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The first generation of educated Roma enters politics

2012. január 5. | CJI - Románia

Marian Daragiu, sociologist, PfD student: „I am Roma, so what, what difference does it make?” or ”Poverty has no ethnicity”

Author: Dollores Benezic

„We’ll go to the Roma communities and show them it is possible. We, who have succeeded, are the examples. There will still be people who will sell their vote in the evening before the elections for some pork meat. It won’t be easy, our main enemy is not another party, it’s ourselves, the Roma community”. This is how Marian Daragiu wants to get 500 000 votes in the 2012 general elections. He is the president of the Civic Democratic Roma Alliance, a new party on the Romanian political stage.

The Alliance is an unusual political construction for Romania; it consists of NGOs that have been working for years for the emancipation of Roma. A sort of Roma Romanian version of Tea Party.

The great ambition of a minority that already has a seat in the Parliament, yet for twenty years has been struggling with poverty and ignorance. However, there are some notable exceptions. One of them is Marian Daragiu, sociologist and founder of Ruhama, the NGO of the year in education in 2010.

Marian Daragiu, sociologist, PfD student: „I am Roma, so what, what difference does it make?”

My father said: from now on we are no longer Roma

Daragiu speaks English better than Romani, his father’s language. Because for more than twenty years – he is 40 now – he has been trying to convince the others and himself that he is Romanian and not Roma. His resume covers several pages and includes all the financial tools that Europe has used in the past 20 years to help deprived communities in Romania. He has benefited from European funds both  for his organization and for his professional education: „ The state and foreigners have invested in me hundreds of thousands euro for 30 years. Now I am ready to give something back to the society,” says Daragiu.

The state started investing in young Marian Daragiu in the 1970s, in Tabon, the Roma neighbourhood on the outskirts of Turnu Magurele, in Teleorman. It was a poor but colourful community of people coming from the floodable regions of Oltenia. „My father was a sanitary plumber and was proud he had never missed a day at work. My mother did not work, she was a ‚silk gypsy’, that is she did not speak Romani or wear long and coloured skirts”, Daragiu describes his family.

Ioana Loghin, his school teacher, was God’s providential hand that took him out of the Roma community. For two years she urged his parents to move out of the Roma neighbourhood to give their children a chance.

„ I was 8 when we left. We changed the community, the school, our life. Our parents told us: from now on we are no longer Roma. If somebody asks, don’t answer directly, speak about something else. My father no longer spoke Romani because he was embarrassed. My mother said: I’ll make sure you are twice as clean as the others, you make sure that you learn twice as better as them to have a chance, to be on a par with them. ”

My father and my mother are Roma, but not me

This dual attitude functioned until he graduated. Marian followed his father’s model, he became a sanitary plumber and never missed a day at work. He took evening courses and graduated high school and, in the early 1990s, he discovered the civil society represented by a few organizations active in Romania.

But his acceptance was yet to come. „I could never tell the people in the communities that I was one of them. I was ashamed. When they asked me, I avoided the answer. I would find something to say, yes, maybe, in my genealogy, somewhere, my father and mother, yes, but not me.”

It took ten years to win in-laws’ tolerance

In Araci, Marian met Tina, who is half Romanian, half Hungarian, he married her, they made two children and an organization – Ruhama. And another barrier to cross: to be accepted by his parents in law. It took him ten years of working together with them in Oradea. It was the time when he completed his eduation. He became a sociologist because he had to, but also because he was ambitious and only a minority person could understand his ambition. „I had to be accredited in order to work with children in the orphanages. The Social Assistance Department nicely told me that I needed to work more and, while I was leaving the room, a member of the commission said: „How dares this gypsy high-school graduate  come here to tell us how to work with children?” I got very ambitious, for the next three months I learned and I passed the exam with 9.90, I won a regular place and a merit scholarship. Then I got a master’s degree and now I am a PhD student. Now people look at me in a different way, they say „ look here, the damn Gypsy,  you wouldn’t  say…!” jokes Marian Daragiu.

But beyond the joke, the everyday life shows that many Roma that go to school, get not only education but also the embarrasment to acknowledge their ethnicity. „ we do just like many Romanians abroad  who pretend they are Italians or Germans, because they are ashamed to be associated with wrongdoers.”

The speech that competes with the pig’s head

Daragiu has put together an ambitious political project. Any analyst would say it is difficult to win the votes of a poor population, used to selling their votes to whomever pays more every four years. Daragiu knows for himself how tricky poverty can make one do such a thing. He has been living and working in a poor world for 16 years. „I returned to the Tabon community five years ago. I took my wife and children there. I saw my old friends. And I saw what I would have looked like if I hadn’t left that place. Just like 30 years ago, they live on social welfare and have odd jobs. Here the state is to blame. It is not fair to give social welfare to a family for 30 years, wihotut doing anything to change their status” says Daragiu.

He is aware one can’t change mentalities overnight. He recalls the story of a village whose Roma were bought with pig’s heads by one of the candidates running for mayor. „The following day, the candidate won  and said he didn’twant to see any Roma in his office”.

The weapons he wants to employ to win people’s trust are his own change
as well as the change of other people like him, thousands of Roma, beneficiaries of political programs, such as the special places for Roma in state education system and the social scholarship for poor families. „I believe citizens will understand better than politicians that we have to do something to overcome this situation, because poverty doesn’t have ethnicity. These people are survivors – they survived the Holocaust, slavery, they survived, they know how things are, you need to talk to them directly, to make them understand we are their product”.

We don’t have flawed genes

Marian Daragiu’s 14-year old daughter has the best grades in her Oradea school. Her father feels the need to stress: „She’s half Roma. We don’t have any flaws, you should know that. It’s just a wrong investment. If we invest in Roma children, they will be just like the others, if we don’t,  then we will have generations of beggars.

Where does he see himself in ten years’time? „Making public policies for deprived Roma communities. And I would like to see as many people as possible saying, just as I am doing now: I am Roma, so what? I could have said I am Slovak, what difference does it make?”

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