nothing.”

Following the 2012 cinema raid, Lebanon’s Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi told the British Broadcasting Corporation, “From a humanitarian point of view, this is totally unacceptable.” He said he asked the Prosecutor General for clarification on laws concerning homosexuality and anal tests. All that resulted, however, was a memorandum calling for “restraint.”

In April 2013, the police force raided a LGBT bar in Dekwaneh, a conservative town near Beirut, and arrested several patrons. Those taken into custody were stripped and photographed, reportedly so the police could accurately identify their sex.

The Interior Minister of Lebanon’s interim government lauded the 2013 bar raid, and reiterated, “Lebanon is opposed to homosexuality.”

Calling anal exams “acts of shame,” Human Rights Watch reported the story of “Nadim,” who was initially arrested for suspicion that his brother sold drugs. However, when officers found phone numbers of known gay men in his phone, they physically and emotionally tortured him, forced him to sign a confession of his homosexuality, and subjected him to an anal exam.

At the same time, the Lebanese Psychological Association was the first in the Arab world to declare in July 2013 that homosexuality is not a disease. It stated, “Homosexuality in itself does not cause any defect in judgment, stability, reliability or social and professional abilities.” The association also criticized the practice of gay conversion therapy as scientifically baseless.

The Lebanese Broadcast Company reported a scathing criticism of the 2012 cinema raid, calling Lebanon “the republic of shame.” Citizens also took to social media to express their outrage—on both sides—about a topic not typically discussed openly.

With reports from October 2013, concerning the Beirut International Film Festival, banned the French gay love story “Stranger by the Lake” due to “obscene scenes of kissing between gay men…naked men, and sexual intercourse between men,” it is unclear what the future is for LGBT rights in Lebanon.

When asked by the BBC about Article 534, Justice Minister Qortbawi stated, “The law is a mirror of a society. And I think we need a lot of time before we get that far.”

– Kaylie Cordingley

Sources: Bekhsoos, Irin, BBC: End to Anal Exams, Huffington Post, The Daily Star, Y Net News, Raw Story, Reuters, BBC: Gay-Friendly Reputation Challenged, The Guardian

1. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

2. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

3. “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is people who have made poverty and tolerated poverty, and it is people who will overcome it. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

4. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

5. “Difficulties break some men, but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.”

6. “For to be free is not to merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

7. “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”

8. “Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

9. “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.”

10. “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.

11. “I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days.”

12. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

13. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

14. “It is now in the hands of your generations to help rid the world of such suffering.”

15. “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished”

– Stephanie Lamm

Sources: Dose.Ca, USA Today, Quartz
Photo: BBC UK

Romania, the small country in southeastern Europe, has struggled with poverty throughout its history.  The traditionally agricultural country has floundered since ceasing to be a communist state in 1989.  Poverty is most pronounced in rural areas, which are home to 44% of Romania’s population.

Low agricultural production is a large problem for the rural poor.  Additionally, there are few opportunities for formal employment or higher education outside of urban areas of Romania. Remote mountainous areas receive little support from the government, and suffer from a lack of social services, infrastructure, sanitation and opportunity.

Poor Romanians often leave in search of better opportunities overseas, sometimes at rates of hundreds of thousands per year.  The earnings sent home by these emigrants have made up as much as 6% of Romania’s GDP.  While poverty is a clear and large scale problem in Romania, the government has no formal policy to help raise the employment rate or improve conditions in rural areas.  In fact, there is a marked absence of government initiatives to reduce poverty.

One ethnic group in particular is plagued by poverty, illiteracy, squalid living conditions as well as government discrimination and social persecution.  The Romani people, known negatively around Europe as ‘gypsies’, were held as slaves around Europe until the mid-eighteen hundreds.  They were exterminated by the Nazis on a large scale, and continue to be mistreated around Europe.  Romania is home to as many as two million Roma people, and they are five times as likely as other groups to live in poverty.

Frequently, Roma, like other Romanians, leave to find work and better fortunes in more affluent parts of Europe.  Many Europeans discriminate against the Romani, however, and an influx of Roma people in France has contributed to the recreation of racist, fascist groups from the 1940s.

Romani people often live in segregated neighborhoods, or in their own villages entirely.  One such village, in a rural region of Romania, is generally ignored by the authorities and does not even appear on maps despite its population of over 500 people.  The citizens of Ponorata live without electricity, in handmade wooden homes and frequently in conditions that have been described as ‘medieval’.  Illiteracy and unemployment are rampant.

The plight of Ponorata is a symptom of a wider problem in rural Romania, which is the lack of initiative taken by the government to solve the poverty of these areas. While some non-governmental organizations run schools and health centers, there is a desperate need for a more widespread and coordinated strategy to improve the quality of life of Romanians, especially the Roma.

Abigail Hanson

Sources: Daily Mail, Rural Poverty Portal, Euractiv