When my plane finally landed at Vilnius Airport, I immediately felt at ease. It was my first time in Lithuania, and I had just travelled 40 hours to get here. With three months of the coldest winter of my life ahead, I embraced the role of clumsy tourist without delay.
Back when I was a kid, around only six years old, my father used to go to the postal office once a month. Every now and then, alongside his mail, he received a copy of Deutschland Magazine. Still unable to read, the articles were out of my reach. I remember, though, how I stared endlessly at all the photos.
Right there, at Vilnius airport, all of those pictures from Deutschland Magazine came to my mind in a rush. More than a series of specific images, what really clicked in my mind was the overall “feel” of the landscape. All the earth tones, “pointy” houses and endless grey backdrop were all here, right in front of me. Suddenly, I had become the protagonist of one of Deutschland’s photo reports.
The role of clumsy tourist fit me well. I was evidently an outsider, which could have been alienating; however, it worked in my favour. After two or three blatantly obvious mistakes passed unnoticed by the bystanders, I realized there was nothing to fear. Pretentiously after reading a couple of books about Lithuania, I felt familiar enough with the country’s basic history.
Luckily, the chance was about to take me out of my comfort zone. From inside a bus, framed by the window, I saw three ladies waiting in line. Short, with dark hair and brown skin, any of them could have passed as one of my aunts back at home. As they didn’t adjust to my narrow-minded idea of how Lithuanians should look like, I assumed they were visitors, just like me. However, they had decided against the “clumsy tourist” routine I was so fond of. On the contrary, they were handling themselves as any local would, which I found odd, however intriguing.
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It didn’t take me long to discover that those women were, in fact, Lithuanians. They belong to the Romani-Gypsy community in Vilnius. The “Gypsies” (or “Čigonai” in Lithuanian) have lived in these lands since the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 14th century. I found Roma’s history generally fascinating, but what truly caught my attention was the locals’ apparent contempt towards the subject. After 600 hundred years of continuous presence in the region, one could imagine the Roma fully integrated into the national “consciousness”; nevertheless, that is not the case.
According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, when it comes to the Roma, a strong anti-gypsyism still prevails in most countries. Lithuania is no exception. The countless stories halfway between a folktale and a sensationalist late-night news report that circulate as urban legends and depict the Roma negatively are good examples of anti-gypsyism.
Even when anty-gypsyism explains, up to a certain degree, why the Roma community is ostracised from Lithuanian society, that is only half the story.
Lithuania’s independence from the former Soviet Union is, in part, attributed to the surviving “ethnical nationalism” that dominated the late 19th and early 20th-century politics in all Eastern Europe. A side effect of this re-discovered sense of “nationhood” was the rising tension on ethnic relations with minorities.
To address this issue, soon after the independence, the department of minorities under the government of Lithuania was created. Eight years later, in the year 2000, the first plan for integrating the Roma community was approved. Nevertheless, after 20 years of implementation, the results are far from ideal. Still, most Roma children do not finish school, and illiteracy is common. Moreover, a large number of Roma families, up to a third according to some data, live in municipal housing.
Attitudes towards them haven’t changed that much either. According to a survey, 49 % of the population said they wouldn’t like to live next to a Roma family.
Not every experience is negative, though. After reading several tabloid articles, I decided to contact one of the writers for some guidance. Lina Zigelyte was the first one to answer me back.
Lina pointed towards The Lithuanian Center for Human Rights. After one call to their office, I found out about a Youth centre focused on helping children from the Roma community. It didn’t take me long to decide to visit them.
Back in 2017, when I first visited them, the centre was located on the underground floor of a 5-floor building. The grey walls in the hallway that lead to the entrance contrasted heavily with the colourful inside. The walls were covered in drawings because its upper windows were at the street level so, not much natural light came inside. It wasn’t the best, but it felt cosy.
The approximately 35 square meters housed a small bookcase, some computers and a couple of tables. Every afternoon, Padėk Pritapti welcomed several kids from the surrounding neighbourhoods. It was there that I heard the word “Roma” for the first time. “The term “Gypsy” could be considered derogatory, given all the negative connotations associated with it, for that reason we prefer to use Roma”, said Inga Kreivenaite, Padėk Pritapti’s director.
She continued, “The idea, initially, was to create a space for Roma children, where they would have the opportunity to enjoy some after school activities as well as receive educational reinforcement. However, many non-Roma children began to come. Although we didn’t plan it that way, the outcome turned out to be unexpectedly satisfactory. Now, children from various backgrounds, Roma included, share a culturally diverse space where each one of them can learn from others as equals.”
While I was sitting for a game of “one,” I realized the little Babel I had arrived at. A few phrases in Russian were translated into Lithuanian by a pair of 7-year-old twins, while in English, a little girl tried to explain to me the rules of the game. Here it didn’t matter whether your Lithuanian was perfect or not, as long as you made yourself heard.
The centre functions as a non-profit organization. It employs a small team of professionals to work with the children. One psychologist, one social worker, and the coordinator are responsible for the day to day routine and monitoring the kids’ progress. They also promote other activities outside of the centre to educate the public about the Roma community. That same night, I was invited to a film screening.
I visited the centre at least three times a week for a month and a half. For a couple of hours each time, I enjoyed being back to this little Babel in Vilnius. I couldn’t resist making a personal contribution to the language catalogue, so I organized some Spanish lessons. I must confess they weren’t successful.
Once the preproduction for this article and video started. I was happy to learn that many things have changed for the better. The centre moved to a more prominent place where the kids and staff enjoy more space to engage in other initiatives.
Some things luckily remained the same. Some kids (the oldest mostly) gossip over the phone, while others play with a foosball table, business, as usual, you might say. So many of the kids I met in 2017 were still there, much older, of course, but still with the same enthusiasm and dreams.
I was happy to report that after volunteering there in 2017, I had decided to write my thesis about the Roma community, which eventually turned into this project, Within Lithuania. Nationalism is a controversial word, especially nowadays. Moreover, it is usually misused. However, when I think about experiences like Padėk Pritapti’s, it gives me hope that there might be a chance for us to understand each other, even when not all speak the same language.