The boys are nervous. A big parade at the local Greek public school is coming up, and they can’t afford the uniform: navy pants and a white shirt.
But the boys, all Roma from an impoverished camp near the city of Corinth, are desperate to attend.
“They want to be proud,” says Maria Larsen, their teacher, as she reaches into a box of donated clothes. “They have been told over and over again at school that they are less worthy than other children. But Greece is their home, and they want to fit in.”
Larsen, a 38-year-old Swede raised in Greece, has helped Roma children integrate into Greek public schools for nearly a decade. She runs Children’s Ark, an organization that offers classes in a small whitewashed building on the Roma camp.
About 800 people live at the camp. Many of them are children she teaches. She tries to prepare them for the world of discrimination beyond the camp’s borders.
“Europe needs to learn more about the Roma because it’s a very interesting culture,” Larsen says. “The Roma know more about the world outside than the world outside knows about the Roma.”
As many as 12 million Roma live in Europe — about 300,000 of them in Greece. The Roma have their roots in India but have lived in Europe for centuries, where they have faced persecution and isolation. Many are illiterate and are more likely to be unemployed, impoverished and in poor health than other Europeans.
“It’s important to understand the history of Roma in Europe, the history of persecution, where Roma were hunted like animals in some cases, and sterilized, taken away from their families,” says Nils Muižnieks, the European Union’s Commissioner for Human Rights. “The media often forget this. And then they wonder why the Roma are suspicious of the majority population, majority institutions and majority media.”
There’s been an anti-Roma backlash since the continent sunk into recession in 2008.
Protests broke out in Paris after police dragged a Roma girl off a school bus and deported her and her family to Kosovo.
In Greece earlier this month, police took a blonde girl from a Roma camp and arrested the couple taking care of her for child abduction. For weeks, the media speculated that the Roma had snatched the girl named Maria from Eastern and Northern European parents. But it turned out Maria wasn’t missing at all. DNA tests proved she was the child of a Bulgarian Roma couple who had given the girl to Greek Roma acquaintances because they couldn’t take care of her.
“And yet people are still calling us baby-snatchers, or worse, baby-traffickers,” says Sotiris Tzamalis, a Roma scrap metal dealer who lives in the camp near Corinth.
“When I read the papers, they say wherever there are Roma, there are drugs and guns and that we sell our kids,” he says. “They should be ashamed.”
But a woman named Maria Souta says her fellow Roma have sometimes turned to drug-dealing to make money.
“Then our kids take drugs, and who knows what else,” she says. “I really want my grandchildren to get an education and get out of here.”
She supports her family by picking through trash for aluminum cans to sell.
“I’m illiterate, so there’s not much I can do,” she says. “But I’m not stealing. I’m making as honest a living as I can.”
Larsen says at least 80 percent of the Roma here can’t read or write. She also struggles to keep Roma girls in school; many marry as teenagers and then have babies.
“In Roma culture, when there’s any suspicion of flirting going on between young people — and that happens usually around 13 or 14 years old — their parents immediately say they have to get married,” Larsen says. “So we have a lot of under-aged parents. But some of them still stick to their studies, and at, the very least, show an enthusiasm to learn how to read and write.”
Natassa Panagiotopoulou, a 21-year-old Roma woman, says she plans to send her two toddlers to Greek public school.
“I finished the third grade, and I can do more things than my mother,” she says. “I hope my children can finish high school.”
She helps her husband run a small cafe and also escorts Roma children when they take the bus to Greek public schools. The journey itself is often a painful lesson on how invisible the Roma are.
“At the bus stop, I often talk to the Greeks waiting there,” she says. “They always ignore me. But I still keep trying.”
She figures that, one day soon, someone will answer.