Recently I heard bad news about Valery Novoselsky , Roma activist who died recently, possibly by his own hand. This made me think about the phenomenon I noticed long time ago but started thinking more about it relatively recently and it reminded me of a death of one Roma women I knew. Few years ago I was working for REF ^ OSF and among other people with Refika Mustafic, Roma activist from my country who was for a long time the member of the board, making decisions who should get the scholarship. In my memory she stays as a women with whom I had quite difficult relation. With her it was either love or hate, she did not accept anything in-between and this polarity is something that seems to me to be the constant in the movement. Refika was the women who did things for the cause in ways unorthodox. If it meant bending the rules she would do it, if it meant taking the risk, she would do it, and if it meant insane personal sacrifices, she would do it, even in the cases when it was not necessary how I see it. She did a lot for Roma, especially in her home town Nis and build her name so that she was not to be ignored when anything related to Roma was done in her town and even wider, but at the end of her life this was changing, new agents appeared, new people were called to make decisions, and how I see it she was unsettled by this fact.
I was on my studies when I first met her and I did not have much experience in the field. How I see it, her approach to me was binary, she saw me as a young Roma to whom she was used to help and she was used to be in position of helping and also getting gratification in this fact that she is needed and in this feeling of gratefulness of the people she helped. The problem was I did not think I need her help, well at least of that kind she offered. I was not that helpless, poor, timid Gypsy from the mahala looking to her with big sad eyes. So it did not work. I was also not very impressed with her criteria when she evaluated applications. She cared less for academic standing and relied often on personal information about students and their background, which was unfair to others whom she did not know how I saw, since REF never collected data about social background by that time and even when they started, they never made it as official criteria for getting the scholarship. At the end there was no real way for her to get my respect in the way she wanted and I guess she only knew how.
Quickly after disenchantment with me we had harsh conversations often. I think she saw me as one of young, educated ‘white’ bureaucrat Roma, oriented more towards their own interest than anything else, domesticated by their white powerful organizations to which she always felt resentful, even though she worked with them. I think this is also another constant in our movement. Roma resenting donor organizations and being forced to put up a face appropriate for donors. This might be one of the historical traumas by which our movement is deeply scared. When you think about it this situation of inauthenticity could not come without a price, building on the history of the humiliating survival mechanism of fearful accommodation of powerless people. Circumstances were such that the possibility to nurture pride of being Roma was by default annul. Roma movement was never self sustained, and how are you to be proud of being Roma when manifestation of what it means to be Roma is basically tailored for you by the agendas of donors? Not to belittle the positive side of donor’s help. I myself am grateful to donors who allowed me to be where I am today, still the question remains I think who would I be and would I think different thoughts and had different paths if there were other options in my life. Also, in my experience too often Roma activist expressed their quiet dissatisfaction and discomfort of working for donations and still being dependent on them in our private conversations for the question to disappear. However, it is hard to be proud of something which is not of your making, no?
When I think about my pride I can say I never learned to connect it with my Roma identity, I was ashamed actually for that many times and developed self hatred and low self-esteem, but again when I met Refika I never saw myself as a poor Gypsy girl in need, even though I was and still am with the damaged self image and poor. I was new in Roma movement, but I had almost ten years of empowerment in feminist circles. I was not especially proud of being Roma, but I was empowered as a women, well as much as white feminist movement could empower me as Roma women. So I got conditioned to see power relations and paternalism as something I do not want or need, but something I should resist. Until the end of her life me and Refika could not establish relation of trust. And then she died prematurely. She was sick and in her last years our conversations were very hard, she got very upset for what she saw as lack of respect and what I saw as inability to influence my decisions in the way she found proper.
When she died I cried. I did not go to her funeral, mostly because Nis is far from Belgrade, even though I had this awareness that if I cared more this would not matter. I was surprised I was moved at that point so much to cry. I think if some person whom I know and work with from time to time died I would be sad but probably I would not cry. Even though at that time I did not realize this, now I think this was reaction on losing somebody who is more than just somebody I worked with. But however it was, for sure I felt that in this relation something was missing and that now the opportunity for change was gone forever.
Years have passed since Refika died. The Roma women I had many disagreements with, on whom as on many Roma systemic injustices befell, and who ended up after many years of activism without much support, without even complaining. Her prematurely ended life and her body finally broken by the sickness I see as a price Roma pay in society profoundly structured to steal our moments of joy, but also as a price for the wrong convictions in our movement about what we as Roma activist should be and do and what our Roma community and our movement should look like.
I did not know Valery that much. I saw him here and there. Last time I met him when he presented a paper about media in Belgrade. I did not particularly like it, I expected him to talk about practical stuff, his network, and he did not, in addition according to me his argumentation was just feeble, the structure was a mess and it was for me a whole lot of bullshit, and I criticized his paper publicly, as I often do. Now, when I do this I never want people to be offended, I actually wish people would start some fabulous heated debate with me. This is why I go to these events, hoping I will eventually find debating community about the things we all care, I am maybe romantically Habermasian in that sense. I never do this with the desire for people to feel bad. But they often do. And this is something which is a disappointing constant in the movement. Lack of real conversations in good faith. In Roma movement we learned how to blablah for money of the donors, so we do it even when it suppose to be in our own interest not to, when we are even among ourselves. He could not really tell me much, I think I saw disappointment on his face when he realized my expectation of him and he said just that to understand his paper I need to approach it more academically and philosophically. Well, on my opinion by that time I had enough readings to say that if it was far from something, it was far from philosophy his paper, but I did not say anything, I realized there is no channel through which we can communicate.
Nevertheless, even though I did not know him according to this short exchange I concluded he wanted to be more than just a person who started Roma Virtual Network and that he, how I see it, was not able to find a way to be that other person. He was knowledgeable about media I guess, but I am not sure it was in academic way, however it was, its very crystal clear to me now that in any case there is no support for activists to reach academia and if they have these aspirations they are to get big splash in their face. I heard he was actually teaching Roma language on some university, how I see it that’s probably how far Roma can go in academia. If you can be allowed to be a master and teacher to non Roma in academia it is going to be your language, most probably something you did not even need to study. Hell, even in Romology you will never be good enough to teach. But, that’s something probably which bothers me more than it did bother Valery, or maybe not, I will not know. On seminars we go we do not speak about real life problems of these ‘Roma somewhere out there’, or Roma right there.
I don’t know what happened after this, I think he tried to find himself in some way, but obviously he did not find his place in Roma movement. Several times I got information that he has difficulties finding a job and that he has financial issues. However it is, even if Valery was not at that day very competent speaker according to me, he, I am sure, was not without capacities. I cannot but keep wandering how is it possible that such a person could be not needed and wasted. How come after so many investments in his education and activities and his contributions, about which people now after his death speak of, he was obsolete. Wasn’t there a place for him among Roma who are engaged with media while being alive? I mean if he could not find a job, being now recognized as knowledgeable person and a hard worker, why the hell wasn’t he put to work? When you think about it from what use are these praises of him to us Roma now when he is dead? So, you can tell that something is wrong, either with this criteria in our Roma movement of whom and how to include and to give space to, or Valery simply was not that good, and its just that people like to speak all the best after somebody dies. But if he was not that good, funny enough, this would be again the failure of the movement which invested in him.
How ever it is, indeed question stays after his death how some obviously valuable people in our movement get acknowledged and how are they put to service to the community? I find weird how it is so publicly accepted knowledge that people get hired according to criteria rarely relevant for the best outcomes of the projects, for the greatest benefits for the cause, and at the end some Roma out there whose lives should be supposedly better. I wonder if it would be possible to have people hired just because they are competent even if they do not necessarily agree with their bosses all the way, or are simply not such a good bulshiters and blablah people? And is there any chance that they would be preferred over less competent but obedient conformist? Would people take those chances? Would they be so brave? People are not very brave these days. Recently I spoke with a person working for donor organization who complained how Roma organizations and Roma leaders now have to be more competent and to learn better how to deal with higher standards of applications and administration of these grants. EU bureaucracy dictates conditions to Roma with higher expectations. So I guess people are very very scared. Jobs are less in numbers and less certain I guess. People get quiet I guess, project oriented, bureaucratic, individualistic, selfcentred, focused on keeping their jobs I guess. I mean no matter what blablah people put on their projects its seems to me that in general people feel that there is no vision, there is no future, there is no community, or solidarity, nothing. Just individuals making up the stories about it while sustaining their jobs.
If Valery ended his life he must have felt so very much alone and abandoned. Crude irony there was nobody, not a single person who could put a hand on his shoulder and ease his pain, to this man who dedicated his life to making connections. Once again selfishly to put the light on what’s bothering me, this is to me and many other younger Roma very much familiar feeling. This summer it was very gloomy for me mostly due to financial issues and I spend time thinking how nobody would notice if I disappeared, feeling very very lonely and ashamed. Very much like in Valery’s case the fact is that after so much investment in our education, formal and non formal, for many younger educated Roma there is no place, they do feel like they are not needed, that they do not have with whom to talk to, that nobody cares and if they are not to accept paternalistic models they are wasted, alone and abandoned. Very depressing and above all so very costly, unimaginable luxury for the community like ours. Valery‘s life is lost, and in the eyes of some of our older Roma activist today I see also hopelessness, but most of all I recognize this feeling of abandonment, loneliness and shame. I imagine that if I feel like my investment in education and activism for all those years is now showing obsolete, it must be the case people who arranged it and I guess not seeing effects they hoped for must also be feeling quite bad. However it is, for one movement there is nothing more deadly then lost of trust and connection between activists, if the ties are broken for sure there is no movement, just bunch of individuals imagining stories about it for a job, while in the other corner others kill themselves, obviously.
And just briefly to reply on anticipated argumentation I got tired of- don’t tell me how some young Roma go and find their way out of the movement just concerned for their own good, that they are individualistic and selfish after so much investment. You tell me how older generation done it differently? From whom they were suppose to learn about solidarity and connections and care for their compatriots? From whom they were supposed to learn to work without fee and not to run for some nice cosy office, and bureaucratic blablah job, expensive cloths and good cars? From whom to learn how not to conform and to criticize? Now I am not saying there are no people from whom they could learn at all, but the sad fact is, even if it is so, if it is happening, whose failure it is?
To say one bluntly obvious thing: there is something obviously wrong with Roma movement. Young people either run away or are excluded or simply abandoned. Dedicated activists, leaders by their work and not appointment, kill themselves, and these are just the ones we know. There are other Roma activists getting sick and fighting their battles alone, not to mention Roma who just barely manage to survive. At this point every and each one of us is alone. If you fall you fall hard. No wonder everyone grabs their position with teeth and show their teeth to everybody around in this mode of scarcity. THERE IS NO NETWORK. Valery tried to make it, he knew it is a project worth dedicating life to. I wander what will happen to this virtual platform now. Are we going to let it die with him? I hope not. I do not say we should learn a lesson, it would be silly I guess to expect this, I just hope we could at least start thinking internationally and across borders which Valery’s network did not recognize, about the possibility to learn from this painful lesson which costs us dearly the life of one of our own precious fellow, so at least his death we do not waste in vain.