My grandmother was a refugee. My family fled the war in Germany that ate up the continent. Half of my family swallowed whole by Hitler’s campaign. The other half crawled home with scars that wrinkled their voices as they spoke. They were not welcome where they tried to make their homes. Their way of life, illegal; their skin too brown and too suspicious. They ran for their lives, across countries, across oceans. When they finally placed down their hearts, they were asked to leave. They had no passports, no birth certificates, no official documentation.
They were permanently waiting to go home.
Maami and Papu were evicted at least eight times when I was a child. They were never given much of a reason. My parents received fines for “trespassing” on common land, suddenly vandals and miscreants because of our ethnicity. They threatened to take us kids away, because we were being “neglected” and “abused”. When I asked Maami where our home was, she smiled gently.
“Our home is our language, our culture, our romanija. Our home is the sky and the wind and the meadow. Our home is here,” and she tapped above her heart.
As a child we travelled throughout much of Europe – France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, Belgium. Wherever we went, we never felt comfortable. We were poor. We were uneducated. We were undocumented and unofficial. We were unwanted; always someone else’s problem.
Despite the fact that the UN (and the International Labour Organization) passed the The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990 (after more than a decade of deliberation), nothing has changed for Romani (or others) who travel seasonally to find work or who, like many of my family members, travelled to find better economic opportunity.
With the current refugee crisis, my heart and mind return to my own childhood, the daughter of refugees and migrants – the cultural trauma palpable in our every day lives. Whisky secreted in tea cups; drunken anger to swallow up the fear and defeat. The memories burn a hole in my heart. I don’t want to remember my family this way – scattered, crumpled, broken. Romani are a proud people – we’ve survived many generations of terrible violence, oppression, and discrimination, but sometimes in the silent smokey haze of a summer morning, everything just seemed so impossible.
“Miri čhaj, don’t worry. We are strong, we have the rest of the world standing on our shoulders every day, trying to push us back down into the earth, but we are also stars in the sky, embracing the whole world. We are everything and we are nothing,” Maami would say, the sharp scent of whisky cutting through her words. She had an old suitcase under her bed, full of all of her most precious belongings. It was never unpacked; ready and waiting for the knock at the door. I remember when I was seven, I found an old bag and packed my favourite things inside. I too, had learned to wait. Even now, I am still waiting.
I grew up in a family of survivors; a family of mad women and strong women; a family of refugees and im/migrants. My grandparents fleeing war, poverty, and death; my parents refugees from their own history – fleeing the memories of flight. And then there’s me. A refugee from the suffocation of tradition and poverty. An im/migrant. Alone.
I miss the tradition I was so desperate to escape – I miss the language; the loud, chaotic, shoals of children. I miss travelling and music.
I don’t miss the alcoholism, poverty, or fear.