A Glasgow welcome

Ostracised throughout Europe for centuries, Roma immigrants are finding Glasgow more welcoming. Education and trust-building are at the heart of the city’s attempts at cultural integration

Young girls in red and black satin dresses have adorned their hair with yellow and orange flowers. Some make offerings of posies to passersby. Others wave placards declaring: ‘Glasgow loves Roma’ and ‘Defend Roma Rights’. Scotland’s largest city is commemorating International Roma Day.

It’s quite a contrast to 2007, when Roma teenagers recently-arrived from eastern Europe, fought running street battles with Scottish and Pakistani youth, spurred on by racist slurs. As I reported that year, Roma from Slovakia who had come to Glasgow in search of jobs were called ‘beggars’ and ‘thieving gypsies’, sworn at and told to “go back home”. A decade on, things aren’t always harmonious, but one of the world’s most marginalised ethnic groups has been steadily finding acceptance in Glasgow, helped in part by the city’s commitment to education.

“It’s really important that we support those who choose to come and live here, to integrate, to contribute to the community and to be part of the community,” Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said at a Govanhill event to mark the Roma celebrations. “If we work together, there are no challenges we cannot overcome.”

Joining Sturgeon in addressing the crowd was Marcela Adamova, a Romany woman originally from Slovakia. She had flown in from Hungary, where she’s completing a postgraduate diploma in public administration, following a BA in community development at Glasgow University. Now 35, Adamova has been a vocal advocate for Roma rights in Scotland for several years, and she is keen to return to the city when she finishes her diploma.

After arriving in Glasgow in 2007, Adamova worked for charities and then in the health service, before beginning her studies. “If I had not decided to come here I would never have finished university. I would not be where I am now,” she reflects. “Glasgow gave me the opportunity to change my life.”

Adamova cites access to education as the key to real representation for Glasgow’s Roma community: “We need more people with university degrees, not only activists working on Roma issues, we need doctors and lawyers. We need more intelligentsia.

“I think that in general, Roma people have equal opportunities to education in Glasgow, though more could be done. I believe that things will change for the next generation.”

Her assessment echoes the findings of an international conference held in Glasgow a few weeks earlier, where delegates traded ideas on supporting Roma integration. The city’s approach to embracing cultural diversity with an emphasis on education is earning it a reputation for progress.

“In Slovakia it is not like this,” Adamova explains. “When I was younger my parents told me: ‘It’s for your own good not to say you’re Roma, or your life will be difficult’,” she said. “But here, it was OK, it was fine to say ‘I’m Roma’.”

Glasgow gave me the opportunity to change my life

The Roma are an ethnic group of around 10 to 12 million people with Indian roots, reflected in their official symbol, the chakra: a sixteen-spoked wheel. Historians think they first travelled west from the Punjab more than 1,000 years ago. Today, they are scattered in nations across Europe. Often demonised by and excluded from mainstream society, Roma have suffered persecution for centuries, most grotesquely at the hands of the Nazis. An estimated 500,000 Roma were murdered in the second world war because they were deemed an inferior race.

Widespread discrimination continues in many nations, from France to Slovakia, Serbia, Romania and the Czech Republic.

Scotland has also been shamed by racist attitudes. Yet the violence in 2007 – albeit an isolated outbreak – ultimately led to action by Glasgow City Council and local residents, who wanted to preserve Govanhill’s racial harmony.

Home to a large Asian community, Govanhill is one of the most culturally diverse parts of Scotland and, despite the odd racially linked incident over the decades, the area was, and still is, proud of its social cohesion. Steeped in socialism, tolerance is widely promoted throughout Glasgow, and many of the 3,500 or so Roma who live here seem to be settling in well.

During the celebrations, I overhear several young people speaking English as well as Romany, a sign that a new generation is embracing education, a right that’s often been denied in other parts of Europe.

A primary objective for the council has been to build trust with Romany people. It offered free health care and established specialist teams, involving members of the Roma community, to address employment issues and social care. But the long-term plan is focused on education. To address language barriers, for example, the council employed two Slovakians to work with local schools.

There are now 600 Roma children in Glasgow’s schools, mostly in Govanhill, where more than 30 languages are spoken in an area of less than two square miles. Close to Govanhill is Shawlands Academy, a secondary school with around 150 pupils from eastern Europe. In fact, the school hosts students from right around the world, with around 60 first languages spoken by its students.

In her office at the school, assistant headteacher Jan McCauley introduces 15-year-old Stefan Durko and Valeria Gombarova, aged 16. Both are Slovakian Roma. They came to Scotland from the city of Michalovce, and, according to McCauley, are among the cream of her fourth year pupils. “This boy is exceptionally talented in music,” she says of Stefan, adding that he could be one of the first of Shawlands’ pupils from eastern Europe to sit school-leaving Higher exams.

A self-taught musician, Stefan says he wants to the opportunity become a music teacher. “My father used to travel and play with his band in different countries,” the teenager tells me.“He played the accordion and so do I, although I play lots of instruments.”

Valeria aspires to be a fashion designer but says she’d also like to work with computers. “It was really scary when I came to Scotland because everything changed,” she recalls. “But I got used to it. I had to learn English quickly.”

Both pupils say that Scotland has offered them opportunities they would never have enjoyed in Slovakia, but Stefan feels that the media demonises Romany people: “Sometimes reporters talk about us like we’re trash,” he says. “This gets me mad.”

“They also mix us up with Romanian people,” Valeria chimes in, voicing another frustration.

McCauley says Shawlands works hard to connect with the Roma community and that local primary schools have also been pro-active in building trust. While misconceptions linger and undoubtedly, pockets of tension remain, my conversations with people throughout the community do point to a new generation of genuine multiculturalism.

On the way out, we stop to admire a mural, made to celebrate the 2014 Commonwealth Games, held in Glasgow. Slovakian and Polish students helped design the colourful mosaic, which is framed by the words ‘integrity, equality, respect and compassion’.

Words like these are easy enough to spell out, but in a city that’s becoming a model for cultural integration, they seem refreshingly appropriate.

Photo: Angela Catlin