The term gypsy brings to mind many stereotypes.
Some know them as a Bohemian or free-spirited people. Others know them as transient people. But they are also known as cheats or thieves, and women are thought to be seductresses.
As five members of the Evangelical Community Free Church of Mahomet visited the Roma Gypsies in Tinca, Romania, they learned that stereotypes may be true, in some instances, but they also learned that sometimes actions come from a people who are marginalized in a way that they have no other choice.
Gypsy is a derogatory term used to describe the low-caste “untouchables” who migrated into Europe from Punjab, India over 1,000 years ago. The Europeans thought the newcomers to be Egyptian, and eventually called them gypsy.
Today, throughout the western world, they are known as Roma.
“There are some things that are true about Roma,” Tom McCowan said. “There is a high amount of thievery among them. It is passed on from parent to child. The children are taught how to pickpockets.”
“Some of it is cultural, but a lot of it, more or less, has been forced upon them,” he continued.
In Romania, although it is not in writing anywhere, the Roma are viewed as people who are not human.
“It doesn’t sound like that could even be true; that’s it’s hyperbole, but it’s not,” McCowan said.
While the Mahomet group understood that the Roma were a group who lives in extreme poverty, they did not quite realize the ways in which the Roma have to fend for themselves.
In homes, without electricity or plumbing, the Roma’s hygiene is so bad that it distinguishes them from any other Romanian.
Households often consist of family members who travel outside of the country for work, or mothers and fathers who are just children themselves.
“They are very young when they get married,” Tasha Schifo said. “We met a couple who was married at 11 and 16.”
“If they hit 15 and they aren’t married, they are considered old maids,” Mike Piasecki said.
“These aren’t necessarily a legally documented marriage,” Tasha said. “It’s usually by rape, and now you’re married.”
Within the Village of Tinca, where 1,000 documented and possibly another 1,000 undocumented residents reside, there are only four last names.
Mike Piasecki said the Roma culture is also a very violent culture.
“Domestic abuse is the rule, not the exception,” he said.
“We had the experience of the (Forget Me Not) mission taking a girl for almost the whole time we were there because her uncle punched her in the face. She was punched because she was breaking her grandmother’s fingers.
“They live a violent life, it is part of their existence.”
But, after being in Romania for 10 days, Jan Piasecki said that the violence the Roma people display may be because they are so angry and hurt from what they’d experienced that day.
“Emotionally they live just on the edge because they are treated so badly wherever they go,” she said.
While he was there, McCown formed a bond with a 12-year old Roma boy who was born with Down Syndrome.
Upon birth, the boy’s mother abandoned him, and because he was in a state hospital run by Romanians, the boy was not picked up during his first three years of life. He only received one diaper change per day.
Now, a part of the Forget Me Not Mission, he is gaining ground.
“Every (medical professional) who comes into a hospital room to take care of a Roma person has to be bribed for them to give care,” McCowan said. “The reality is that a Roma child having surgery will not be given anesthesia by a doctor because the Romanian doctors say that Romas do not feel pain like humans do.”
Roma children are also set up for failure by the educational system.
Although Roma in some other countries are given the same opportunities, Romanian Roma children are only guaranteed an education inside their village until they reach the fourth grade.
After fourth grade, they are required to move onto a Romanian public school. The majority choose not to because of the way they will be treated.
“Even the teachers are not kind to them,” Tasha Schifo said. “They have to sit in the back of class and are not given books because the teachers think they won’t take care of them and they will never see them again.”
Because the people are uneducated, many of them cannot read or write.
As an uneducated people whose personal hygiene is not adequate, the Roma often have a very difficult time finding work.
If a Roma does find a job, he/she is paid a fraction of what a Romanian is paid for the same work.
Without money or access to electricity, the Roma travel 8 miles with their bikes daily to gather twigs from the forest in order to heat their homes.
The Romanian police wait in the woods to hunt for Roma who are gathering firewood. When found, they beat them.
“It’s kind of hard to root for them against the police, but at the same time, they have families they have to keep warm,” McCowan said.
For these reasons, Jan Piasecki said she can understand why their society is violent towards each other.
“You can imagine them coming home full of this angry response to everything that’s happened to them while they were out, and then they come home and whoever is there gets the fallout from that,” she said.
Although the Roma are violent among themselves, they are also a cohesive unit.
“They stick together,” Mike Piasecki said. “But somebody singles out someone in their particular village, they will rally around that person.”
While the group was in Romania, they saw the fruits of the rally begin to take place.
Rachel Ross, the niece of Jim and Kathy Woods, who attend the Community Evangelical Free Church, began Forget Me Not Ministries in Romania nearly 10 years ago.
Under the guidance of Isaiah 49:15, which states, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” the Forget Me Not Mission embraces Roma families and children.
After school, the Isaiah Center, part of Forget Me Not Ministries, provides a place for children to bathe, get a fresh set of clothes, to eat a meal, to brush their teeth and to take care of their hair.
“It also gives them a safe place to play because these people are looked down upon, so even just to play soccer could be dangerous for them,” Tasha Schifo said.
Children also receive a Christian education.
The group said when they left, Ross was getting ready to begin a program for the teenage girls who were not married to find value.
“She’s doing this in hopes and prayers that these girls will begin to see that there is more to them than getting married, having babies and getting beaten,” Jan Piasecki said.
The Forget Me Not Ministry is also working with nine families to help turn their lives around.
“One family in particular, the husband and his wife were married at 11 and 16, have truly embraced the Christian faith,” Jan Piasecki said. “It has impacted their family, and their family is different from the others.
“The husband (Cristi) supports his wife (Malina) and helps with the children. The wife will say ‘I love my husband and he loves me.’”
Tom McCowan and Mike Piasecki worked with Cristi while they were there. The trio built shoe racks for the Isaiah Center.
“It was very, very important to Cristi,” McCowan said. “He’s so excited to learn more woodworking.”
McCowan is building a beehive to send the Isaiah Center. The Center will be able to put it into a garden to produce honey. The European Union, which advocates for the Roman, will purchase the honey.
McCowan is also sending beehive parts to the Isaiah Center.
“I’m challenging Cristi to use the parts and duplicate the one that I built,” he said.
Cristi also earns firewood for the time he puts into the Isaiah Center.
“Everything that they get they’ve been made to feel that they’ve earned it,” Tasha Schifo said.
The Isaiah Center also gives local women an opportunity to make money.
The ministry, called Joy Beadz, gives women a job making bracelets on a weekly basis.
The women are immediately paid for the work they accomplished.
Visitors to the Center take beads home with them to sell. All the money goes back to Forget Me Not Missions.
The Community Free Church brought a suitcase full of bracelets home with them.
The group was also impressed to see that Forget Me Not Ministries is not only reaching the Roma people, but also the Romanian people.
Eight Romanian women work at the Isaiah Center and have a positive outlook on the Roma people.
“Giving people dignity through relationship is really what this is all about,” McCowan said.
The Community Evangelical Free Church of Mahomet will meet within the next week or two to discuss their next steps.
“Our goal going forward is to keep building upon this,” McCowan said. “We don’t just want it to be a one-off thing where we went and got the T-shirt now we’re done. (We want to) focus in on these guys, and build relationships there.”
The church has helped Forget Me Not Ministries through monetary donations and prayers since its inception. But the group feels like they can do more.
“We got to know this group, so they are our responsibility now,” Jan Piasecki said.