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Our Town

Roma leadership in a Hungarian Greek Catholic parish

Hodász is different,” said Father Tibor Egri, a Greek Catholic priest in this village of some 3,500 people in northeastern Hungary.

What makes Hodász exceptional is not its assorted parishes – Greek and Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant – or its mixed population of ethnic Hungarians and Roma, commonly called Gypsies. Rather, it is how these distinct groups have forged a cohesive community.

“People here get along easily,” Father Egri continued. “Many Hungarians associate the Roma with criminal activities. And the media reinforce the stereotypes and feed the prejudices.

“Roma here,” he added, “tend to be more ’Hungarian,’ which makes it easier.”

With up to 800,000 Roma now living in the country – between 5 and 10 percent of the overall population – Hungary typifies the Romany experience as a disenfranchised minority and yet offers hope for greater Romany social and political inclusion.

For generations, Hungary’s Roma have endured institutionalized discrimination in education, housing and employment. Societal prejudices run deep as well; hate crimes against Roma remain relatively common. But this central European nation’s Roma enjoy better legal protection and greater representation in government than most Romany populations in other European nations of the former Communist bloc.

Roma, who now make up nearly half the village population, have lived in Hodász at least since 1820, when local authorities recorded the first Romany baptism.

As in the rest of Europe, Roma now constitute the fastest-growing ethnic group in Hungary; one out of every five or six newborns is Roma. In Hodász, however, all villagers tend to have small families, which usually include no more than two children.

“It’s a kind of acculturation,” said Father Egri, who has served for four years as curate at the Greek Catholic Church of the Ascension, the spiritual center of the village’s estimated 400 Greek Catholic Roma.

But Ascension, one of the 145 parishes of the Eparchy of Hajdúdorog, has assumed many of the cultural traditions typically associated with the Roma while maintaining its Greek Catholic ethos. Music and dance play a central role in Romany culture. At Ascension, Romany singers, guitarists and other instrumentalists have replaced traditional Greek Catholic plainchant.

“Maybe it’s in our genes,” suggested cantor Sandor Lakatos.

“We recognize each other by our way of singing and dancing.”

The Romany Greek Catholic parish also celebrates the liturgies in Lovari – the local Romany dialect. A key part of Romany identity, most Roma in Hodász speak it as a first language. “We speak Romany first of all, so we think in a Romany way even when speaking Hungarian,” said Mr. Lakatos.

A vital force in the cultural life of Hodász’s Roma, the Church of the Ascension reaches out to the entire village community through its St. Elijah Shelter and Day Care Center. Run on a shoestring budget, the facility manages to offer a host of essential social services at a time when state-run programs are being cut.

More than 50 people – Roma and ethnic Hungarians – live at the shelter, 22 of whom are homeless pensioners and a score of women who, with their children, have sought refuge there from their violent homes. St. Elijah’s also provides daily meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – to an additional 50 villagers or more.

In addition to its crisis-intervention programs, St. Elijah’s staff of 30, most of whom are Romany women, cares for children of working parents and provides job training and employment counseling.

Father Gábor Gelsei, pastor of Ascension for the past 14 years, oversaw the development and construction of the shelter and day care facility seven years ago. He financed the center largely through grants from a Dutch foundation. In 2001, Father Gelsei turned over the facility’s day-to-day management to the church cantor and Romany community leader, Sandor Lakatos.

Mr. Lakatos has lived in Hodász his entire life. Though he spent 10 years as a construction worker in Budapest, as with many migrant workers from Hungary’s northeast, he returned home most weekends.

When, in 1990, Mr. Lakatos resettled in Hodász, he worked for several years as an agricultural day laborer and became active in village politics. A former member of the village council, he now occupies a seat on Hodász’s Romany council.

According to the cantor, he first experienced discrimination while working in Budapest. But he says he has never felt discrimination in Hodász. “I think it’s because we all share the same faith in Jesus Christ. The priests who came to this village were looking for people, regardless of their skin color. When they found them, it was the start of a community. That was a great thing.”

While grateful for the encouragement his deeply religious grandparents gave him as a child, the 65-year-old fondly remembers being inspired to serve the church by Father Miklos Soja, a charismatic priest who worked in the village in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Before Father Soja, priests only visited the village’s Roma when called upon for baptisms or weddings.

“He was the first to work among the Roma here,” said Mr. Lakatos.

“He lived in the non-Roma parish, but he learned Lovari, the Romany dialect spoken here, visited all the houses and became accepted. He deepened people’s faith and instilled a strong sense of morals and ethics. Because of him, even people in their 40’s and 50’s asked to be baptized and brought their children. In a sense, he brought the Roma Christian community here into being.

“When people called him ’father’ in Lovari,” he continued, “they used a very intimate meaning of the word, as if he were an actual father, not a priest.”

Father Soja motivated his Romany parishioners to build the first Romany Greek Catholic church, which was replaced 12 years ago by the current structure.

“Everyone worked together voluntarily,” recalled Mr. Lakatos.

“I think that gave my generation a solid sense of community that young people now just don’t have. We had a church, a place to call home. It was our home, so we worked for it, did things for it. This here is not just a religious center, but also a place where we can learn how to manage daily life, how to use forks and spoons or computers and the Internet. If you are somewhere that is home and you feel that it is yours, you always feel safe.”

That said, Hodász’s charismatic Romany cantor is frank, if not bleak, about his village’s future. “For young people, the only chance for a better life is to study, get a profession or trade and move away. For older people, there is no solution. We need capital to start something here.”

Unemployment, a major problem in Hungary, is especially acute in the nation’s underdeveloped northeast. By some estimates, nearly 80 percent of the village’s Roma and up to 25 percent of its ethnic Hungarians are unemployed. There are almost no jobs in the village. Young people often leave town to attend university or to seek better career opportunities. Most never return, except for the occasional family get-together.

Whereas most ethnic Hungarian villagers work within commuting distance, Roma generally split their lives between Hodász and the distant capital, Budapest, where they can still find unskilled jobs. Under communism, Roma were assured work, albeit low paying. But since the dismantling of the nation’s state-controlled economy – which followed the collapse of Hungary’s Communist government in 1989 – many of these jobs, and the security they offered, have disappeared.

Hungary’s post-Communist economic woes have taken their toll on family life in Hodász. The villagers also have watched the gap between rich and poor grow ever wider.

Yet despite these obstacles, Hodász’s Roma and non-Roma continue to live, work and celebrate together. “Our great feasts and celebrations – when the whole village comes together – are like a time machine,” recalled Mr. Lakatos wistfully. “They seem to take us back 50 or 60 years, when people were happier with less. Class differences seem to disappear and family bonds are again strong.”

In Hodász, all children – Roma and ethnic Hungarians – attend the same elementary school. But in the past decade, schools elsewhere in Hungary have become increasingly segregated. Viewing Romany students as disruptive elements in the classroom, non-Roma parents often transfer their children to school districts with few or no Roma. Parents and teachers frequently complain that Romany children skip school, with their parents’ consent, and subsequently fall behind and slow down the students who regularly attend class.

On 1 September 2007, Hungary passed a law requiring schools and classrooms to integrate. It remains to be seen, however, how the new law will translate in practice.

“I don’t think you increase interest in education by laws, but by personal example,” said Father Tibor Egri. “It depends on us.”

While Hungarian law requires its citizens to attend school until age 16, many Roma drop out before they reach that age. Few of Hungary’s Roma graduate from high school, only 1 percent hold a university degree.

“Graduation rates are low, but increasing,” said Father Gábor Gelsei about Hodász’s Romany children. “If you want to do something, you need an education. Roma are finally beginning to realize that.”

In the next two years, Father Gelsei plans to open a kindergarten for Roma at St. Elijah’s. The priest hopes as many as 50 children will enroll in the kindergarten program, which will be staffed in large part by Romany teachers and aides.

“If we can instill good study habits young, it may make for an easier transition into the ordinary school system,” the pastor said.

“If parents see their children in a good place, where they are being fed and getting an education, maybe they’ll start to ’get it’ and become involved.”

Not the only place where Roma and non-Roma enjoy good relations, Hodász offers a glimpse of what successful “Roma Inclusion” might look like.

“Hodász is a community. And community is what makes Hodász what it is,” concluded Sandor Lakatos. “It’s a pretty good and fairly cohesive community. Not perfect. It struggles. It fights its daily fight. But the hope is that it gets better day by day.”

Jacqueline Ruyak writes regularly for ONE. Photographer Balazs Gardi recently completed a project documenting Europe’s Roma.

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