Back, but it’s not over…

A few days ago was 1 month of being evacuated from Skopje, of being back in the U.S. I saw posts my friends made on social media, and I was tempted to make my own. But every time I sat down to write, I felt like I was flooded with too many thoughts and feelings to even begin to possibly explain. Every time I apply for a job stateside, or look at the idea of what I’ll do next, or have a deeper than surface level conversation about things, it’s like opening a Pandora’s box of all these questions and feelings:

I’m not really going back with Peace Corps, am I? Who’s to say the agency’s even going to recover from this? Will I really be able to keep cultivating these relationships the way I want to? When will I feel like I’m ‘back to normal’? When will it stop feeling like I was ripped away from something? Am I a terrible person for planning for options that may not include coming back with Peace Corps, even though I want to – even if it doesn’t feel realistic or possible?

And it’s hard. Sometimes it feels easier to just keep a lid on the box. Sometimes the seemingly never ending sympathy just feels like salt in the wound. But I take some solace in the words of one of my favorite poets, that even though I’m far away and things feel completely upside down, that this too shall pass, and it isn’t at all the end of things – just a different path.

How does a part of the world leave the world? How does wetness leave water? …what hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest. I could explain this, but it will break the glass cover on your heart, and there’s no fixing that.

Rumi

I’ve always found solace in the words of Rumi, and this one was a repeated mantra in a book I love, and it speaks to me more so in this uncertainty.

Languages for days –

As you may recall, April 8th was International Roma Day, and while I wasn’t present to share with my friends in Shutka, I decided that I could do something to commemorate the day, and put my language skills to the test. I wrote up a short text, did my best to translate it to Romani, and asked my friend/tutor to correct it. (It was mostly right!) I practiced it a bit, and created the below video (with subtitles). If nothing else, I can at least try to keep up my language skills a bit!

The video isn’t working to embed, but you can view it here!

Personal update –

So, I’m still in New York City — not traveling back to Seattle anytime soon, as even with a mask, I don’t want to risk exposure and potentially exposing my dad to anything, as it rather defeats the purpose of why I came to NYC in the first place – so I’m sticking around.

I’ve been applying to jobs in New York and Washington DC, trying to take advantage of the Non-Competitive Eligibility status that most volunteers have for a year after their service – basically it means a bit of extra access to certain federal jobs. It doesn’t guarantee a job, but it’s a bit more access to government postings. Also, evacuated Peace Corps volunteers recently became eligible for unemployment benefits, thanks to the efforts of Senators Murphy (CT) and Van Hollen (MD). Additionally, Peace Corps HQ recently announced a $1,500 wellness stipend for evacuated volunteers, so that’s a helpful bonus, as well.

Unrelated, but I’m hoping to start working on a video of sorts from my time in N. Macedonia, so stay tuned for developments there! And as always, please see below for some Roma-specific current events.

News links of interest – Romani issues during COVID-19 pandemic

I’ve always hated goodbyes.

Not long ago, I was still in Skopje. Now I’m in New York City, staying with my sister for a while.

“It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.”

That’s what our country director said to us from the very beginning. I knew them that it would be hard to say goodbye, but I didn’t expect goodbye to come in the form it did. On Saturday, March 14th, Peace Corps Volunteers in N. Macedonia were notified we would be evacuating. This was only a few days ahead of the announcement that Peace Corps volunteers worldwide have been/are in the process of being evacuated back to the U.S. This meant some quick action, turnaround and goodbyes for myself and all of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers; I’m only just barely beginning to process the many emotions still swirling around.

The last year and a half have been absolutely amazing: meeting so many other awesome volunteers, spending an amazing 3 months in the small community of Rosoman, and a year-plus in Shutka, a place that holds an incredibly special place in my heart. As my friend’s mom tearfully told me, “you always have a home here.”

I know it’s not really goodbye – I’ll be back in one way or another. But it really hurts. The goodbyes I had to send via text, the few I managed to say in person, all the things I’d hoped to do before I left. I definitely hope to return soon and with Peace Corps, but it’s a hope that’s tempered with a fair amount of realism. So much is uncertain right now; none of us knows what comes next.

But what is completely certain is how much I loved the last year and a half of my life, my experiences in the Balkans, and absolutely, 100% – the incredible, amazing people I met. I will carry you in my heart always, until we meet again.

Thank you all so much for welcoming me and making me a part of your communities. Ви благодарам на сите, oven saste sarinenge.

I’ve included some relevant links below. The first set has to do with Peace Corps and the evacuation, for those interested. I chose not to include the opinion piece you may have seen from the Washington Post because I do not agree with its opinions and I feel that it neglects to include some very important, nuanced information. If you’ve read it and wish to know my thoughts, I’d be happy to share – just reach out.

The second set of links concerns anti-gypsyism (anti-Roma discrimination) unfolding now during this pandemic.

Peace Corps/evacuation related

Anti-Gypsyism in practice during the pandemic

Halfway there?

Something something Bon Jovi reference, living on a prayer… ha!

Hey all, sorry for the radio silence. December and January are pretty quiet here in general, and then I had a short trip back to the U.S. for the holidays – two weeks in Seattle. Now it’s back to N. Macedonia and its holiday season – Orthodox Christmas is in January, plus a lot of people typically take some vacation time in the winter. Now things are warming up a bit, literally and figuratively, so it’s finally back to feeling like I have things to do, as well as crossing things off my to do list slowly but surely.

So as the title of my blog post references, we’re halfway there! More than halfway, technically. My group of amazing people arrived in country at the end of September 2018, and I moved to my site in December of 2018. I’ve been in Skopje for more than a year! Part of Peace Corps training includes what they call mid-service training, which we just finished here in Skopje with my entire cohort. We’ve also got a training period towards the end of our service in country, called close of service, and that’s scheduled for a few days in mid-August. The timeline continues with those of us from my cohort who will be finishing and leaving this year doing so somewhere around November/December of this year.

Those of you who know me…well, at all, probably, would know that I’m not likely to say goodbye anytime soon, haha. It’s definitely not official yet – but I do plan to apply for a third year. What that would look like, timeline-wise, is an application, then an ongoing process and some conversations with staff, and eventual medical clearance for a third year. What that would look like, work-wise, is something that I gave some description to in my application, but is TBD – going to be an effort between myself and my Program Manager if my application gets approved. I’ll keep you updated!

In fun news, it seems a lot of people back in the U.S. have at least heard a little bit about something really exciting from N. Macedonia – and that’s the amazing documentary “Honeyland” that was nominated for two Oscars! Sadly, it did not win any, but everyone here was quite proud of the fact that it was the first ever movie from the country to ever be nominated! Check out the trailer below:

Trailer for Honeyland

Items of Interest Regarding the Roma

I’d like to continue sharing some links of interest regarding Roma in general, in Europe, and the Balkans. I’ve shared a bit about the Roma so far, some stuff about the language and culture, but there’s always a lot more to learn.

January saw Holocaust Remembrance Day, so I’ve seen a bit floating around Facebook regarding Roma experiences during the Holocaust. Here are some links I found:

Current events regarding the Roma:

And of course, what would a post be without some visuals – here are some new pictures – enjoy!

My kingdom for a language…

I’ve shared a little before about the Romani language in previous posts (see here), but I wanted to share a bit more in detail. Why? In 2015, UNESCO declared the 5th of November as International Romani Language Day. You may see the language referred to in a few different ways: Romani, Romanes, or Romany. In Macedonian, the Romani language is called ромски (romski).

Romani is the language of the Roma, and as such also has its root in what is now India. Interestingly enough, it is not rooted in any singular Indic language, but has similarities with a number of different ones.

As people migrated westward, the language picked up influences from other languages on the way, such as Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and more. (Interesting side note: I once watched a YouTube video where people try to guess what languages people are speaking, and there were a number of words in Kurdish that I recognized thanks to Romani.)

Today there are multiple dialects of Romani across the world and in Europe alone. As you can see on the map below, European dialects vary by region. Moving towards the Balkan region, the main distinctions are Vlax and non-Vlax (mainly, Balkan dialects). Here in North Macedonia, there are some 7-8 dialects. For the most part, they are mutually intelligible amongst native speakers, though there are some words that are unique to certain dialects. The below right graphic from European Roma Rights Center shows some of the differences amongst dialects across Europe. In some countries, Romani will interact a great deal with the local language(s) and borrow much vocabulary from languages in that community.

Not only do I live in a Roma community, but I also work with Roma organizations, one of which is called Romaversitas, which works with Roma high school and college students and alumni. A number of college students were interested in putting something together to creatively serve as a commemoration of Romani Language Day, and the result of our efforts was the below video! One of the students collaborated with a professor of Romani language on the text, other students volunteered to read a sentence or two for the video, and I recorded and edited their excellent work. Please take a look at the video – I’ve included the version with English subtitles.

While I’m excited for new languages, don’t let the enthusiasm fool you – sadly there isn’t much material in existence for learning. It’s recognized directly or indirectly in only a few countries, including North Macedonia, Austria, Finland, and Hungary. Given the discrimination, many people may avoid identifying as Roma to try and blend in and avoid harassment – and this may include not speaking the language; in some cases, entire communities may not even speak the language anymore. However, here in North Macedonia, there are four municipalities where the Romani language is offered as an elective in (some) schools. Also, in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, the canton of Tuzla is also looking to include Romani as part of its curriculum.

More Links:

Wedding Season!

Here in the Balkans, summer is wedding season! I’m not sure about the origins of that, but another side of the timing is that since there is a chunk of the population in countries in this region that work or live in other countries in Europe, summer is perhaps easier to plan for travel from school and work. Also, weddings are a big deal and kind of a community affair, in part because of how they’re held. Now I must admit, I’ve only been to Roma weddings in my home community in Shutka, so I can really only speak to that, and even that isn’t from expertise, just experience.

As I’ve touched on in other posts, the cultural heritage of the Roma comes from what’s now India, with migration and movement extending across parts of central Asia, the Middle East & North Africa, and then into Europe (and onward to the Americas). As is typical anywhere for people and communities, there was interaction and cultural exchange, so some things that I’ve seen in Roma wedding traditions here may be similar to your own cultures or heritage, or weddings you’ve been to! There are also similar elements across some groups in the Balkans, too.Does anything in particular stand out? Let me know!

This summer I got to attend three different weddings – some of them were just portions of the entire thing, some were slightly different from tradition due to the family’s religious beliefs, and for one I got to see almost all of it from start to finish. I want to share some of the interesting experiences, and perhaps most exciting for you all, some pictures so you can see things for yourselves!

So who are the Roma? (pt 1)

First off, sorry for the silence! I didn’t feel like I had enough to warrant an update, but now I’m working on multiple posts! After fielding some questions, I wanted to post more background information about my new community, starting with the history of the Roma. I’m in the capitol city, Skopje, in the municipality of Shuto Orizari, aka Shutka, on the north side.

Shutka mayor Kurto Dudus at the Sept. 2019 celebration of the 23rd anniversary of Shuto Orizari as a municipality.

I’ve linked to pages with info about my community of Shutka, but I thought I’d share info in a blog post of my own. You may recall I’ve mentioned Shutka is Europe’s — and for that matter, the world’s — only municipality or administrative division that is 1) majority Roma, and 2) utilizes the Romani language as an official language.

So who are the Roma, anyways? I want to first state I’m no expert. I fully acknowledge, decry and seek to confront the violent and less violent ways that non-Roma have typically silenced Roma voices in sharing more accurate, holistic and authentic narratives about themselves, their own identities and heritage. There are a lot of stereotypes and discrimination about Roma, which is why I think these things are important and worth saying, especially when people share about communities and traditions that are not their own.

Dozens of activists gather outside the parliament in Rome to protest on Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, amid new concerns within the community about discrimination, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Roma refers to a community of people spread across the world, historically nomadic. As mentioned above, stereotypes & discrimination about the Roma exist & have for centuries. You may have heard of the term ‘gypsy‘. What do you think of when you hear that term? For the Disney generation, maybe Esmeralda from ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. Maybe the way they have been described in literature for centuries – poor, beggars, outcasts. Perhaps as bohemian, carefree nomads that many seek to emulate with the ‘gypsy spirit’. But:

The official flag of the Roma people, adopted at the World Romani Congress in 1971.

Historically, the term “Gypsy” came from the mistaken assumption that Roma originated in Egypt. Roma are a[n] ethnic minority whose origins began in the Punjab region of India. They traveled through the Persian Gulf, Egypt, Turkey, eventually spreading all over Europe. While Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, they remain the least integrated and the most persecuted people of Europe today. Using the word “Gypsy” is not only inaccurate but perpetuates stereotypes that portray Roma as beggars, swindlers, and thieves; thus the phrase: “I’ve been gypped”. The romanticized image of the “Gypsy” is alive and well in lyrics, novels, costume parties, musical groups, and other forms: “They are exotic women in colorful skirts, dancing in sensual swirls. They are dark en with smoldering eyes. They are carefree spirits playing the tambourine.” They dance by campfires, travel in caravans, tell fortunes with crystal balls or Tarot cards.

Shani Rifati, Voice of Roma: ‘Breaking Gypsy Stereotypes’
A map illustrating the origins & historical migration of the Roma.

While many people may think that Roma only live in Europe, there are Roma communities across the world, with notable populations including the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Americas. Many regions shown on the map still have Roma communities with historical roots. Europe is estimated to have a population of 10 to 12 million Roma. Reliable statistics can be hard to find, as some people may not disclose their ethnic identity due to apprehension about discrimination and perception.

Old poster from France depicting a child kidnapped by the ‘nomads’

Anti-Roma prejudice & discrimination, or anti-gypsyism, has historical roots both socially and culturally as well as politically. The Byzantine Empire labeled them as “wizards…inspired satanically and pretend to predict the unknown” (1). Under the Ottoman Empire, they were labeled with low social status. Anti-Roma legislation is noted as early as the 1500s, in Moravia, Hungary, and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1530s England, the “Egyptian Act” banned Roma from entering the country and demanded the expulsion of those already there. In 1545, Augsburg (Holy Roman Empire, now Germany) declared that “whoever kills a gypsy will not be guilty of murder” (2). Persecution continued into the 1700s and 1800s with many types of treatment: forced migrations, physical disfiguration; summary executions; forcible removal of Roma children from their families; outlawing marriage between Roma and non-Roma, enslavement of Roma, and more.

Discrimination today is manifest in multiple forms:

  • Segregation:
    • Some villages & towns in Europe where Roma are segregatedRoma children are sometimes segregated in schools or placed in classes for students with special needs
  • Economic disparities:
    • Due to discrimination in hiring, forced displacement, societal discrimination, many Roma live below the poverty line
  • Violence & discrimination: 
    • The “G” word:
      • ‘Gypsy’ is seen by many as a derogatory slur and Roma worldwide ask for people not to use it. Some other names for Roma in local languages also have negative connotations.
    • There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples in the last 30 years alone in countries across Europe of issues the Roma have faced, including:
      • hate speech, forced displacement, demolition of homes, arbitrary killing, overrepresentation in prison, forced repatriation to country of origin, blatant links to criminality, mass raids, arbitrary detention, vandalism, harassment, anti-Roma riots, forced sterilization, discrimination from public service, marginalization, death threats, attacking pro-Roma activists & allies, confiscation of property

My next post will share more about Roma culture.

April/May Updates

First of all, I’m so sorry for the delay! Each time I meant to sit down and write a blog post, either there didn’t seem to be nearly enough to talk about, or I ended up having something come up. I’m not letting that stop me this time, so you’re in for an update!

While I say I don’t have time, it has been flying by! It’s hard to believe, but I have been at my site in Shutka 6 months already! We MAK23s, the 23rd cohort of Peace Corps here, arrived in country some 9 months ago, finished our Pre-Service Training, and swore in. It’s hard to believe that was half a year ago already! While I’m a Community Economic Development Volunteer here, my work sites are related to education, so I’m finishing up the school year with them. I’m hoping to take advantage of the summer to network and connect more with organizations in Shutka, continue working on learning the Romani language, and building more relationships.

Speaking of work, though, I wanted to share this fantastic documentary trailer featuring some of the awesome people I work with! Roma Rock School played host to our friends in Kosovo at Mitrovica Rock School, as well as a team of rad people from across Europe, via Musicians Without Borders and the Netherlands. Some of our students participated in an audio engineering workshop, but just as exciting, get to be part of the upcoming “Music Connects” documentary – check out the trailer below!

I’ll be getting a bit of work through Peace Corps, though! A few months back we had our technical in-service training, and coming up in a couple of weeks we have the opportunity to gather my entire MAK23 cohort together for further language & cultural training. It will be great to see everyone and spend time together on Lake Ohrid — the Seattle side of me has missed regularly seeing a large body of water! Of course, the nerdy language side of me is happy to have more language work for Macedonian, too – but there’s no shock there!

Peace Corps North Macedonia Instagram – give us a follow!

Additionally, staff is busy preparing because in a short few months, the MAK24s will be arriving in country, and the new trainees will be looking to us as voices of experience (yikes!) I’m hoping to help out with that preparation and training phase as much as possible. Also, I’m excited to share that I’m part of the new group of volunteers helping share content on the official Peace Corps North Macedonia Instagram! If you haven’t checked it out yet, do give it a follow – I’m excited to help amplify the different stories and experiences across this small but beautiful country!

Some of the resources I have for Romani studies.

Speaking of Instagram, if you haven’t already connected with me on my personal account, please do! I’m happy to share that I’m digging into my language nerd side even more and starting a project I came up with a few months ago. In order to encourage language learning and also share more about the Romani language, I’m starting a project to share short videos and highlights on my Instagram and Facebook messenger stories. I’m also working on conducting some linguistic fieldwork to both explore the different Romani dialects here for both my own benefit, but also support the efforts of Romani language teachers in country. I’ll update with another post about this project in more depth soon!

In addition to the time between blog posts flying by, it’s flown by here in Shutka for other reasons. As you may already know, Muslims around the world just finished fasting in observation of the holy month of Ramadan, where many abstain from food and water from sunup to sundown as a sign of faith and commitment. I have joined my Muslim friends for iftar, the meal with which they break their daily fast, and I’ve spent time with friends in the evenings, both before and after they go to the mosque to pray. Since my first travels in the Balkans these 10-14 years ago, I’ve always loved hearing the call to prayer from the minarets, and it’s no different in Shutka. Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the last month or so to commemorate this holy time.