Toxic Flood Gives Marginalized Roma a New Chance

Linked on our blogs with Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. – Published on Pulitzer Center, by Dimiter Kenarov, May 16, 2011.

In the narrow vestibule of Tibor Orsos’s new house there is a framed, black-and-white photograph. It shows a middle-age woman, standing full height, in a flowery dress, apron and dinner jacket. She wears a headscarf and trainers. A lit cigarette dangles from her mouth. She is looking straight into the camera, resolute in her nonchalance. Her right hand is hanging slack by her side. In her left she holds a one-kilo pack of detergent … // 

… It is the first thing he shows me when I enter his new house: the photographs of his band, the CDs they recorded, the diplomas from music festivals they received, the articles clipped from local newspapers that mention the band – precious objects that were luckily spared destruction. He plans to put them up on the walls one of these days. Then, in his half-empty bedroom, furnished with just a mattress, an old closet, and a TV (donations from the Red Cross), he puts on one of his band’s concerts. Traditional Romani music fills the room.

At that moment a few neighbors’ kids, who had gotten word about the visiting journalists, come in and the bedroom is abuzz with chatter. The faded green wallpaper and blue curtains come to life. The memory of the red flood is momentarily forgotten.

This is what Tibor misses most about the old Roma quarter: the community. There, he was never too far from his brothers and sisters, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, from his friends. There, every day was a party, everybody singing, dancing, quarreling, laughing. The neighbors would cook something and bring him a full plate. He would borrow money when he didn’t have any, or lend it when he had some extra. And now – now he has a new house, but most of the time it feels somehow empty.

He is not ungrateful though. The greatest irony of the red-mud sludge in Hungary is that, though it destroyed so much–lives and property and environment–it also gave a chance to those who had nothing to start their lives anew, on a clean slate, in a new house, in a new neighborhood. Born in a segregated quarter at the bottom of the hill, raised in abject poverty, the Roma of Devecser never stood a ghost of a chance to move up. After the disaster, the Hungarian government was obligated to provide them with housing in other, better neighborhoods. The flood, perversely, became a force of social integration in an ethnically segregated country.

Sitting at a table in the sunroom of the house, sipping coffee from a decorative tea set Tibor recently bought from passing Ukrainian Roma, I understand how this new place is better than his previous one. From up here, on top of the hill, Tibor can see the entire countryside. No flood can get to him anymore. And, best of all, his Romani friend and bandmate lives just a couple of houses away.

“Let’s go and visit him,” he says. (full text).

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