Gabriela Hrabanova - Czech-Romani education specialist with one foot in each world

Gabriela Hrabanova, photo:

Radio Prague reported recently on the alarming rise in the creation of Roma ghettos, where up to a third of the country's 250,000 or so Romanies end up, with no job and a bleak life ahead of them. One group trying to help Roma out of the ghetto and enter mainstream Czech society is the Romani student organisation Athinganoi. Rob Cameron spoke recently to Gabriela Hrabanova, the group's 27-year-old director.

"I was born into a mixed family. My mother is of Romani origin and my father is a Czech. As to the question - do I consider myself Roma? Well I definitely feel like a Roma. Sometimes it's very hard because I don't look like a Roma."

Exactly. You have blue-green eyes and are not really very dark. You could be mistaken for a 'white' Czech.

"Yes. A lot of people actually think that I'm Czech. It takes time for them to really get to know me, and they also see my personal characteristics. Then they start thinking not only that I'm not like a typical Czech, but that I am somehow mixed. I saw this clearly when I was studying at university. I went to the Anglo-American College here in Prague, and there were a lot of students coming from abroad. At first they considered me as a Czech, but then I started talking to them, and they started saying - 'but you're different, you're different than the other Czechs, you're more friendly' etc. And I explained to them that this was because I'm half-Romani, and proud to be Roma."

Was that a conscious decision, to identify more with the Romani side of your character? Or did it come naturally as you were growing up?

"As I was growing up it came naturally, because I had a very strong connection to the Romani part of my family. My mother is one of six children, so we had a really big family, a lot of family meetings, and I always felt very good with my family members. Of course I feel the same with my Czech family, but it's something warmer with my Romani family."

Do the two families get on well with each other?

"Since my mother and father are already divorced, they don't communicate very much. But it wasn't so easy at the beginning."

And I suppose having one foot in each of those two communities - Romani and white - put you in an ideal position to become the director of Athinganoi.

"Yes, sometimes I say that's a kind of added value I have, because I can understand both worlds. I can easily communicate with Roma, because I feel I can talk with them without any borders, and especially without prejudice and stereotypes which is very important. Sometimes they have prejudices against me."

Because you're not 100% Romani.

"Exactly. Sometimes I see it at the beginning of negotiations."

They don't really take you seriously you think.

"Yes, it really takes time, and I have to prove my qualities. But I've got used to it. And the other thing is to know the non-Roma world is a great added value. Because then I can communicate easily with the politicians, with the public representatives. The here there's an advantage that they don't see me as a Roma on the first place, because sometimes they say things they wouldn't say otherwise."

You mean you sometimes catch them out making racist remarks or something?


How do you respond?

"Well, I say - 'excuse me but I'm also Roma, and I feel offended. Are you serious about the things you were saying'? It also happens very often. But then these people have to change. Sometimes they say - 'yes, but you're an exception.' And I say - 'I'm not an exception. I have an organisation and there are 100 or 200 more people like me, and we don't know about the others. So I'm not an exception.' So this gives me a chance to talk with people and show them the other view, and the other perspective of looking at Roma. Not being stuck with anti-gypsism or anti-Roma feelings, but really to try to talk with them even it's just explaining that we would like to be called Roma and not gypsies."

This difference between 'Roma' and 'gypsy' - I've heard some people say 'gypsy' is a more accurate term because 'Roma' refers to a specific tribe. Is that correct?

"There is a kind of truth in what you were saying. First of all, Roma is a name for a nation, but we can also consider it a tribe. It's coming from the language. When I say in the Romani language 'me som Rom' it means 'I am a human'. When it says 'me som Romni' it means 'I am a Romani woman.' Or 'me vakerav Romanes' - I speak Romani. And everywhere you hear the word 'Romani'. So that's why we're asking to be called Roma, because that the word coming from our language. The fact is that there were different tribes, and that the one Roma tribe divided during history into different tribes, and not all Roma want to be called Roma. We have Sinti, we have travellers, we have Bajas in Hungary, they want to be called 'Tsigane'. So we have to consider the diversity within this group. But the word 'gypsy' comes from the word 'Egypt', because when the Roma came to English-speaking countries, they were saying 'we are from Egypt, we're Egyptians' and the word 'gypsy' came from that. So first of all it's not accurate and not reflecting the history, as such, and second it was given to us from the outside."

You've spent many years trying to help your community, and improve relations between your community and majority society. Have you noticed any improvement?

"There's a kind of contradiction. We see more marginalised communities, we see increased unemployment, we see people not having enough money to buy basic commodities. This is very bad. On the other hand, we have people who are becoming integrated with society. So there's some development on both sides, negative and positive."

So it's getting better and it's getting worse.

"Exactly. It's so hard to catch it and do something with it. So for example my organisation, Athinganoi, we're trying to show positive examples. We're showing Roma students at high schools and universities, so we can really show the public that there are people who are able to finish high school or university and who can become teachers, doctors, lawyers, whatever."

Do you ever despair of the situation? Do you ever get sick of it and think - I've had enough. I've devoted all the energy I can devote to it. I'm going to get myself a well-paid job and forget about my community and its problems?

"I have an advantage because I was working in an advertisement agency for three years after my high school study. And I really got into the business world. I was working in advertising for three years and I got sick of this commercial world. Of course I sometimes think it's too much, I give too much energy and receive nothing back. But I've learnt to be happy about the simple things in which I succeed, like another student accepted at high school, another student receiving a scholarship, the one who receives a scholarship for his or her studies, the one who graduates and becomes a doctor. And this is what gives me the energy, because even if I don't see the system changing, I do see the change within people. And one by one that gives me the energy to continue my work."