Harvard recognizes International Roma Day with first conference on Roma rights

By Margareta Matache, Chair, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights

April 8 marks the International Roma Day, an occasion to reflect on the history and culture of Romani people, as well as to confront contemporary threats to Roma human rights and dignity.

At Harvard, International Roma Day (April 8) is being recognized with the organization of the first Roma conference at the university, on the theme “Realizing Roma rights: addressing violence, discrimination and segregation in Europe.” Located  at the Center for European Studies, the half-day event is organized by the FXB Center, in collaboration with the Mahindra Humanities Center, Center for European Studies and the OSCE/ODIHR/Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues.

International Romani Day was established in 1971, on the occasion of the first international Roma congress in London. The participants at the meeting agreed the term Roma instead of Gypsy and adopted the Roma flag and Roma anthem Gelem, Gelem.

April 8 also became the day of commemorating the Romani people murdered during the Holocaust. Of the 14 million-plus Roma or Roma-related people living in the world, 10-12 million live in Europe, with about one million living in the USA, and the remaining in the Middle East and Latin America.

In Europe, Roma groups face economic, social and political exclusion in their daily lives. Many Roma individuals live below the national poverty line and are unable to claim their fundamental rights to decent housing, education, health care and employment.

Despite national and European Union (EU) commitments to Roma inclusion, top-down policies and programs have failed to meet the needs of Roma communities on the ground. The Roma face disproportionately low access to the labor market, as well as pervasive discrimination and marginalization in schools. Half of all Roma students in Europe do not complete primary education and most do not complete secondary education.

Structural discrimination and exclusion creates a situation in which Roma children and adolescents are at grave risk of experiencing human rights violations and lack the knowledge and agency to claim the equal rights and citizenship to which they are entitled.

The first Roma conference at Harvard attempts to bring these realities to the fore and initiate discussion on the issues. The conference brings together academicians, policy makers and activists from the U.S. and Europe to discuss extremism, structural discrimination and youth disempowerment faced by Romani people, and to spot repertoires of ideas and strategies in response.
Panelists include Nobel prize laureate Amartya Sen, whose insights on how marginalized groups can build their social and cultural capital in unwelcoming though economically developed environments are of relevance for securing Roma rights.

Recent work of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights has focused on promoting the rights of Roma children and adolescents, and on confronting the escalating climate of anti-Roma violence in Europe.

The conference is a step in realizing the center’s goal of placing Roma rights on academic agendas, especially in the United States, and to generate dialogue on the role of youth in promoting Roma inclusion. In this vein, a focus area of the conference is the mechanisms of the anti-Roma violent events in Central and Eastern Europe, reflecting on general patterns from the past in a discussion led by Dr. Jennifer Leaning, the Director of the FXB Center.

Another panel focuses on structural discrimination and Roma school segregation in Europe, with Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Director of Research of the FXB Center, serving as panel chair, discussing the impact of the EU legal framework on combating segregation and discrimination persisting in schools, as well as the drivers (political, economic, social, legal) of this enduring structural discrimination.

Other panelists include renowned academicians such as Michele Lamont, Jack Greenberg, Grzegorz Ekiert, Will Guy, Kalman Mizsei, Iulia Motoc; leading Roma activists and scholars such as Marian Mandache, Anna Mirga, Oana Mihalache, Iliana Sarafian, Dezideriu Gergely; and representatives of U.S. and international government institutions including Andrzej Mirga, Michael Uyehara, Morten Kjaerum, Erika Schlager, and Roberta V. Gatti.

The event concludes with a reception, and an exceptional performance by Lulo Reinhardt, a musician born into a Roma family with a legendary and famous music tradition.

“My father gave me my grandfather’s Django Reinhardt model guitar. My father showed me my first chords too,” Reinhardt said. “Whenever the family got together, which was all the time, we played for birthdays, weddings, communions, always learning and playing Django’s songs. My first concert was in 1973 playing with the Mike Reinhardt Sextet in front of an audience of four thousand people. It was here that I felt like a musician and knew that was what I was born to be. I was twelve years old.”

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