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EUROPE: Where the Roma Begin to Prosper

Claudia Ciobanu

BRASOV, Romania, Sep 26 2010 (IPS) - The “gypsy market” in Brasov is bustling with activity on a Saturday morning. It’s one of the few places left where pensioners and other low-income Romanians can buy decent clothes cheaply. And also here, the power dynamics between Roma and non-Roma is silently shifting.

Gabriel does small but promising business in used shoes. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu

Gabriel does small but promising business in used shoes. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu

“Three items for ten lei (three euro)!”, “Buy, buy, from a freshly-opened ballot!”, “Search freely through the piles!” shout the sellers in high-pitched, melodic voices as customers look through the piles of used clothes and shoes, trying to negotiate better deals.

The sellers are Roma men and women, mostly gabori, Hungarian Roma belonging to old craftsmen families. The outspoken men wear broad- brimmed hats (considered a marker of honour), dark clothes and rich moustaches and beards. The shier women have colourful long skirts, big earrings and, if married, bright kerchiefs covering their hair.

“I’ve been in this trade for 20 years,” says Matei Gabor inviting customers to try out leather jackets at the entrance of the market. “We have always had good relations with Romanians because we are honest people who work hard.”

As indicated by his last name, Matei is a gabor, whose father used to craft tin products. Gabori families are often conservative, preserving the traditional behavioural code (Romany Law) and adhering to a specific form of Christianity, Adventism. They are among the more prosperous Roma, and proudly differentiate themselves from other Roma.

Asked about the recent wave of expulsions of Roma by France, Matei is quick to point out: “We are different, we are gabori. We never steal, we sometimes dealt in the black market, that’s all.”

Indeed, dealing on the black market has only recently started being considered a crime in Romania. In the shortage economy of the communist period, the black market was a survival tool everyone resorted to.

The Brasov Traian market is now fully regulated, and sellers pay taxes. The trade is going well and the Roma are still able to offer better prices than second-hand shops run by Romanians.

“If it weren’t for the gypsies, I wouldn’t be able to buy any clothes at all,” says Emilia Ciolan, a social worker looking for a winter jacket for her daughter. “When this market was closed down in 2008 (in order to enforce hygiene standards), I simply stopped buying clothes.”

The interplay between sellers and customers in the Traian market indicates a reversal of the usual preconceived rapport between Roma and non-Roma Romanians. While Romanians often think of Roma as poorer and less “civilised” than the majority, in the market the sellers are usually richer than the buyers and they dictate the terms of the exchange.

Ciolan makes 200 euros monthly and shares a three-room flat with her husband, mother and two adult children. Gabor, on the other hand, lives on Carierei street, a few bus stops away from the city centre, in a lavish two- storey house. On Carierei, Roma and non-Roma live side by side, unlike in other areas of the country where spatial segregation is marked.

Another seller in Traian, 47-year old Gabriel, who deals in second-hand shoes, has an even bigger home than Matei on Carierei. The orange-painted villa is double the size of a regular house and has an impressive terrace on which the family serves meals in the summertime.

A kindergarten, school, high school and church are conveniently located around Carierei and Gabriel says all his three children have been educated.

“If it wasn’t worth it, you can imagine we wouldn’t be sweating here from morning till evening,” Gabriel notes. “And business has been getting slightly better in the last year or two, with the economic crisis.”

According to the ministry of finance, second-hand businesses in Romania have reported revenues increasing by 10-25 percent yearly over the past years. Larger businesses make annual profits of tens of thousands of euros.

Second-hand clothes commerce is a growing global trade, worth over 1.5 billion dollars annually. In Romania, the business developed after 1989, when the national textile industry collapsed, leaving customers in a no-win choice between expensive Western brands and low-quality cheap Asian imports. Second-hand clothes sold are good quality garments given to charity or ditched by retailers in Western countries, which are then collected and reintroduced on the market by specialised companies targeting buyers in poor countries.

In Romania, the Roma were among the first to enter the trade, some initially selling clothes given to them directly by Western charities active in the country.

At present, better-off Roma, who import the merchandise on their own, are even able to employ other Roma to sell in the market. On Traian street, the gabori hire poorer Roma women — an important social contribution, considering that unemployment can affect up to three-quarters of the Roma population in some Romanian localities.

“I now live in a rented flat close to the market,” says Eva, a 30-year old woman taking care of one of the stalls while also keeping an eye on her infant. “I have only been working here for a few months, so I cannot tell you much about the business, but I am hoping to send my girl to kindergarten this year.”

Her employer, 36-year old Adrian Dumitru, says that he does not trust outside help for the Roma but insists the community will manage through hard work.

“I have seen so many NGO workers coming to visit us over the years. They come, they look, they ask us questions and then they publish reports that describe us in ugly colours,” he says in a dismissive tone. “I can show you on the Internet if you want.

“Meanwhile, we continue to wake up in the morning and come to work,” Dumitru says. “Customers treat us with respect, of course. Let them go to the shops if they don’t like us. But they can’t afford it, can they?”

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