Incidents involving Roma children highlight our attitude to the dispossessed
Opinion: If we condemn recent actions but fail to support integration we are being hypocritical
A child cries as families of Roma origin are forced to leave their homes after a Hungarian far-right militia invaded their village in 2011. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
I first came across Roma people about 20 years ago in Rome. I was sightseeing with a tiny baby strapped to me when I saw a group of young women dressed in traditional Roma clothing surround a Japanese tourist.
Within seconds they had relieved him of his camera, his wallet and a bag, and then immediately disappeared. It was like a conjuring trick, except that the baffled and distraught tourist was not applauding.
Amazed, I could not wait to tell the Italian couple with whom I was staying about the thieves, whom I described as being as efficient as piranhas. I did not get the reaction I expected.
Before I rushed to judgment, and described human beings as piranhas, the wife said icily, perhaps I should reflect about what it would be like to be part of one of the most despised minorities in Europe. Perhaps I should think about having people make the sign against the evil eye when you appeared, or having to protect yourself every day against verbal abuse and even violence.
Perhaps I might like to reflect on how I would make a living, or feed my child, if every form of respectable work was closed to me. Or what it might be like to know that the bodies of your relatives had been piled high in Nazi crematoria and that some people thought not enough of you had died there.
Or perhaps I might like to visit the shanties in Rome where they lived, worse than many Brazilian favelas, and think about what it must be like to be pushed to the margins of every society.
One day, she concluded, they may be pushed as far as Ireland. And then only the Atlantic would be left. Perhaps I might like to see them pushed into the ocean.
By this stage I was suitably crushed. The Italian couple were members of the Sant’Egidio community, a Christian community formed by second-level students in Rome that had, as one of its many endeavours, an outreach project to the Roma people.
And of course the Roma did come to Ireland. We had had a harmonious relationship for years with an Irish Traveller family that regularly visited us looking for help, so when the first Roma came to the door I was initially warm and welcoming. Perhaps I still had the Italian woman’s reprimand ringing in my ears.
I wish I could say that it all went well, but it did not. Three Roma women called to me, and I came to the reluctant conclusion that one fitted into what my mother used to call the “daylight” category. In other words, if such a person said it was daylight you would be wise to go outside to check.