“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but, the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” John F. Kennedy
The Roma people of Greece play one of the many leading roles in my new novel. I have read about them, talked to some on the street who spoke English (or understood my bad Greek), visited groups who provide specialized programming to the Roma community and tried to make contact with a few Roma associations. I wanted to see through their eyes, sense their plight through their hearts.
More and more I’ve come to realise that in order for me to write, I need to first feel.
I’m also stubborn about the truth. In my research, I had heard and read many things about the Roma. So my visit was also intended to check out what I had been told. I wanted to distinguish between fact and folklore.
Merriam-Webster defines urban legend as, a story about an unusual event or occurrence that many people believe is true but that is not true. They go on to say, it is often a lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true.
A Swedish woman raised in Greece, Maria Larsen of Children’s Ark, was my guide to the Roma settlement. She picked me up shortly after I arrived in the port city.
Outside of Corinth, the paved road narrowed. The city and the port gave way to farmland, then a decimated olive grove strewn with garbage.
We entered the camp through the open gate. Maria drove around various laneways. There were all sorts of houses, from relatively new installations to shacks. I didn’t expect the newish looking houses. I’m not sure why, except that I hadn’t seen newer houses in other Roma camps.
We arrived at a stone structure with a metal warehouse type door. This building holds the Children’s Ark office, a classroom and another room originally intended for visiting doctors and nurses. The doctors and nurses hadn’t come to provide services to members of this settlement despite Maria’s negotiations with the University of Athens medical school.
This, along with other day to day issues, are a source of frustration for Maria who is primarily focused on implementing positive change in this community through the camp’s youngest members: the children. She delivers a program to those aged six to twelve, to help them eventually enter the Greek school system. The children don’t come every day, but many do. And Maria is there too.
Sometimes she has help, other times she doesn’t. At night, she fundraises for Children’s Ark. Most donations come from Swedish donors, although she calls Asteris Huliaras from the University of Peloponnese (Corinth) her Greek angel because he has provided many books, pencils and pens for her program and linked Maria to a teacher who helps with the pre-school program.
During my time at the camp, Maria answered all my questions, walked me around the site, made a sandwich for an insistent three year old, found a match for an angry teenager upset with his mother and in need of a cigarette, and provided some baby formula to three young girls who said they’d run out of milk for their children.
Maria is a powerhouse: passionate and committed to her work. I was in awe.
As I said earlier, I had heard many stories about the Roma, before my visit: some were wealthy, had built big houses, but didn’t live in them because they preferred living in tents; they take advantage of their children, sending them to beg in the streets; they like to beg. It’s what they do for a living, someone else said; they don’t want to be integrated into society; they want to live on their own in camps. They are happier this way. They are nomads, after all, not like the rest of us. And on it went.
I questioned Maria about all of this and more.
“The general society ostracizes the Roma,” she said. “So they stick to their own, living apart from the rest of the general Greek community.”
We talked about many things over the two hours we were together: life for the Roma, the work involved in starting a new program, and the challenge of getting your cause noticed and supported in a country with so many other tribulations. At the end of my time with her, Maria had not only confirmed some of the details I’d already incorporated into my new novel (you’ll have to read the novel when it is available to find out how), but also summarized what I have always known about urban myths and the people who perpetuate them.
“People like to say many things,” she said. “The ones who talk the most are the ones furthest removed from the people they are talking about.”
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