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Why Do We Ignore the Plight of the Roma in Europe?

Posted: 10/27/10 03:03 PM ET

Last July I was in Córdoba, Spain doing research for a book I am writing about the relationship between Islam and Christianity. It was hot. The thermometer on a bank said 42 degrees Celsius, and I'm not sure how hot that is in Fahrenheit, but let's just call it "Africa hot." After almost two weeks away from my family on a journey that took me through Israel, France and Spain, I was feeling lonely. I was grateful for the adventure but missed my wife and kids.

As I walked on the ancient cobblestones of the city that once was a Muslim beacon of tolerance at a time when Christian Europe was getting ready to start up the Inquisition, a striking young woman with dark hair and skin stopped me and pressed a sprig of rosemary into my left hand.

"This is for good luck," she told me in exotically accented Spanish, "and now you must let me tell you your fortune."

We were standing in front of the main entrance to Córdoba's cathedral, once the most beautiful mosque in all of Islam. The only shade on the street was cast by the brim of my hat, and I was on my way to buy a pair of ladybug-patterned flamenco shoes for my six-year-old daughter. I wasn't really in the mood for a hustle.

I told the young woman that I didn't want to have my fortune told. But that didn't stop her. She just gave me my fortune in double time, something about me being kind and generous and, in the not too distant future, rich. It was four or five fortune cookies worth of soothsaying. I gave back the sprig of rosemary and tried to walk off in search of my daughter's shoes, but the woman did a nimble dance step and blocked my path.

"You have to pay for your fortune," she told me.

"But I didn't want the fortune in the first place," I reminded her.

"I gave you a fortune, now you must pay."

By this time the heat was starting to make me dizzy and sweat was running down my back. The elastic band on my boxer shorts was like a wet sponge. I needed to get out of the sun. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the only coin on me -- 2 Euros, it turns out -- which I handed over to the purveyor of cheap fortunes. Once more, I tried to walk away. Once more I got the dance step and my pathway was blocked once more.

"Not enough," she told me. "I gave you a good fortune."

I started to walk again, but this time I did a dance step to match hers and I was able to shake the skakedown in the narrow, crowded and sweltering medieval streets of Córdoba.

I've been thinking about that experience in Córdoba recently while considering the fact that Roma people (often, and erroneously, called "Gypsies") currently are victims of ethnic cleansing -- through forced evictions and deportations -- in France, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Kosovo, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. In the last month alone, Amnesty International has issued 14 policy statements calling on European governments to abide by international law and common decency while dealing with local Roma populations. I wonder why there is so little passion in America around defending the human and civil rights of the Roma people in Europe.

I went on Facebook and found a few sites dedicated to the Roma cause, but they weren't large, and most of fans on the page seemed to have Romani names. By contrast, pages dedicated to human rights in Darfur and Palestine have tens of thousands of fans from all over the world. News of the plight of Roma people in Europe is never to be found on the front pages, and I've yet to read an op-ed in my local newspaper calling on the world community to do more about defending the rights of the Roma.

How is it that the people of Europe and North America are so quick to forget? Just 70 years ago, Roma people in Europe were being sent to the gas chambers alongside Jews, gays, lesbians and persons with disabilities. In the years since the Holocaust, we've come a long way toward rejecting anti-Semitism, we're making some progress toward overcoming homophobia and the world is becoming more accommodating and accessible. But what about the Roma? How is it possible that we can remain so passive when modern, open, democratic countries such as France, Germany and Italy start deporting the Roma en masse?

My only answer brings me back to Córdoba. Most Americans who have traveled in Europe have some version of my story about having to fend off Roma hustlers or pickpockets on the streets or in the subways of Europe. Those American who haven't traveled to Europe certainly have heard the reports, and it's hard to get overly enthusiastic about coming to the defense of those who annoy us.

But think about that for a moment. Our better angels remind us that the entire Roma population is not represented or defined by a few street hustlers, and what kind of shallow people are we if we allow a few bad experiences to insulate us against a potential human rights disaster? In a worst case scenario, you might have your passport and credit cards nicked by a Roma child on the Ponte Vecchio, and so you'd have to spend the rest your Italian vacation figuring out how to pay for meals and how to get a replacement for your passport. Is that crime sufficient that we should countenance the collective punishment of all Italian Roma, or look the other way as Roma throughout Europe suffer indignity?

For years we've honored the victims of the Holocaust by promising never to forget and never to sit idly by while crimes against humanity are visited upon the less powerful people of the world. In the contemporary plight of Europe's Roma population, we have the opportunity to get make good on our promises.