English Feature #7-34723 Broadcast May 20, 2002

About a million gypsies, or Roma, as they prefer to be called, live in the United States. Today on New American Voices you'll meet Sani Rafati, who immigrated to the United States nine years ago, and who works to overcome the attitudes that, he says, inhibit his people's integration into American society.

Sani Rafati grew up in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo in Serbia. The region is home to many Roma, and Romani culture is an everyday fact of life there.

Song: Gelem, Gelem

Mr. Rafati graduated from a university in Yugoslavia with a degree in chemistry. But he was unable to find a job, so he emigrated to Italy, where he spent four years as a semi-professional soccer player. In Italy Sani Rafati met and fell in love with an American Jewish woman, Carol Bloom. The two married, and in 1993 they came to the United States, settling in the wine-growing region of California just north of San Francisco. There they founded a non-profit organization, Voice of Roma, whose aim is to provide humanitarian aid to Roma refugees from the Balkans, and to educate the general public in the United States about the Roma.

"What we are trying also to do is literally fighting the stereotypes. When regular people think of gypsy culture what comes first to your mind is all those wonderful stereotypes. Maybe you will be surprised that I don't have a fiddle here or a bandanna and play you nice music and charm you with my art. But no, what I am offering you is the very rich culture of people who are suffering for centuries."

Roma live in all parts of the United States, particularly in the large cities. They generally don't stand out - they are not distinguished by their appearance, or clothing, or lifestyle, as they are, for instance, in parts of Europe. In fact, says Sani Rafati, most Americans are hardly aware that there are Roma live among them.

Mr. Rafati says that one of the biggest problems Roma in America face is their low educational level. Many Roma resist sending their children to public schools for fear of discrimination, and also because they fear that education will entice the youngsters away from their centuries-old traditions and culture. But Sani Rafati believes that education can actually lead to the preservation of the Roma culture.

"In order for Roma to make progress, this is the only way how to bridge those barriers. And given that now Roma are facing this phase of life where technology is so overwhelmingly powerful, and I see this an opportunity also to become somebody important who could champion, who could promote these issues to the mainstream. Once when I am educated I know my identity, I have my self-confidence, and once you have your identity and self-confidentiality then you are a strong person, and you can speak with the outside world easily."

In addition to running the Voice of Roma organization and publishing a periodical newsletter about Roma activities and issues, Sani Rafati and his wife organize gypsy festivals for their American neighbors in California, they hold workshops, lectures, and benefits. After coming to America Mr. Rafati worked for some time as an environmental chemist, but then, as he says, "he had enough of the scientific ego", and switched to carpentry. He now works on houses, and in his spare time is a dance instructor, teaching traditional Serbian, Macedonian and Roma folk dancing. The Rafatis have a seven-year-old son, Benjamin, whom they are raising to be aware of the background of both his parents.

"I feel very good what I am offering to my son. He already speaks Romani pretty well, and I'm trying to teach him the basics of being human. As a matter of fact, even the word "Rom" means human being. He is going to identify himself as a Rom, or American Jew -- it's up to him, but I feel I'm offering him what is the basic of life - to nurture and to be human."

Gypsy music