A Gypsy Experience (part 1)

On this Ukrainian Easter night, we decided to go visit the Gypsy church located on the outskirts of Mukachevo. Our friend Ruslan, a gypsy, met us at our house and walked the 20 minute trek with us to the gypsy camp. i had heard many rumors about the camp and about Gypsies, but tonight was the first night I was able to see it for myself.

Ruslan was to meet us at our home at 5:00, one hour before church started, so that we could have time to walk to the camp and spend some time looking around. We were all dressed and ready to go…but by 5:50 Ruslan still had not come. Thinking something must have come up, we were about ready to change back into our house clothes and miss out on church. But right near 6:00 he knocked on our door. Laughing & apologetic, he explained that Gypsies, because they’re Hungarian and speak Hungarian, they also follow Hungarian time – which is an hour behind. so, when he told us 5:00, it would really be 6:00 for us.

Through wind blown dust clouds, we walked and talked about his people. Mukachevo, he explained, has at least 5,000 gypsies living in the camp. It’s probably more since that # comes from a census held five years ago. The majority of them are illiterate and uneducated – not because the opportunities aren’t there, but because they don’t want to put forth the effort. Children can attend school (though it is not enforced), but many go only to play, not learn. Therefore, as adults, they struggle for work. Many dig through garbage bins looking for things to sell, others find jobs as street cleaners or garbage collectors, and still many turn to begging. “Just wait,” he said, “you will see in moment what life is like.”

We came upon a dirt road which began the beginning of the encampment. it was easy to see the transition from “Mukachevo” to “Gypsy Camp.” Hordes of children, dirty and unkempt, played in the street; their toys pieces of wood or string…turned into swords or horse harnesses as they ride in to save their people. At least they have childlike imagination. Small one room homes lined the potholed dirt roads. Some made from handmade mud bricks, while others were made from random pieces of wood, tarp, or cardboard boxes. A few houses had a small shanty for a horse, their only mode of transportation. Walking was difficult (especially for this overdressed girl who thought she needed to wear a nice outfit to church, accompanied with heels…I won’t do that again). Not only were they filled with potholes and dirt/mud, but trash and horse manure littered the ground. Ruslan explained that at one point this area was part of the trash dump. Many of the gypsies are working to clean it up, but many are not. The stench was piercing at times. Nevertheless, everywhere we walked, men, women and children (and horse and dogs and goats) congregated outside.

Ruslan is not ashamed that he is a gypsy; he loves his people and his heart breaks for them. But, he does not understand them or their mentality. You see, the government is now giving the gypsies many opportunities to help their situation: supplies to build good homes, the land to build on, financial aid for better education, and loans to help them start successful businesses. Many of them are taking the government’s help in search for a better life, but most of them say they like the life they live and would rather die with the trash than have to change. He grew up in the same camp as many of them…so why does he think differently than them and search for a better life?

Ruslan knows the answer: Jesus Christ. He accepted Christ as his Savior when a young teenager, quickly learning that God created him with a purpose. He says that God transformed his mind and his perspectives on life, knowing that God would guide him and lead him as he pursues the Lord fully. This truth is evident in Ruslan’s testimony -an amazing story that perhaps I’ll share one day. He knows that if his people were to turn to God, they would see an improvement in their quality of life and learn the awesome promise of Jeremiah 29:11- 14For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jonathan
    Apr 28, 2008 @ 15:43:02

    Wow, what an experience. It reminds me a lot of the slums in Montevideo. One of the churches my family helped start/build was right on the border one of the recognized “barrios” and a shanty town, so I remember seeing similar things to what you described.

    Only difference it seems is that the Ukrainian government is trying to help. In Uruguay, the government simply forced them to move and would tear down the shanty town, only to have the people move back in and rebuild. A big reason why they never got ahead.


  2. RL
    May 16, 2008 @ 16:23:23

    Ok, on this one I need to post something. First, the Ukrainian government is NOT trying to help Roma people. In fact, international human rights organizations (well-respected ones, too) have documented hundreds of cases of police brutality, corruption and graft against the Roma people in Zakarpatya. Life only gets worse for them. I saw it with my own eyes (and I picked up a case of TB to go with it).

    Second, yes, most of them choose to live their lives the way they do. Why do you have the right to go into their homes to “change” them and improve them? How would you feel if a Roma missionary came to your home in America and tried to convert you to the Roma lifestyle and religion?

    I spent three years in Uzhgorod working for the US government, and I had this mentality at first that I was gonna go in there and fix these people. Convert them to our way of life. I’d do so by showing them how well I lived and acted, and all they needed to do was to follow my lead.

    After three years, I finally realized that they didn’t WANT to follow my lead. I was in THEIR country. I learned to accept THEIR ways and to offer what help I could whenever I could. I taught them what I could about America and I learned about their culture. I got them grant money so they could do projects that they designed. I was only successful in Ukraine once I stopped thinking that I was their to save them from themselves.


  3. RL
    May 16, 2008 @ 16:27:29

    I should also mention that I don’t want to seem too hard on you guys. You’re over there, in another country, actually doing work. So you’ve already done a million times more than 99.9 percent of all Americans will ever do combined. Just being there is helpful in some sense. So I don’t want to sound so negative. But I’m just seeing myself (circa 2004, minus Jesus) in your blog postings. Good luck, and don’t forget to go hang out with the kids at Shastlivtsi or any Roma orphanage. They may not choose to follow you to church, but you’ll make their month just by playing with them for an hour.


  4. lmparks
    May 17, 2008 @ 08:50:17

    First thanks, RL, for reading and posting your thoughts and experiences.

    Now in response: I know that there is still much targeting from the government officials and police on the Roma people (as well as from most Ukrainians in general). They are still badly discriminated against and harassed. I received my information about the governments help from Ruslan – a gypsy friend who lives in this camp and knows firsthand what is being offered to him & his people. Although it is a meager attempt from the government, he says that at least it is an option that recently was not there. The government is also sending Ruslan to college to learn a trade so that he can get a job and make money in one of their factories…of course, they are using him for their economical gain, but it is something, nonetheless.

    Secondly, my husband and I never impose our culture or religion on anyone. We simply make friendships, get to know them, and share what God has done in our lives. If they should choose to accept Christ Jesus as their savior, then we’re there to help guide them. But, if they choose not to, we say okay and continue on in our friendship. As for the culture part of it, one of the amazing parts of our faith is that it transcends all cultures – it is not merely an American religion – but is life transforming within the heart of the person, no matter where or how they live. We are not there to “fix” them – We offer our services and friendship, and then they come to us with how we can help. And, as I stated in my post, many of the Roma people do not want to change…as hard as it is for me to understand that, I can accept that and not pressure them to change. My being there is all about love, friendship,and showing how Christ has changed me… and helping how I can on their terms.


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