I was sitting in a conference room in Romania, teaching television production to a group of 20 high school students. Suddenly one of the students came in late. She was quite agitated, saying she was delayed because the police stopped her to check on her identification and her subway pass. Because she was from a small town she lacked the proper identification. "The police stop me and ask me questions and I didn't do anything," she said. "But every Gypsy has a knife, and the police do nothing."
I was taken aback. Sitting right next to me was another young woman, one of two dark-skinned students in the room. She is a Gypsy — the politically correct term is Roma, but in Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the places I was teaching, they are all called Gypsies.
Later, the young Gypsy woman tried to explain to me the everpresent attititudes — that she is a thief, that she is bound to be a welfare queen and destroy public housing, that she will grow up to have many children and live off the system. Her father is an emergency room doctor, she spoke perfect English and was well-read in literature, math and science. But no matter. To the people in the room, she was still a Gypsy.
I had dozens of such encounters throughout Eastern Europe during the six months I spent in 1999 as a Knight International Press Fellow, a sabbatical program that allows American journalists to train other journalists in post-democratic societies. I taught and trained in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Time and again I met people who were energised by the new freedoms and new tolerance. But that tolerance rarely extended to their attitudes towards Gypsies.
In each country I was told that I was too naïve to understand the racial situation in their country — and just look at America's treatment of black people, they would say. Most of the time these views came from intelligent, accomplished individuals who claimed they were not racist, just honest.
I was struck by these attitudes, coming not from skinheads and overt racists, but from supposedly open-minded people.
During the six months I had the opportunity to meet young Roma journalism students enrolled in a special training program at the Center for Independent Journalism in Budapest. They wanted to show me a world that non-Roma, known as gajde, would not get to see. So after the fellowship was over and I was back in Washington, I decided to go back to Hungary and the Czech Republic as a journalist, not a trainer.
I was in part guided by the Hungarian students, in part helped by a young Roma journalist at Czech Television. Armed with a digital camera and a translator I tried to see the world they see, and the way they are treated, not necessarily by the fringe elements, but by mainstream residents of Central and Eastern Europe. I was invited to a Gypsy wedding, a rarity for a gajde, and was invited into homes and villages. I think the small camera allowed me to get a level of honesty and intimacy that I might not have gotten otherwise.
The result is a look at attitudes and hatred towards Roma, and a look at some of the young people trying to fight those attitudes. It is not an easy road for them to battle centuries of resentment and discrimination. It is a story that has more angles than a half-hour could possibly cover, and it is a story to which I know I will return someday.
Czech President Vaclav Havel called treatment of minorities the measure of a civil society. Indeed, throughout Eastern Europe the treatment of Roma will continue to present challenges for years to come. This is one of those conflicts that will not simply go away without a concerted effort from the next generation, rooted in democracy and open.
Rebecca Lipkin is a producer for Nightline in London.