Working together is demanding, but totally worth it: A researcher’s testimony from working with the marginalised Roma community in Slovakia

MSc. Daniela Fiľakovská
Daniela Filakovska

Department of Health Psychology and Research Methodology, Faculty of Medicine, PJ Safarik University, Kosice, Slovak Republic

Roma are the largest and most disadvantaged ethnic minority in Europe. For centuries, the history of Roma has been marked by intolerance, punitive policies, assimilation and social engineering which has ultimately resulted in the development of marginalized Roma communities. Marginalized communities are characterized by spatial and social distance from the majority of the population. In these communities, many Roma have been caught in a cycle of social exclusion and financial hardship for generations. The living conditions in such communities are unimaginable for most of us across modern democratic Europe. Community members face every day struggles similar to slums associated with the Global South: from food insecurity, lack of access to drinking water and basic infrastructure, shanty and overcrowded housing and environmental hazards to discrimination in the area of education, employment or healthcare. Life expectancy rates are well below European Union averages, closer to those of the country of Kenya.

Obrázok, Slovakia

No wonder that after centuries of oppression and bad experiences Roma people have no reason to trust people outside of their community. However, their trust and involvement are essential in order to apply principles of participatory action research which guide RIVER-EU project activities. It is not possible to simply enter the community, knock on the door and expect understanding, enthusiasm and willingness to get involved. That is why it is necessary to gain and handle their trust sensitively. The bridge between researchers and community members relies on people from organisations operating in the communities daily for a long time. Roma health mediators or social workers are examples of such people with whom we first established close cooperation. These frontline workers are mostly people who are members of the community, they live and work there, and have trust and respect of other community members. Once they perceive our good intentions, believe in our goals, and trust us as researchers – those frontline workers become an irreplaceable intermediary between us and community members. The community workers can then invite other people from the community to participate in RIVER-EU activities including research, intervention development, and implementation.

MSc. Daniela Fiľakovská, Jana Plavnická and Roma health mediators

Cooperation with trusted community workers and community members requires regular communication and meetings and stands on principles of reciprocity and no-harm. Working together is demanding, but totally worth it. It is a time-consuming approach, but investing time is essential to enter these communities. Sometimes community members are not pleased with our presence in the community. They are afraid that we would report them to social and family services and their children will be taken to foster care or that we are going to experiment on them or inject something to cause infertility. Therefore we need to be patient and also prepared to step back because the reputation of those who are opening the door for us is more important than our activities.

We found that it is very important to offer community members corrective experiences with gadje – a term used to refer to non-Romani people. In the first instance, we should set realistic expectations and make no false promises to avoid disappointment. Secondly, when entering the communities, we must be respectful of the environment and the people who live there. It is important to appreciate and understand the values and culture of the Roma people and always treat the surroundings and traditional practices of this community with the utmost respect. We need to control our body language and reactions to possible smell, flies, fleas, lice, or dirt. Of course, it might be unpleasant, but nobody likes to feel embarrassed by manifestations of aversions. People living in this unfavourable reality are fully aware of it, so do not keep distance and shake their hands. If they expect you to come, they will prepare the nicest chair for you and even borrow from family or neighbours to be able to offer you a snack and a coffee. Accept everything they offer and bring something in return. Use plain language, humour and self-disclosure. As a researcher, you want them to share a lot with you during the interviews or via the questionnaire, thus share something about yourself in return, ideally something spicy or embarrassing that you could laugh about together. It will make them feel more comfortable. Talk to them, find out what you have in common, acknowledge their needs, appreciate their children and listen with your heart, not only ears.