‘Everything online becomes visible, even in the mahallas’
by Valery Novoselsky on 26 Sep 2015 0 Comment
Anyone who has become interested in Romani issues during the past 15 years has probably come across the Roma Virtual Network (RVN) online, a set of 33 listservs in 20 languages, Romani included, that aggregates online information about Romani issues and shares it with more than 10 000 subscribers. News server Romea.cz interviewed RVN’s editor, Valery Novoselsky, about this work and RVN’s future plans.


Q: You have been running the Roma Virtual Network for more than 16 years now, helping those interested in Romani issues to access information about them online. The Decade of Roma Inclusion is ending in Europe this year - what is your opinion of the impact that it has had?


A: In 2005 I was naive enough to hope that many Roma in Central and South-Eastern Europe would become “middle class” citizens in the countries they live in, but now, in 2015, I see that only a very small part of the Roma in Europe have managed to do so, and in many cases this was achieved due to migration to Western countries and hard work there. In terms of verbal declarations, paperwork and VIP events, everything has been and still is “OK”, but in regard to the positive change of hearts, the development of good will towards the Roma people, NO, it’s not “OK”.


There is also a problem with the funds allocated for Roma integration in the European Union and the flexibility of the mechanisms aiming to deliver those funds to Roma communities. Those mechanisms are weak and have created enormous complexities for the Roma NGO sector as a whole and even for some Roma activists personally.


Q: You recently visited Berlin to make contact with Roma and Sinti activists there. Those of us who follow Romani news in English don’t hear as much from the German-speaking Romani world, can you tell us who you met with and what the situation is like there?


A: Actually, I first visited Berlin in connection with the activities of the organization “Romano Rat” (“Romani Blood”) a number of times beginning in 2002-2003, when Dr. Rajko Djuri was still living there. This year I was in Berlin between 12-28 February thanks to an invitation from the Roma Information Centrum e.V., Berlin, with the support of the Open Society Roma Initiatives.


During the last five years Berlin has become a place of residence for up to 60 000 South-East European Roma, so there was a necessity to at least check on the situation with the ex-Yugoslav Roma there, some of whom are still living in dormitories for asylum-seekers. In addition, an agreement had been made between Roma media activists during a Roma media conference in Belgrade in November 2014 that RVN’s Editor would come to Berlin to assist with networking and provide more visibility to this local organization (which is in the Neue Koln immigrant district).


I met many pro-Roma and Roma actors there involved with Roma arts and culture, asylum claims, human rights activism, immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia, LGBT issues, Muslim migrants, politics, refugee issues, Roma media, Roma studies, theater, and Romani women’s issues. While I was there I planned to help the Roma Information Centrum make its activities more visible and I provided networking assistance to RomaniPhen, an informal women’s group that is part of the Roma Information Centrum network and brings Roma and Sinti women together. They need to establish broader connections with Roma women’s organizations abroad and find funding opportunities. This visit helped me identify the needs of Roma organizations in Germany generally and to learn about the challenges facing Roma asylum-seekers there.    


Q: You also met with Sead Kazanxhiu in Berlin, a Romani artist from Albania, another part of Europe we rarely hear about in the English-language media. What was that like?


A: Yes, I did meet with Sead Kazanxiu, a talented Albanian Roma artist from Tirana, during his visit to Berlin to meet with the facilitators of the proposed European Roma Institute. In his art works he combines graphic style with naturmort [still life], painting with installations, nature and personalities, modernity and symbolism. He skillfully inserts Roma topics into his art works, creating a style I would call “Romani modernism”.


This was not my first encounter with him. We got to know each other at an exhibition of his paintings at Central European University in Budapest in the beginning of April 2012. The exhibition was dedicated to the celebration of International Roma Day on 8th April and the whole week of 2-8 April 2012 was filled with various events there organized and led by Roma students of CEU, Roma activists and the staff of Roma organizations.


Q: What were the International Roma Day events in Budapest like this year?


A: The celebrations by the students at CEU did not attract such a high number of participants as in the previous years. In 2012 there were several hundred participants, but this year only about 30 were casting flowers onto the Danube River, and around 60 participated in a creative discussion at CEU.


Q: Roma Virtual Network is almost entirely an online phenomenon. Of the Romani people in each country you reach, what percentage do you believe actually have Internet access or are able to use social networking to develop their own online presence?


A: These days almost everyone in Europe has Internet access thanks to new technologies. If 15 years ago people had it at home on their stationary computers, today every young person has it on his/her cell phone. Of course, a cell phone-based Internet connection is not the same as a multi-GB connection from a regular computer or a laptop, but still these days everything that happens online becomes visible to any ordinary person, even in the mahallas. As an editor of the 16-year-young Roma Virtual Network, I realized a few years ago that Roma-related news needed to be even more featured on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn than on the “classic and conventional” Yahoo and Google groups. These days the young generation of Roma is one that can create change in both the digital and the concrete realms!


Q: The Romani youth movement in Europe seems especially strong today. Were you involved in something like this as a young person?


A: Actually, when I started my media activities aimed at affirming the Roma cause I was already 29. As a media activist I was enthusiastic about supporting the activities of the Forum of European Roma Young People (FERYP) and later of the TernYpe Network. During the last five years the activities of Roma Virtual Network in support of young Roma (especially students) have been very visible and created a positive impact. The Roma Diplomacy Programme, which took place in 2005-2006, was also aimed at improving the capacities of Roma activists who are university graduates. I was also privileged to take part in the first “Barvalipe” Roma Pride Summer Camp, which took place in August 2011 in Budapest.


Q: Part of Romani youth culture includes the use of contemporary art forms such as hip hop. What is your view of this development?


A:  These days there’s more to Roma music than clever violin playing. Since the beginning of the 1990s, youth in Roma urban communities around Europe have been creating a new, non-conformist identity drawing on US hip-hop and rap culture. There are many parallels between Roma and African-American communities, some positive (a persistent Roma civil rights movement which draws on the African-American example) and some negative (histories of state-sponsored exclusion, oppression and neglect).


These days homemade video spots by aspiring Roma artists are easy to find on YouTube. Rebellion and provocation are important parts of the allure; anger and alienation, similar to that of hip-hop’s founding fathers, are there too. I view the development of Romani hip-hop as a healthy cultural process, because Romani music throughout the centuries has always absorbed the best from other cultures.


Q: You have also visited the Romani communities of Argentina recently. Please tell us what you learned there.


A: The Roma community in Argentina has its roots in Central and Eastern Europe and is strongly connected with European Roma via the Evangelical movement (the “Filadelfia” churches in Spain and the “Light and Life” mission in France) and is numerous (300 000 people, which is 0.7 % of the overall population). One activist in this community, Mr Jorge Bernal, is very well-known among European and American Roma activists. He is the president of Asociación Identidad Cultural Romaní de Argentina (AICRA). I was honoured to visit him in Argentina this March in my capacity as RVN’s Editor and to live in Buenos Aires for one month. During my stay in Buenos Aires I met with various pro-Roma and Roma actors involved in anti-discrimination work, working in the municipality, in Jewish community organizations, with Roma Evangelicals and with Roma Jehovah’s Witnesses.


The connection between RVN and AICRA had already begun in the autumn of 2000 and is a positive one. The experience I received in Argentina helped me to feel as if I were a representative of European Roma in Argentina for the brief period of one month. The follow-up visit of AICRA’s representative, Magdalena Mactas, to Budapest in April 2015 has helped to strengthen the ties between this organization and Roma activists and the staff of Roma organizations in Budapest. Argentinian Roma made a noteworthy contribution to the report on the human rights situation of Roma worldwide that was delivered by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues to the UN Human Rights Council on 15 June 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland. This spring the Roma Virtual Network was able to better highlight the issue of Roma in Argentina - next time we can highlight the situation of Roma in another country in a similar way.


Q: Romani artists have recently been producing their own national contributions to events like the “Festival de las collectividades” in Buenos Aires or the Venice Biennale in Italy, which is an international event. Have you seen the Romani contributions to these events? Is there a common thread to them?


A: I have never been to the Venice Biennale, but based on my personal participation in the “Festival de las collectividades” in Buenos Aires on 14 March 2015, I can say that bright, colorful music is the unchanging attribute of any Roma pavilion/stand, regardless of the country.


Q: How many Romani journalists do you think are there in the world? Do they have a desire to develop a joint presence in the world media, or are they pursuing their work more as individual professionals?


A: Honestly, I have not calculated how many of them/us there are, but I think there may be hundreds all over Europe. How many Roma journalists are in the Americas and in the Middle East is a big enigma. In Hungary they have their own organization, but I cannot recall hearing of any other professional Romani media unions in other countries.


Q: RVN also publishes an audio version of its news roundups. Do radio stations use this?


A: Since July of 2012 we have issued more than 150 audio bulletins and people listen to them on SoundCloud, but we have not yet received any communications about this from radio stations. On 31 August the production of these audio bulletins was temporarily suspended.


Q: How do you envision the Roma Virtual Network developing in future?


A: In 2016 we continue to address the need for updated, balanced information on Roma issues, to support and encourage Roma civil society actors, and to serve as a tool for scholars and organizations conducting multi-disciplinary research. These goals are of crucial importance in light of this ongoing period of intense reflection on the previous decades of Roma activism. We want to engage our existing, significant online audience in discussions and actions aimed at challenging the impasses now hindering the progress of Roma integration in European countries.


This “Active Audience Approach” involves inviting Roma to share their good working experiences and successful methods that deserve further dissemination. We also want to mainstream Roma youth via their regular reporting about and consultation on events, projects and opportunities that are of mutual interest to both non-Roma and Roma youth, facilitating exchanges of experiences and information between youth.


There will be a shift from contemplation to active co-thinking, to taking action. We plan to hold online discussions and interviews on topics of concern for European Roma in connection with the activities of European policy-makers (one new topic each week). In close cooperation with the Roma media, RVN intends to co-organize monthly interviews with important policy-makers by Roma reporters and will be seeking contact with the European Commission about concrete steps to be taken.


Next year we also plan to develop a Romani news video channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/RomaVirtualNetwork/ with the support of young Roma civil society and media activists. We plan to strengthen our cooperation with European Roma media organizations in their efforts to become significant civil society actors, both at the EU and intercontinental levels. RVN already has well-established connections with Roma media from the Czech Republic to Turkey. We will also continue our cooperation with international human rights organizations, universities, the Council of Europe, and various foundations as well as with numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations working to integrate Roma into European society. There will be more emphasis on networking between Roma in Europe, North and South America, and the former USSR, and we plan to further develop our already-existing database directories of leading and prominent activists, decision-makers, organizations, representatives and structures (in active collaboration with Studii Romani, the Gypsy Lore Society and the Roma Research and Empowerment Network). We will help develop an all-Romani database with audio archives, a digital library, and video archives as an integral part of the Studii Romani database.


RVN also plans to provide logistical support for the establishment of the European Roma Institute by educating civil society about the need for such an institution to challenge anti-Gypsyism through educational “soft diplomacy”. We plan to continue our focus on the progress in the countries of the Roma Decade after 2015 in Central and South-Eastern Europe by posting relevant news items on the RVN listservs and on http://roma.idebate.org. Lastly, we will maintain the Romani language as one of the main languages for news items on the listservs and we will provide continuous on-line support to linguistic projects aiming to strengthen Romani language studies and use.


We want to focus on active participation of Roma next year - not merely in analyzing and commenting on the situation, but in doing more to improve situations regarding education, employment, health and housing. We plan to give the floor to young, educated Roma who are ready to assume their responsibilities in this area, while at the same time getting non-Roma interested in accelerating and facilitating these processes. Roma integration requires non-Roma engagement, which requires knowledge and the use of modern tools for the transfer of that knowledge. As RVN’s Executive Editor I would like to thank my Advisory Board members and the staff of Open Society Roma Initiatives for all of their suggestions on how to achieve the best for Roma people in this regard.


Courtesy Valery Novoselsky


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