donderdag, oktober 27, 2016

This summer the Living Peace: Celebrating 25 years of Creators of Peace conference took place in the international conference centre for Initiatives of Change in Caux (Switzerland). One of the insights that informs the approach of Creators of Peace is the awareness of the power of the story that every person, every woman lives out of, that shapes her world view, her values and relationships, that she passes on to her children and grandchildren. The stories that shape who we are and how we think. And we have the power to change the stories; from hurt to healing, from frozen to forgiving, from callousness to compassion. Below you can read the story of one of the speakers of the conference: Diana Damsa.


Diana Damsa – Romania

Diana Damsa

It was the end of October 2005 when I landed in Mumbai, India, all excited and ready to start the journey of my life, as part of the Initiatives of Change leadership programme - Action for Life. It was for me the first time to be outside Europe and I was so eager to see, learn and discover. The very same day, in spite of being quite tired from the travel, I wanted to go out and see the city. Our host took us to visit the most famous sites of Mumbai. As we were walking the streets I noticed the poor-looking people, quite dirty and begging. I found myself thinking 'These gypsies are everywhere!!! What a nuisance!' I asked 'Who are these people?' and my host said: 'poor people'.  I was surprised: 'What do you mean poor people? Aren't they gypsies?' He looked at me confused and asked: 'What are gypsies?' I was shocked by such ignorance: 'Don't you know who the gypsies are?' 'No, he said, but these are just very poor Indians.'

I was shocked – how can he not know about the gypsies, and why these people look just like them: dirty, dark-skinned and beggars. I also felt embarrassed and uneasy by the short conversation.

The incident took me by surprise. I could not stop thinking about it! I used my following Quiet Times to reflect. Something was not right. I soon realized that I was always associating the gypsies with a very negative image: dirty, poor, beggars, unreliable, not to be trusted, to keep distance from. Where did this image came from? Why was I so quick to assume that all poor-looking people who are begging are gypsies? I had to admit that I was prejudiced against this group and, as much as I would have liked to believe that my opinion was based on pure and direct observation, I knew deep down that I was missing some important pieces. I felt ashamed!

My real journey of discovery had just started. Who could know that I needed to be so far away from home in order to learn painful truths about myself, my culture, our history and country!

This journey started 11 years ago and is still going on …

I'd like to share with you a few steps I have taken so far in this journey:

First Step. Admit to your own prejudice and be willing to work towards addressing it. I started doing this through deep reflection during Quiet Times. I could see how I was the product of my own society where despising the gypsies is the norm. People speak badly about them and give them as a bad example while educating children. When something goes wrong - something is stolen, something is destroyed or there is violent behaviour – people will blame it on gypsies. I started to understand the concept of scapegoating and I could see how it is applied by our society against them. It was painful to realize that I belonged to the group that was discriminating.

2nd Step. Tackle your ignorance. I realized how little I knew about this group who have been living alongside us for as long as we can remember! I started searching for more information and read anything I could about their history and culture. I was surprised to learn that they originate from northern India and travelled towards Europe, starting 1000 years ago. That there were great similarities between their language and culture and North Indian cultures but that they are now a distinct ethnic group of Europe. I was less excited to learn about the hardships they encountered in Europe and how they were made victims of the Holocaust. The greatest shock was when I learnt about the 500 years of slavery they had to bear in the territories that now make up my country! How could this be possible? Why didn’t I hear anything about it before? Why were we not told about it in our history classes?

3rd step. Take a conscious decision to show respect. I decided to stop speaking badly about them and I stopped calling them 'gypsies'. I started using the more preferred, dignifying term of Roma or Romany people. I did not know before that Gypsy was a derogatory term and that they prefer to be called Roma or Romany people, which is how they refer to themselves, the meaning of the word being 'human being'.

4th step. Reach out and make friends. I realized I had no direct connection to any Roma person. All I knew about them was based on assumptions and superficial observations from a distance. I looked for opportunities to meet people from this community and sure enough, when you start looking for opportunities they come your way. A few friendships started taking shape. The closer we became the more embarrassed I felt about 'the old, prejudiced me'. I learned that there are many Roma people living very similar lives to mine, having a house, a job, a family and similar preoccupations and expectations from life. They are less visible in society because they are just so well integrated that you actually do not see any difference between them and us; but also because many of them, once integrated in the wider society, do not want to stand out as Roma people, for fear of discrimination.

5th step. Share all new learning and discoveries with family and friends. This is probably the hardest thing one can do, as those closest to us have a tendency to be more resistant to such challenges. None the less, I started to speak about it with my family, sometimes reaching agreement and progress. Some of my friends were interested and willing to start on this journey of discovery themselves! I also started to introduce this topic into the trainings I lead and to groups I work with.

6th step. Stand-up and speak-out for the Roma people. I became aware that my journey of discovery is worth most as I use it to challenge the general negative view regarding the Romas, and speak-up about the painful truths in our history and our society. I want to make the wider society aware of how our ignorance and indifference affects the others, how humiliating some of our assumptions are, how disempowering and unjust our sense of superiority is. This is an uncomfortable topic for many and one risks quite unpleasant reactions even from the closet friends or family. But I feel I have to do it, for the sake of our own self respect as a nation, for the sake of peace and justice. We have recently registered an NGO in Romania under the name of Centre for Social Transformation. Part of our mission is to work for the empowerment of Roma youth and women but also for raising awareness within the wider society regarding prejudice and discrimination. We have organized dialogues where Roma and non-Roma people could speak about this issue. We go to schools and have invited youth to learn about the history of Roma people, about the slavery and the injustices they were submitted to over time. The question often arises: Why don't we hear about it in history classes in school?

But I also want to confess that in spite of having taken this commitment to speak-out and stand-up for the Roma people, there are times when I have failed to do so, lacking courage, strength or inspiration.

Recently, I was visiting a family who have a young son. Like most boys of his age he is very energetic and quite naughty at times. He is discovering the world around in his own way. Playing, he can make quite a mess and he has recently discovered spitting. The parents have the challenge of educating him and turning him into a nice, tidy and well-behaved boy. While visiting, I could see his mum’s efforts to correct him, asking him a few times to 'stop it', with not much success. Then, unexpectedly, I heard her saying: 'If you don't stop spitting I will give you to the gypsies because only they are dirty and spit and make a mess just like you do.' I was frozen. I was shocked! I honestly did not know how to react and I felt so embarrassed. Here I am, working to overcome prejudice against the Roma and someone close is being raised with prejudice from a young age. I have to say that this woman is a loving wife and a wonderful mother. But she just repeats things that she was told as a child and that she has heard millions of times without ever questioning the impact such words can have! That’s how we educate children! That’s normality for many of us! She doesn’t know better! She is not aware and means no harm. She is actually a victim of our own society, as I was long ago! Aware or not, the harm is there, and I was a witness to it. But I was weak and I was taken by surprise. I didn’t say anything and I left with a heavy heart. I didn’t want to confront her, and definitely not in front of the boy.

Finding the right way to help my friend understand the harm such disciplining does will need sensitivity and inspiration. I don’t want to judge her. I only want to play my part in breaking the chain of passing on prejudice from one generation to the next. I want all our children to become just and compassionate people, to be part of a generation that is aware of and willing to accept and take responsibility not only for the good and dignifying moments from our history but also for the ones that were kept for a long time in the closet. I want this generation to be proud for having found solutions to the social injustice we witness today in our country.

And I renew my commitment once more to stand-up and speak-out and not fade away feeling powerless or too challenged.

I also want to thank my Roma friend Simona, present here at this 'Living Peace' conference, for being part of my journey, helping to cure my ignorance and prejudice. I want to apologise for the injustices 'her people' go through at the hands of 'my people'. I want to acknowledge that in the end we are just 'one people'.


The Creators of Peace (CoP) initiative was launched in 1991 at the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Caux, Switzerland by the Hon Anna Abdallah Msekwa of Tanzania, a respected politician and leader of her country’s women’s organizations. In her inaugural speech, she urged everyone to “create peace wherever we are, in our hearts, our homes, our workplace and our community. We all pretend that someone else is the stumbling block…Could that someone be myself?” Read more about Creators of Peace...