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'They Want To Fit In': An Uphill Struggle For Greece's Roma

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'They Want To Fit In': An Uphill Struggle For Greece's Roma


'They Want To Fit In': An Uphill Struggle For Greece's Roma

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's spend a few minutes talking about prejudice and how it played out in a dramatic recent incident. A few weeks ago in Greece, police took a girl away from a family of Roma, an ethnic group long called gypsies. Little Maria, as she became known, is blonde and blue-eyed, unlike the family, so the police suspected a kidnapping and the world has speculated about a vast child snatching ring reminiscent of sinister stereotypes of the Roma as baby traffickers. But the family said they were raising the girl for a Roma mother who couldn't care for her and DNA proved her mother was indeed Roma.

Joanna Kakissis has this profile of one woman in Greece who's educating Roma children for life amid prejudice.

MARIA LARSEN: (Unintelligible) That's Marina.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: They all know you.

LARSEN: Oh, yeah, of course.


KAKISSIS: I'm with Maria Larsen, a 38-year-old Swede raised in Greece who works with the Roma.

LARSEN: I think Europe needs to learn more about the Roma because it's a very interesting culture. It's a very interesting people. And the Roma know more about the world outside than the world outside knows about the Roma.

KAKISSIS: We're driving through a Roma camp near Examilia, a village near the coastal city of Corinth. Local villagers sometimes dump their trash on the road to the camp.

LARSEN: There's some nice houses and there's some shacks.

KAKISSIS: What are the shacks made out of?

LARSEN: Everything you can find in the garbage.

KAKISSIS: Eight hundred people live here. Many of them are children who attend the classes Larsen teaches that integrate Roma kids into Greek public schools.

LARSEN: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Larsen stops the car when she spots one of her favorite students, a little boy with a big grin named Vassilaki (ph). Vassilaki, she says, you read your poem so well today in class. She wants him to feel proud. She says it will help Vassilaki on the day he steps out of the camp.

LARSEN: The best way to deal with it with the children is to just prepare them that this is the way the world is. The world is not ready for you yet, but you have to be ready for them.

KAKISSIS: About 12 million Roma live in Europe, about 300,000 of them in Greece. Many are illiterate and are more likely to be unemployed, impoverished and in poor health than other Europeans. There's also been a disturbing anti-Roma backlash since Europe has sunk into recession. Sotiris Tzamalis, a Roma scrap metal dealer inside the camp, is acutely aware of it.

SOTIRIS TZAMALIS: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: When I read the paper, Zelmalis says, they say wherever there are Roma, there are drugs and guns and that we sell our kids. They should be ashamed.

MARIA SOUTA: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: But a grandmother named Maria Souta says some of her fellow Roma have turned to drug-dealing to make money.

SOUTA: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: And then our kids take drugs and who knows what else, she says. I really want my grandchildren to get an education and get out of here. Maria Larsen says more than 80 percent of the Roma here are illiterate, but at least the younger Roma want to learn how to read and write, she says. Natasa Panagiotopoulou is 21, a Roma mother of two toddlers she plans to send to Greek public school.

She also escorts other Roma children there.

NATASA PANAGIOTOPOULOU: (Speaking foreign language)

KAKISSIS: At the bus stop, she says she often talks to the Greeks waiting there, though they ignore her. But she won't stop trying, hoping that someday someone will answer.


That's reporter Joanna Kakissis with the backdrop to this dramatic story in Greece.

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