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International Roma Day: The Stigmatized People of Greece

Roma people Greece
Roma children playing. Credit: AMNA

The issue of Roma people in Greece remains controversial to this day. The Council of Europe estimates that approximately 265,000 Roma reside in Greece (2.47 percent of the population).

Roma, or Romani or Romany, the people formerly known as Gypsies, are stigmatized because their lifestyle differs drastically from the social norms of Western countries.

The stigma stems primarily from claims that Roma commit crimes such as grand theft, robbery, drug trafficking, and even murder in some rarer instances.

Racism and discrimination against the Roma in Greece

Stigma also comes as a result of outright racism. The racism and discrimination towards Roma may, in fact, lead them to a life of petty crime.

Ten years after the crisis, the Roma people in Greece still face extreme poverty. A recent staggering report showed that while approximately twenty percent of the general Greek population is at risk for poverty, the same holds true for nearly one hundred percent of the Greek Roma.

Greece Roma
Almost 100% of Roma people in Greece are at risk of poverty. Credit: Economist

In the early 2000s, the Greek government set out with a plan to improve conditions for the Roma, but many say that these efforts were unsuccessful and that most communities continue to live in conditions similar to those prior to the efforts.

A recent study by the Minority Rights group says that in Greece, an estimated half of the Roma population live in shacks without access to electricity, sanitation, or piped water. They are also often under the threat of eviction.

At the same time, there is still a romantic view other people have of them, as they see them as a nomadic sort of people who live freely and unrestricted by social constraints.

Most people refer to them as gypsies, while Greeks also call them tsigganos, probably from the Hungarian cigany, or gyftos, which is a pejorative word that derives from Egyptios (Egyptian) because of the tan color of their skin.

The Roma’s origins

Despite the general belief that Roma origins are from central Europe, genetic findings suggest an origin in India for this particular people.

Since Roma groups do not maintain written records of their history, most hypotheses about their migration and early history are based on linguistic theory. No record of a migration from India to Europe from medieval times that can be traced to Roma people exists.

However, most Roma speak some form of Romany, a language which is closely related to the modern Indo-European languages of northern India, as well as the language of the country in which they live.

It is generally agreed among researchers that Roma began arriving in southeastern Europe by the beginning of the 14th century while their arrival to western Europe can be traced back to  the 15th century.

By the second half of the 20th century, they had spread to every inhabited continent. Roma people began to arrive in Greece in the 15th century.

Roma people in Greece

The name gypsy (gyftos) was first attributed to the Roma by the Greeks who supposed that these people were of Egyptian origin. A derogatory term, it is now considered racist and has fallen out of use.

Due to their nomadic nature, Roma people are not concentrated in a specific geographical area but are dispersed throughout the country. The majority of the Greek Roma have Hellenic nationality and follow the tenets of Greek Orthodoxy.

They do, however, speak the Romani language in addition to Greek. There are also Roma who live in Western Thrace and are Muslim. Most of them speak a dialect of the same language.

The Greek government is making attempts to assimilate the Roma and improve their living conditions; however, efforts thus far have been unsuccessful.

A state-run program to improve their quality of life began in 2010 with the issuance of some bank capital that would help the Roma fight social alienation. However, the economic crisis put a stop to that effort.

Roma settlements

The Roma people in Greece live throughout the country in about seventy settlements and mainly in the more impoverished outskirts of large cities. In Athens, they can be found in the Ano Liosia, Agia Varvara, Zefeiri, and Kamatero neighborhoods.

A large population of Roma also live in Thessaly near the town of Farsala outside of Corinth and other cities and towns of the Peloponnese.

Some of the most common problems the Roma communities face in Greece include  instances of child labor and abuse, low school attendance (especially among women), police discrimination, drug use, and drug trafficking.

A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 72 percent of Greeks dislike the Roma way of life.

Famous Greek Roma artists and soccer players

While many Roma are routinely accused of illegal activities and many live in poverty, there are several examples of Romani individuals who have excelled in their professions in Greece.

Manolis Angelopoulos, who lived from 1939 to 1989, remains a Greek singing legend who earned the love and respect of his colleagues. Born in Kavala to Roma parents, Aggelopoulos recorded his first song in 1957. Always proud of his origins, he gained popularity during the 1960s singing not only about love but also about Greek refugees.

Kostas Hatzis, who was born in 1936, is a famous guitar player and singer who has been recognized as a major artist and innovative creator of songs with a social message. He launched the “troubadour with his guitar” musical genre in Greece.

Makis Christodoulopoulos, a famous singer of laika, is another Roma musical star. Born in 1948 in Amaliada to a poor Roma family, Christodoulopoulos worked his way up to become a successful singer and performer.

Vassilis Paiteris, a musician and singer from Drapetsona who was also elected to the Greek parliament, is another Roma who has excelled in his field. Born in 1950, Paiteris began his professional singing career at the young age of 13.

Helen (Lavida) Vitali is considered one of the most important female voices of the past 20 years in Greece. She was born in Athens to a musically-inclined family and grew up traveling around the country with her parents.

The mother of Irene Merkouri, a pop singer, is of Roma origin. Born in Athens in 1981, Merkouri has been pursuing a professional music career since 2002 with success.

Christos Patsatzoglou, who was born in 1979, a soccer player who played for Olympiacos and the national soccer team, is another Roma who has gained success in his chosen field.

Dimitris Limnios, another soccer player who was born in 1998, started in PAOK Thessaloniki and now plays for Twende in the Netherlands. He has also played for the Greek national team.

Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, born in 1986, has played for all the Big Four teams of Greek soccer (Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, AEK, PAOK) and the national team.

Yet another soccer player, Giorgos Giakoumakis, who was born in 1994, now plays for Celtic in Scotland; the Greek striker also played for the national team and AEK.


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