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The Roma People of Carpath-Ukraine

A Trip Report by Michael Parker

April 2009
A view outside some houses in Carpath-Ukraine

A Roma village in Carpath-Ukraine. Photo by Michael Parker

I traveled for a week earlier this year in Hungary and Carpath-Ukraine. My primary interest was to learn about the Roma people in this area and perhaps to find ways in which the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) might bring a holistic gospel to a people sometimes ignored by the Christian churches in Europe. I was fortunate to be able to travel with people knowledgeable about both the Roma and the region. These were Donald Marsden of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, PC(USA) Regional Liaison for Eastern Europe Burkhard Paetzold, and PC(USA) mission co-worker in Hungary Joe Angi.  Before I tell you about the trip, I first want to introduce you to the Roma.

The Roma are a much-maligned people who live primarily in Eastern Europe but who exist all over the world: Russia, Spain, the United States and Brazil, among other places. The word Rom means man, and Roma is the plural, meaning men or humankind. The Roma are probably more commonly known as Gypsies, a name that derives from the mistaken belief that they originate from Egypt. Actually they probably emerged from central India in the 11th or 12th century. From Gypsy we derive our word gyp, meaning cheat, referring to the commonplace that Gypsies are thieves. A nomadic, wandering people, they were feared not only as thieves but as baby-stealers and fortunetellers.  This led to their enslavement in Romania and much persecution throughout Europe, culminating in the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed between 220,000 and 1.5 million. Their reputation for undesirability even passed to the United States, which barred their immigration in 1885.

Population figures in the past for the Roma vary because, being a traditionally peripatetic people, accurate census data were hard to obtain. In Central Eastern Europe most Roma are now settled due largely to the enforced settlement policies of the regimes of the Communist era. Nevertheless, accurate census figures are still difficult to obtain because many countries do not include ethnicity in their census data. Current estimates worldwide for the Roma range between four million and 14 million.

While feared by some, they have been romanticized in literature as an untamable, freedom-loving people — one thinks of their depiction in classics such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Carmen and La Gitanilla. Van Gogh also sentimentally portrayed them as the wondering people of Europe. 

Two women lead a kndergarten class

A kindergarten session in Gat, Carpath-Ukraine. The woman on the left is a Hungarian young adult volunteer; the woman on the right is a young adult volunteer from Germany. Photo by Michael Parker

Our trip, from January 27 through February 2, began in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.  Here we met with several people working for the Hungarian Reformed Church. One of these, the Reverend Eszter Dani, is now an associate pastor in the city but who had worked in Carpath-Ukraine for several years earlier in the decade. She explained that the Hungarian church continues to be involved with outreach to the Roma in Carpath-Ukraine. Her own work there, as a trainer of lay leadership, was highly effective. When she returned to Budapest to take up parish work, her church agreed that she could travel to the Ukraine several times a year to continue her training project. This, however, has not worked out. We also met with the Reverend Odor Balazs, the recently installed head of the ecumenical office of the Hungarian Reformed Church. Being very new, he had little to contribute, but he did affirm the church’s ongoing interest in reaching out to the Roma. Finally, we met with several people who were or had been involved with the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, which collaborated with a European program called “Roma-Gadje Dialogue through Service.”  The PC(USA) ended this collaboration in 2008 due to administrative difficulties in Hungary and the Ukraine.  Nevertheless, there seemed to be new energy around reviving the program; also, European churches have continued to send their own young adult volunteers, several of whom spoke highly of their programs to us.

The work among the Roma, we learned, is difficult for a number of reasons. First, Christians in Hungary and in the Reformed Church in particular have to combat age-old prejudices against the Roma. Hungarians have numerous problems of their own; hence, work with the Roma can be seen as being of tertiary concern. Second, the Carpath section of the Ukraine was traditionally part of Hungry, but during Soviet times it was made a part of the Ukraine. This is an unnatural division not only because an important minority of the people there traditionally speak Hungarian, but because the Carpath Mountains pose a geographical division that separates and isolates this region from the rest of the Ukraine.  Third, the government of the Ukraine allows the Roma schools to teach in the Roma language for the first four years, but beginning in the fifth grade all instruction must be in Ukrainian. Consequently, most Roma tend to drop out of school after the fourth grade. Lastly, the Roma, who tend to take on the religion of their host countries while retaining much of their traditional beliefs, are here loosely associated with several traditions: Orthodox, Reformed, Charismatic and Pentecostal. Since many have syncretized Christian ideas with traditional beliefs, the Roma may be highly resistant to a more biblical Christianity.

six people pose of a photo

From left to right beginning in the back row: Mike Parker, Donald Marsden, Burkhard Paetzold, Joe Angi, Gizi Kupas and her husband, Sandor. Photo by IE staff

We took a train from Budapest to a station near the border where we were met by a Hungarian Ukrainian missionary, Attila Tomes, working in the Roma Mission Center in Carpath.  He drove us across the border and into the small town of Beregszasz, where we stayed in a guest house of the Transcarpathian Reformed Church.  The next day we were driven to several Roma towns in the region: Gat, Nagy Dobron and Komoroz.  The towns were small, run down and generally poor. We visited several schools, a couple of churches and Attila’s Roma Mission Center. The teachers, church workers and pastors we met were entirely sanguine and excited about the work they were doing. We were all particularly impressed with a Hungarian woman named Gizi Kupas, or Gizineni (Aunt Gisela). She invited us into her home, treated us to popcorn and talked movingly about the needs of the Roma.  We learned that it was she who had had the original vision to take the Gospel to the Roma people of Carpath-Ukraine. 

There were a number of ministry possibilities that presented themselves on this trip.

  • Education: Given the great need the Roma have for education, this should be a priority. The local church already helps with preschool education. This is crucial because the parents are mostly illiterate and cannot help. Like the Head Start program in the United States, the preschools help the Roma children to enter first grade on a par with their contemporaries. Restarting the YAV program in Carpah might be an excellent first step to engaging in Roma work. There are significant organizational difficulties that remain, some of them within the Reformed Church; however, these could be overcome. The most important difficulty would be to find a person in the area who would be willing and able to supervise the young adults. Another possibility would be to send a long-term volunteer or co-worker to work with the Hungarian Reformed Church or Transcarpathian Reformed church in an effort to improve education for the Roma.
  • High School equivalency program: Gizineni asked that we consider funding a teacher who would work with Roma wanting to obtain their high school equivalency degree. Remarkably, she says that the salary for such a teacher would only be $1,800 per year. Gizineni herself would organize the classes, recruit the students and supervise the teacher. This is essential work because the Roma in general lack formal education, and a high school diploma is necessary to obtain most jobs. It would also help the budding church among the Roma to have an educated cadre to draw upon for leadership.
  • Leadership training: This work was started by Eszter Dani within the Transcarpathian Reformed Church and supported by the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and the PC(USA) from the beginning. Though there is great need for Roma churches to have their own Roma leadership, this vision may not be shared by everyone in the Transcarpathian Reformed Church, which may have led to the program’s effective termination. We could come alongside our brothers and sisters in the faith to urge that this work be taken up once again. There might also be ways in which we can help directly, but this should to be understood to be a Transcarpathian project since they are the ones who understand the context and can sustain the program for the many years ahead that it will be needed.
  • Two men sit at a table filled with handmade woven baskets

    Joe Angi and Mike Parker. We are examining some Roma baskets in a small church in Carpath-Ukraine. Photo by IE staff

  • Health: The estimate we heard of a 75 percent tuberculosis rate among the Roma population in Carpath may be an exaggeration, but it may also be a call for help. Perhaps a public health worker could do some basic research in this area to gather accurate statistics, uncover probable causes and propose best responses.
  • Roma Mission Center: The center seems to be under utilized and under staffed. Perhaps American seminarians would consider summer internships at the center, helping to bring new energy to the program while also learning about the Roma.
  • Job creation: Roma in this area have a 100 percent unemployment rate. Some find seasonal work while others leave for jobs in Kiev or Russian cities. In the past, the church tried to help with agricultural projects, some of which failed. Producing crafts for an export market is another option. Roma basketry will be on display this summer at the PW Gathering in Louisville.

Perhaps the most startling thing I noticed on this trip was the difference of ambiance upon crossing the border from Hungary to Ukraine. Though only a few hundred yards, one passes from a modern European state into what was once the Soviet Union — and a forgotten and isolated part at that. At the very doorstep of prosperous Europe sits the developing world, and within this challenging region we encountered the Roma, a people doubly marginalized. Numerous adjectives come to mind: overlooked, isolated, neglected, forgotten. Surely this poor and generally uneducated population needs the special concern and outreach that the PC(USA) is capable of providing.

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