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ever since my arrival (over nine months ago!) in Budapest, I’ve been working three afternoons a week with roma youth. two of my afternoons are spent at a community after-school center in my district (where 30% of all the roma in Budapest live) and my Friday’s are spent at a local high school (or at least they were when school was in session – I can’t wait for it to start up again in the fall!).

I know that for many of my readers back in the states, you may have no clue what I’m talking about when I say that I work with roma youth – it’s not something that is really ever covered in a US history class and so unless you have a specific interest in the region, you may have never even heard of the roma before.

with this post, I hope to answer some common questions that I’ve gotten from friends and family back in the states in order to give you all a more full picture of the community in which I work. please note that all of this is from my own perspective and it is by no means a full account of roma life or of the roma experience. it is simply my observations and experiences in working with my kids and their families on a regular basis. the language barrier obviously plays a part, so in no way do I have the full story of the situation here in Budapest, but I do my best to pay attention, ask questions, provide support where I can, and educate myself.


who are the roma?

the roma are an originally nomadic ethnic group originating from northern india that entered Europe hundreds of years ago. they were called gypsies because many people in europe mistakenly thought that they were from Egypt. the term gypsy is considered derogatory when used by a non roma, so I never use it in my work. the roma have their own language (romani), but most of the youth that I work with here in Budapest do not know it – they simply speak Hungarian. of hungary’s total population of approximately 10 million people, around 10% are roma. within hungary, the roma are much more settled than in other areas. many of them live in settlements in rural areas and those who live in the city have been here for many years. they are no longer a traveling people like some of their counterparts in other nations.

how are they viewed by non roma society?

one Hungarian minister, who has had extensive contact with a UCC minster from the western USA, told me that it seemed to him that the roma in hungary are treated much like native Americans are treated in the US. many of them are stuck in a cycle of generational poverty, they are surrounded by a society that urges them to assimilate but mocks them when they do, and they suffer from higher rates of drug use and crime. Hungarian society at large stereotypes them and prejudges them, often times never giving the roma a chance to prove their ideas incorrect. it’s happened a few times that I’ve been out on a date with a Hungarian guy (back when I was still dating Hungarian guys.. I’ve since given up on that) and they were freaked out that I was working with roma youth. some were even appalled. which in turn appalled me and that was pretty much the end of the date. in general, they are stereotyped and looked down upon by Hungarian society – especially those with a darker skin tone.

how do the roma you work with behave?

honestly it took me a while to get used to my kids mannerisms. they’re much more physical than you see in non roma society. when I walk in the door the kids throw themselves at me and want to touch and be super close to me – as an introvert, that really freaked me out my first two weeks. the kids that I interact with are normal youth who want love, praise, and attention, often because they don’t receive it at home or in their school environment. gender roles are pretty strict within roma society and I’ve noticed that, given the physicality that most of these kids are exposed to in their environment, this often displays itself in little boys pushing around little girls and not thinking anything of it. sometimes the girls push back, sometimes they don’t. the one major exception to these rigid gender roles that I’ve found is music and art. if we set out musical instruments or a craft area, boys and men of all ages (from 4 to 14, and sometimes even 40) will come and join in freely. it’s such a beautiful experience.

are you ever afraid?

before I knew my high schoolers, I was definitely nervous about working in the school there on Friday’s. you hear crazy stories about schools in the states where the students try to like tie the teacher up and poison her or something, so that was a genuine (but irrational) fear of mine. once I got to know them though I feel totally safe and secure with them, and with my younger kids at the after-school center. there has never been a moment when I was truly afraid, though I will admit that I was a little worried one day when a 4th grade boy tried to stab me with scissors – that was a fun one. on the whole, my kids are loveable and amazing, even when they’re being mischievous. I wouldn’t want them any other way.

how do you communicate with them?

communication with my kiddos is always an adventure, that’s for sure. my young kids speak very little English and some of them are resistant to even learning. some of my high school youth can carry on a conversation, but many of them are also at just a basic level of English. so many of the roma youth that I encounter see no use in learning English – they don’t even understand why they should want to. in their eyes, it’s useless. their whole world revolves around Hungarian, and sometimes romani. to them, why bother learning English when they are told by society at large that they will not amount to anything. if they don’t have dreams, then they don’t see a need to learn it. due to this, much of my communication with the youth that I work with is miming, or working thorough another volunteer who is multilingual. now that I know my kids pretty well – their personalities, likes, and dislikes – it’s easier for me to understand what they want. my younger kids are actually really good at communicating with me thorough acting, miming, drawing, and using what little English they know and what little Hungarian I know. I wrote a blog post earlier about how kids aren’t afraid to look silly when they want you to understand something, but the older we get the more that fear creeps in of looking ridiculous. my high school youth shut down if they don’t understand what I’m saying – there isn’t the same desire to try to understand one another from them. if another student, or the teacher that I work with, won’t translate for them then they pretty much shut down and don’t talk in class. with time, I’m getting much better at understanding what my kids are saying – it’s the responding back to them part that I’m still not very good at. I have a working knowledge of Hungarian vocabulary, but not a lot of insight as to the grammatical structure of the language. that’s something that I want to work on in the months to come.


if you have any other questions about my work with roma youth, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments section below and i’ll do my best to answer it!

as always, thank you so much for reading and for being such an amazing source of support during my time as a missionary here in budapest, hungary.