Roma of Zakarpattia

National Minorities
29 August 2017 11:08

Nomadic life in a pavilion, guitar songs at the fireplace, passion and easy luck. This romantic image of Roma known from literature and soviet movies is long in the past. Instead, the stereotypes about the poor nation living on social payments for a great number of kids, stealing or dragged into criminal activity are more common today. Some modern Roma, living in discreet settlements, are isolated from the rest of society. Poverty, lack of education and troubles with employment make this bias even stronger.


Stereotypes and even more – xenophobia –have been imposed to ethnical Ukrainians since their childhood. “Be polite, otherwise gypsies will kidnap you!”, – the children were scared. “You are muddy like a gypsy.” The stories of Ukrainian folklore also show Roma not always as positive characters. Since their childhood, the majority of the Ukrainians have confidence that the Roma can hypnotize them or steal something and, therefore, guided by fear, they avoid them in every possible way.

However, all this is hardly more than a myth that occurred due to lack of information about how Ukrainian Romas live. Having been living alongside with ethnical Ukrainians for already many centuries, Romas still remain the people, the image of which is full of mysteries.

One of such mysteries is the number of Roma population. Today, there are no clear data about how many Roma live on the territory of Ukraine. And getting these data is really difficult indeed, as many Roma have no documents. Some of them intentionally hide their origin, which is totally understandable. Historically, during various war periods different ethnic minorities (including Roma) all over the world suffered from repressions, persecutions and pursuits.

According to the population census of 2001, there are 47,587 Roma living in Ukraine with one third of them – in Transcarpathia. However, public organizations consider this number to be no more up-to-date. European Council estimates the approximate number of Roma community in Ukraine at 120-400 thousand people. According to the data of Roma public organizations, there are over 40 thousand Roma currently living in Transcarpathia. The majority of Transcarpathian Roma live in small settlements * *we intentionally use this term instead of the traditional word “encampment” as the “encampment” means at the same time both a local Roma community and its location within the limits of larger non-Roma settlement. Before transferring to the settled way of living, the word “encampment” was used to call the communities up to several hundred people encamping on the temporary sites.

Right here, in Transcarpathia, there have been preserved the largest number of Roma language dialects, differences in customs and level of education. Although Roma live just a short distance away, often on the neighboring street, their community is still the most obscure for the rest of Transcarpathian residents. We have visited some Roma settlements of Transcarpathia to see how Roma live with our own eyes.

Dubove. Baron Ivan

One of the Roma settlements is located in Dubove Village, Tyachivsky District. It was founded in 1950s. Seeking for work, Roma were coming here from neighboring villages and towns. Dubove Village leader of that time offered Romas work at the local factory and later suggested that they should stay there. Thus, the settlement, where 64 people live, emerged inside the village. The former local baron * *there is no word “baron” in Roma language. “Baro” is the address to the respectable man who is not necessarily the leader of the community. In certain Roma communities, the term has been accustomed and is actively used in everyday communication. However, in most Roma communities the topmost issues are decided by the Council of Elders – the most reputable representatives of the families. They as well are summoned to the Romas trials which are a very common event thus far, i.e.the formal leader of the village, Ivan tells us about difficulties the modern Romas face with:

— The problem is that there is no space. Our population grows, children keep being born, and we need more space. There is much space in the village. Those with money have built houses and live there. There is great need in money as there are many children, and we have sick kids. The villagers don’t care about us. We are few. Once, I’ve even applied to the authorities in Uzhhorod. They said we are too few as well. Said, when there is many of you, we will be helping you.

Romas’ houses are noticeable from a distance: they can be recognized by hanging trousers, shirts and linens on the fences. There is a concrete road leading to the wooden shacks over the river on the hill. There are some brick houses here as well. The most luxurious among them is Ivan’s. It is a 50 sq.m house with two rooms, where he lives with his wife, two sons and a daughter. Two more elder sons live separately.

On the walls covered with old wallpapers, there are icons and posters with Jesus Christ. A loud crackling and whistle sound belongs to the Dnipro fridge. Ivan kindles a self-made stove – a common heater at Roma houses all over Transcarpathia. A 6 year old baron’s daughter climbs up on the old soviet sideboard, combs her hair, paints her lips and falls over it so much that paints her cheeks with the lipstick as well.

Ivan takes a guitar and plays songs. It is his way of earning money – he plays on weddings. Tall, solidly built, with moustaches, a beard and a long hair. He speaks Ukrainian and Russian. He learnt the languages at the religious seminary, where he received a deacon rank.


For 9 years, Ivan has been a local leader, a baron. Now this position is occupied by his brother:

— I am a comer, and my kids were born here. I myself come from Irshava. I am from an orphan asylum, found my parents here. That’s how I’ve been living by this day. I’ve built the house. The village selected me as a baron. People know me, understand me. My brother was a churchman so now he is selected. Our people gathered, they approved it and so my brother was selected. So now he is our leader. He has the warrant.

Locals don’t think well of Ivan, so as of anyone who even a bit differs from their average fellow villagers. But he says that Romas keep no offence about anything:

— We live for the day. As God will take care for tomorrow. We are like you.

The problems of Romas from Dubove Village are quite usual: the garbage is not collected, no sewage system or convenient logistics. Ivan understands that other villagers don’t like when Romas pour out water right on the road, it freezes and the hill turns into skating-rink in winter, while in summer, the dishwater stinks. It keeps getting less free space in the encampment, while the number of kids keeps growing. But they live almost in carton boxes and don’t ask for special treatment – just a bit of understanding and support:

— We can’t expect help. We live as God allows us. As we are such people: try to be kind to others, to the neighbors in the first place. Our people can be unkind when someone bullies us. We try to be peaceful and friendly. The other side of the coin: we live here on the road and it happens that the drunk men intentionally try to bully you. They seek causes. You weren’t even close there and he says: you’ve stolen from me. In the last year, nothing like this happened. We can say it was quiet. Now it’s the villagers who steal more. People of our ethnicity are treated with honor now. More like equals, like neighbors.

Inaccessible education
1/4According to the poll of the Revival International Fund in 2015, almost a quarter of Roma population in Ukraine could not write or read Ukrainian and every third did it poorly.

The quarter of the polled Romas don’t know Ukrainian at all or speak it poorly. The reason is the isolation of Romas settlements and gaps in education.

This is hardly the issue of Transcarpathia only but of entire Ukraine as well. A great number of Ukrainian Romas have never studied at school and, among those who did attend school, an incomplete secondary education is the most common.

Ivan seems to be not very much disturbed by education problems in kids. For his son, also Ivan, he sees a different future:

— They study not very well at school. Ivan always plays musical instruments. He will be a musician for sure.

The same problem with education is in other small Transcarpathian settlements too. In truth, for the poorest settlements it is problematic to get access to quality education of all levels. Also, one of the factors is a linguistic barrier: a lot of Hungarian speaking Romas don’t know the national languages; their children, if attending school at all, visit either Hungarian schools or non-state educational institutions sponsored by religious communities and Hungarian party. In Mukachevo and Berehove for instance, such schools use only Hungarian language in teaching. The graduates of such schools cannot continue education at Ukrainian higher schools as at the time of graduation they don’t speak Ukrainian.

Мирослав Горват

Myroslav Gorvat,
Deputy of Uzhhorod City Council of VII calling

A local Roma deputy Myroslav Gorvat explains that little Romas attend school the best until the 6th grade and then visit classes more and more seldom. At Uzhhorod school, among 32 students of 9th grade the classes are attended by only 3-5 children. In Myroslav’s opinion, the cause of such low attendance is the lack of motivation:

— Parents don’t understand that they must accompany children to the school, help them get prepared for classes and be ultimately concerned about their kid going to school. The other reason is no free meals except for the junior school, as sometimes children go to school to eat some food.

The Romas’ education often depends on the social status of the family. Even free school education is often unavailable: no money for school supplies, clothes or school renovation fees. Children help their parents to make extra money by keeping the household or looking after the younger brothers and sisters.

However, a child attending school is not a guarantee of quality education. Both the Romas and researchers admit that educational system of Ukraine don’t give much attention to Roma kids. Baron Ivan, sighing heavily, says:

— Our people here are often like this. No one wants to bother with educating them and they themselves cannot adjust to the education they have. There are people that know only how to count. No idea of how to write letters, but the numbers is above all. They had such life, indeed. Kept knocking about the train stations.

Now the situation is a bit better thanks to the charity organizations that introduced teacher assistance programs for junior grades where Roma kids study. Also, the centers of conscious parenthood help; they work with illiterate parents.

Romas’ isolation gets stronger right from the first grade as the majority are forced to study at segregated schools. Only the Romas study in such schools and they don’t communicate with other local children. If not every Roma settlement has such school.


As for the higher education, the tendency is slightly improving now. Only those who received higher education at the cost of Roma Educational Fund are almost 500 people, and the number of the integrated into Ukrainian society, educated Romas is even much bigger.

In Transcarpathia, as Myroslav Gorvat points out, 15-20 years ago there was only one Roma with higher education. Today, Roma students and graduates of higher education institutions are at least 50.

Documents and work

Besides education, there are other issues that require solution. According to the poll of public organizations, 17% Ukrainian Romas have no IDs, the third of them has no officially registered address. The situation with passporting in Transcarpathia is worse than in other regions of Ukraine.

In Mukachevo for instance, the majority of the Romas have no IDs. However, due to the activity of the free assistance centers and the Romas recognizing the importance of having IDs, the situation is yet improving. Also, childbirth allowances facilitate in passporting, as they can be received only if having the documents.

As for the employment, 63% of the polled Romas pointed out that they don’t work and 22% more work part-time. Among working Romas the self-employment prevails. Over half of the polled ones are occupied in sales or service supply; a quarter more are sole proprietors.

In Uzhhorod, the Romas work at public utilities as street sweepers, water utility workers and foremen. Those who can’t get employed in Transcarpathia go abroad or to Kyiv. The situation is the same in Mukachevo too.

Who are you and where are you from, Romas?

The problem of the Romas’ origin is still under research. Arguments still continue, and until now it is unknown how and why they have been spread nearly around the whole Europe and how they’ve managed to protect their identity from the constant globalization waves.

The most common theory nowadays is that the Romas come from India. Notably, “Romas” is their own sole name. However, they are not called “natives of India” in any of the languages. The word “gypsies” is used by Eastern Slavs. This was the name of the heretic sect at the beginning of the second century. Gypsy (English) or gitanos (Spanish) means “Egyptian”. The myth about the Romas’ coming from Egypt was rapidly spreading all over Europe. For example, for quite long the Magyars were calling gypsies fáraók népe, which meant “the pharaoh’s tribe”. However, at the times when the European languages were forming, it was a bit more difficult to verify facts that it is now. Therefore, say, the Frenchmen called the Romas “bohémiens” meaning “Czechs”. It seemed so to them. And until now, the Finns and the Estonians call them simply ‘the dark-skinned”. Notably that now myths say it that Romania is somehow connected with the Romas. The myth appeared because of the similar sounding of these two words.

What the Romas themselves think about their origin and how they single out themselves among other ethnicities, we’ve decided to ask the Romas themselves:

— You are gadjo! And she is gadjouka! – says Ivan from Dubove, laughing. – In our language, it means white man and white woman. We call you this word among us. But we don’t distinguish, it just happens so. Our language came from Sanskrit, and later various regions had their own influence on our language. Also, while going from India, can you imagine how many words we gathered on the way?

In closed Roma communities and small settlements there is a classic division into “us” and “them”: “RomA” – “gadje” (non-Roma, the stanger).

According to the Baron Ivan’s words, the Romas are also distinguished by their way of living:

— We do differentiate between ourselves a bit. There are pavilion gypsies, nomadic and settled. We are considered the settled ones as we live in one place, have built houses here, have families, some kind of a job and we thank God for it. The pavilion gypsies are those who live in nomadic way until nowadays. They are the women who have their honor and are supposed to wear long skirts. It is a great honor for a husband, a host and a baron himself. There are nomadic ones. The only thing they do is being on the road. Nowadays, all of them crossed over to “metal horses”.

Modern Ukrainian Romas no longer remember the romance of nomadic life their grandparents lived. In 1956 nomadism became illegal. By the decree of the Supreme Council of the USSR “About engaging roguish gypsies into labor”, a nomadic way of life was prohibited. This very day, in spite of this prohibition having been lifted long ago, all Roma settlements in Transcarpathia are settled.

The movement of Transcarpathian Romas to Kyiv or to other cities in warm seasons is called labor migration as exactly the lack of work forces the Romas to migrate. In cities, the Romas create temporary settlements.

In Transcarpathia, small settlements of the Romas exist in a shape of inhabited localities like separate streets, corners or micro-districts. They can be both with a few centuries history or brand new. The latest ones have been emerging spontaneously, for instance after floods, as the Transcarpathian Romas were the first to suffer from them – their houses were often situated in the lowland.

Small settlements on the outskirts of localities often have no gutter, sewing system, gas, roads; the buildings can be illegal. Young families often build a small adobe hut next to the father’s with no construction standards taken into account. Legalization of such buildings is almost impossible.

The language that is fading away

Transcarpathian Romas differ by the language feature as well. There are several coexisting dialects and accents of the Roma language – Romani, and in life the Romas themselves are not just bilingual but speak three or four languages.

As for example, in Mukachevo, Chop and Berehove’s settlements, the Romas speak Hungarian. Most of them don’t understand Ukrainian. In Uzhhorod, there are representatives of several dialect groups living there. There are the Romas-lovari or “ungrika Roma” that speak Lovari dialect of the Romani language, as well as the Servitika Romas, or so-called “Slovack Romas”. In everyday life, both speak fluently Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Slovak.

Baron Ivan from Dubove says:

— We are Ukrainians. Ukrainian gypsies. There are Romanian, Bulgarian, Magyar, Czech gypsies. All live on their own. Often, we can’t even understand each other. We have different culture. I speak Romani language poorly. And in different countries, the language is different indeed. I sing songs in our ethnic language. Sometimes, I say some words in it, but mostly – all we have here is Transcarpathian.

Nowadays, Romani is used in everyday life also in Perechin, Vinogradovo, Velykyi Bereznyi and Svalyava. However, as Myroslav Gorvat points out, it is not enough and Romani is at risk of disappearing. In Roma settlements, the language develops well. Instead in families living in non-Roma settlements the language is being forgotten despite the attempts to preserve it, though.

The church and alternative education

Ruslan Yankovsky

Ruslan Yankovsky,
Constructor, head of the non-formal education center in Mukachevo, deacon of the Evangelical church of Living God.

The life of Ruslan Yankovsky could have been different. He could have lived in poverty, picked up scrap metal or simply gotten drunk. However, he works as a constructor and manages the non-formal education center in Mukachevo, where little Romas are prepared for the school, taught to play musical instruments and draw pictures, and provided with food every day. All this, according to his words, is thanks to the church.

For many Transcarpathian Romas, the church is nearly the only place that demonstrates they can have an alternative to the life in poverty in a rough-and-ready constructed tents. To the church, Ruslan was brought by his mother when he was six. Now, he is a deacon of the Evangelical church of Living God, which includes churches in 20 Transcarpathian localities.

In Ruslan’s words, the church members of Mukachevo church include approximately 400 people. The church members also work with 500 kids and teenagers, for which the non-formal education center provides a lot of opportunities.

Every day over a hundred children from poor families attend charity church canteen. Some kids practically grow here and become mentors themselves.

— Sometimes we teach simple things: to mind cleanness and hygiene and to respect parents. Sometimes we provide with clothes. If a child doesn’t try something better, he will never know anything else. We give the opportunity to choose. Some families understood the importance of having a shower and made it at home, – tells us Ruslan.

The church tries to make education popular and encourage to not giving up studying. The church members teach little Romas to read and write Hungarian. There is a computer class here, as well as a sport school.

Older Romas are provided with vocational training here – they can master the professions of constructor or welder. This is where Ruslan was studying.

— The church plays a great part in the life of Roma population. It has changed the attitude of other ethnicities to the Romas. Until this, there was a huge tension – the Ukrainians were afraid to visit encampments. Now, the Ukrainians visit our church, pass through the encampment and we arrange joint events, – says Ruslan.

The pastors become the more important figures in the life of Roma community, which they also represent.

The public activist Iryna Mironyuk thinks that in modern conditions the pastors compete for the authority with barons the meaning of which transforms. This process in Transcarpathia is rapid, – Gorvat mentions.

In Myroslav’s belief, the barons are populist leaders unable to fulfill functions necessary for the Roma communities. In most settlements the baron’s status has already lost its importance and has been replaced by leaders, deputies, heads of public organizations and pastors.

Ruslan himself considers that pastors should not be idealized either. So to say, not every among them has the authority. In Mukachevo, the church has but the stronger influence, as in the past there were no good barons to represent the community:

— For us the church is not a building people visit once a week. We want it to be involved into various areas of life, – summarizes Yankovsky.

Korolevo. From a shack to the palace

Small Roma settlements in Transcarpathia can largely differ in their living conditions. For instance, Uzhhorod settlement is not as isolated as the Mukachevo’s, where there is no access to potable water.

Iryna Mironyuk

Iryna Mironyuk,
public activist

— Svalyava encampment, where about two thousand Romas live, is the history of success. Baron Matviy Balint has been a deputy for over 10 years now. He became a civil servant to protect the interests of his people. He has lain on water supply to the settlement, has built houses for youth, all children of the settlement attend school and learn Ukrainian, – says Iryna.

Possibly, the most populated Roma encampment in Eastern Europe is the Mukachevo’s with 4-10 thousand people living there. In Mukachevo and Berehove, there are nearly the worst living conditions.

Financial situation of the settlements differ depending on the community’s priorities. Mukachevo and Uzhhorod Romas have been occupied with art professions (first of all, music) since ancient times, and in Vinohradovo District they’ve been working physically and going for the seasonal jobs.

One of the wealthiest and equipped Roma encampments is the settlement in Korolyovo, Vinohradovo District. The houses here are made of brick, some even with many floors. The road is shriveled with gravel. Outside, there are tidy children running about. The girls wear traditional Roma dresses. The women pay much attention to dressing, in such way emphasizing their status. Metal threads and laces on the skirts are supplemented with gilding; the clothes are decorated with artificial stones. Family jewelries, usually made on request, may include precious stones. They become a dowry for the bride as a symbol of wealth of the family she comes from.

Although the settlement in Korolyovo is quite wealthy, it is much inferior to Slovak and Romanian lines, which compete in demonstration of welfare and precious jewelries.

In the settlement of Korolyovo, there are 3700 people living there. Baron Lotsi tells us that most of the local Romas earn money in Russia and points out: no criminality.

Men from Korolyovo work in teams usually consisting of close relatives and neighbors. They often manufacture can elements for roofs, drains etc. The masters here have a longstanding reputation and their own style of decorating products. Financial security, though, doesn’t guarantee the absence of the problems that exist in other settlements. Some people here still have no documents; there are a lot of illiterate people:

— There are a lot of problems with gypsies. The biggest is that they are uneducated. They are not taught appropriately, don’t go to school. You see, one was attending school but wasn’t taught the same as others there. Attitude is different, less attention, – says baron.

The problems could have been avoided if the Romas had lived with the Ukrainians, considers Lotsi. So to say, the Roma living alongside with other ethnicities would have been cared about more.

We are the Romas and not gypsies!

It seemed that in the last compartment of the train “Uzhhorod-Kyiv” the radio song was playing. While no – that were four men playing and singing live. The train arrived to Chop. The people who had got on the train sat at once in an empty neighboring compartment to listen. Most songs were about Jesus and faith, they sounded very tuneful. They were playing a full set for half hour and, yet afterwards the improvised concert, talking about their life in Seredne Village, Uzhhorod District.

By Ukrainian passports they are Victor, Yosyp and Vitaliy but in Roma settlement they were known as Ityu, Jijyu and Duchu. Ityu and Duchu are the Roma nicknames, while the nickname Jijyu comes from the name of Ukrainian singer. Ityu is 37 years old; he has a daughter and four grandchildren. 30-year-old Duchu has seven kids, and 21-year-old Jijyu – already four.

— Why do we have so many children? Oh, cause many of us have no light, - they are joking.

In average, there are about three thousand Romas living in Roma settlement. Now, they have their own school. For the last 15 years, as boys say, there were a lot of positive changes. They say that they themselves would like to study, but the community has been encouraging not a very honest way of earning money, and studying itself wasn’t popular, though.

— I have been attending school for two years now, – says Duchu. He is thirty but he is not ashamed of having started to learn how to write just now. I couldn’t read at all. My first book was Bible. I’ve been carrying it with me and saying “It’s written so in Bible” but myself couldn’t read it.

Jijyu and Ityu are Baptists and Duchu is an Evangelist but they don’t argue. Each of us quotes Bible from time to time and likes talking about his way to God. Ityu says that everyone in the village can count, while read and write – the very few. Officials profit from the Romas’ illiteracy and demand bribes.

In the past, local Romas travelled around Soviet Union, leaded a nomadic life, now they’ve settled.

— We pray to God that he forgives us for how we lived before, – says Ityu.

Duchu recalls how they were getting on the train to Chernivtsi. People were going from the market with identical bags. The boys were stealing the unsupervised ones:

— Back at that time try to prove it was yours! Everyone had the same, and we were a full compartment of people, no one would be coming for the bag. Once, I was stealing a bag, I picked it up and it was so heavy. I thought: woo, boy, I am busted! I took it into the water closet, opened it up and there were liter wine bottles. I left some there and took the rest, – remembers Duchu.

Jijyu is the youngest and jokes the most. They all are full of self-criticism and make fun of themselves:

— I am a “hromadyanyn” (from Ukrainian “citizen”) of Ukraine! We are Ukrainians! – says Ityu.
— You’re not a “hromadyanyn”, – Jijyu laughs at him, – you are Romadyanyn (i.e. Roma citizen, play of words)!

Although they sometimes call themselves gypsies, this word they bluntly reject. They say the first association is a thief:

— We are Romas, not gypsies! You do like when you are called Ukrainians and when, for instance, “khokly” – you don’t. Or when the Russians call you “bandery”! For us, it is the same here.

— We are seldom asked about anything by anybody. We can tell a lot but people can only think that we will be stealing something, – says Duchu.

This story, the same as the story of Baron Ivan and Deacon Ruslan, is about transformation and stereotypes. About how Romas differ from gypsies from the concept of the Romas themselves. About how Roma community aspires for changes and as a result does change. Also, each of these stories is about how the Romas live alongside with the ethnical Ukrainians. About how contrasting the culture, language and the life of Ukrainian Romas can be, which despite everything they managed to preserve.

How we were shooting

On our way to the Roma settlement in Korolyovo we also dropped by to the Ukrainian family who has been living there for over 60 years now and has its own not less interesting story. Watch this and about wealthy Romas of Korolyovo on our video blog.

The material is prepared byText:Diana ButskoText:Bogdan LogvynenkoEditor:Evgenia SapozhnykovaScience editor:Nataliya ZinevychPhoto:Taras KovalchukOperator:Dmytro OchrimenkoMontage:Mykola NosokMontage:Kateryna KulikovaBild-editor:Sergiy KorovaynyAssistant:Sergiy GuzenkovAssistant:Dmytro ChernenkoTranslation:Daria Temerbek

29 August 2017 11:08