Stealing Gypsy Children in America
by Galina Trefil
During the 18th century, the Moravian government used to send soldiers and empty carts into the Romani (Gypsy) settlements. The soldiers grabbed the Romani youngsters, and when the carts were full of screaming, crying children, they greeted the protesting parents with a cat-of-nine-tails or worse. Sometimes the parents, knowing they would probably never see their children again, committed suicide on the spot.
The children were forced into homes run by White families to whom the government paid small monthly sums. Usually, due to the abuse in these homes, the children ran away, desperately trying to relocate their parents.
My ancestor, Martin Starsi Trefil, was a nomadic Rom during that time. Six of his children were stolen away in those governmental carts. Whether Martin Mladsi Trefil’s five sisters ran away, I do not know, but none were ever heard from again. He himself was never again permitted to live with his parents.
Such children were forbidden to speak Romani, the Hindi-based language of their ancestors, so they were completely unable to live their lives in accordance to romaniya (the Romani ethical principals). This made my forcibly settled ancestors seem more like Gadje, not Romani: They couldn’t speak their own language and didn’t even know their own cultural rules, so they couldn’t act in accordance to the marime (cleanliness) laws.
All they knew was that they were Gypsy children stolen from their parents and their heritage, and were raised in a culture which called them pick-pockets, cannibals, and, ironically, stealers of children!
In the name of my ancestors, I have been outraged at the media’s handling of the case of Madelyn Toogood. Ever since Mrs. Toogood was filmed beating her young daughter, I have heard not-so-subtle innuendoes in the news against the Romani people, because Mrs. Toogood happens to be Rom. My people are once more referred to as evil, charlatans, pick-pockets, and child-thieves!
To the non-Romani community, I wish to clarify that beating children is not part of our culture. A Romani proverb is “You don’t bring children up by beating them, but rather by using words.” To us, there is nothing as important having happy, healthy children, so when discipline is necessary, we discipline with words, not slaps.
Beating children is not in league with romaniya. I would be surprised if her entire tribe isn’t furious with her. She committed a crime, and she drew attention to our community. As every “Gypsy” knows, if one of us does something wrong, all of us will be blamed for it.
And we are being blamed for it, and I charge that we, the Roma, are the last ethnic minority in this country that the press is still allowed to freely denigrate. If Madelyn Toogood were French, would I be hearing that French people are abusive towards children? I doubt it!
Would news reporters dare make inferences in regard to African Americans if Madelyn Toogood had been one? Would they dare bring up her ethnic background if she were African or Native American, a Jew, Asian, Hispanic, or any other more-widely recognized minority? Perhaps not, because it would not have been “politically correct.”
What most concerns me is that I keep hearing that little Martha is going to be wrenched away from her family and placed with White foster parents.
Whereas I doubt Madelyn Toogood is a fit parent; still, she does have a large extended family, members of which are willing to take Martha.
Martha Toogood has the right to be raised in the culture of her ancestors.
If she is given to White foster parents, how is this country’s government better than the one that stole my ancestor and his five sisters from his parents? Is this 21st-century America or might we just as well be back in 18th-century Moravia?
If our government can’t guarantee she’ll be given White foster parents who will teach her how to hold her chin up and say, “I am a Romani Gypsy and I am proud of it,” then the government has no business absconding with her.
How many Gadje families could supply enough Romani culture and history to give her an adequate, positive self-image? How will Martha Toogood be able to raise her head in a world that identifies “Gypsies” as criminals? Will her new-found White foster parents teach her about the centuries of slavery and persecution that the Roma have endured ever since we entered Europe from India? Will she be given Romani role-models such as Irina Botezata, the Romanian Gypsy slave who became a princess; actors and artists such as Bob Hoskins, Yul Brynner, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Django Reinhardt, the Polish poetess Papuzsa, and Mother Theresa?
In summation, I should like to clarify three things to people interested in the case. First, we Romani love our children. We do not beat them or hurt them and those among us who do are not acting in accordance with our culture. They shame us. Second, bringing ethnicity into the situation is not ethical. If ethnicity had not been a factor, how would we spectators have known that the Toogoods are Gypsies? Third, for the love of that child, do not steal her from her culture! She has a right to know her origins, and I, as a descendant of great-grandparents who fled the persecution of the Czech Republic as dark-skinned Gypsies, would really like to believe that my ancestors found a country that, unlike the one in which they were born, does not steal Gypsy children.
Galina Trefil, 21, is a Romani writer and researcher based in Fort Bragg, California, whose focus is historical/genealogical research on Romani subjects. Email: email@example.com