Thanks to its cobblestone streets, fabulous chocolate and coffee, and dozens of museums, the city of Lviv has been described by many travel agents as the “Paris of Ukraine.” But Lviv is also home to something far more disturbing: a new anti-Roma gang called the Gypsy Catchers.
“We are anti-Gypsy! We just want to feel safe in our city,” the Gypsy Catchers leaders declare. They boast a following on Facebook of more than 2,000 people. Lviv, Ukraine’s seventh largest city, has more than 700,000 residents.
An example of one of their demands: they would like to see the city break up an informal, self-made settlement where approximately 300 Roma live.
Meanwhile, Roma who live in Lviv say that prejudice and hate are daily features of their lives.
Lika Kruglyak, a rights advocate from the NGO Lacho Drom, described her experience at a recent public discussion exploring what it is like to be Roma while living in Ukraine.
“Being a Roma woman in Ukraine is about hearing, ‘Can you tell me my fortune?’ or ‘Do a Gypsy dance, will you?’ Even from friends!” she says. “It is about coming to the office on your first day of an internship and seeing your colleagues hide their purses. It is also about saying, ‘No, you are wrong!’ every time you hear people say that all Roma are thieves, fortune-tellers, and beggars.”
“All the women in my family have advanced degrees,” she continues. “My mother has been a schoolteacher for 25 years; my grandmother is an engineer and worked at a local Bureau for Technical Inventory for 55 years. So when people say that all Roma are illiterate, it’s ridiculous.”
Roma rights activists, politicians, and journalists have not let the Gypsy Catchers go unchallenged. And advocates say they have learned some important lessons in fighting hate.
In an unusual meeting last year, city leaders, Roma advocates, and others sat down with the Gypsy Catchers’ organizers.
“Leaders traded statements,” said Olga Zhmurko, Roma Program director at the International Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine, who helped organize pushback against the group. As a result of the meeting, Roma advocates say, the group changed their name from the Gypsy Catchers to “Catchers.” But their focus and their rhetoric has not changed.
This sort of hate, targeting minority populations, is spreading across Europe. Effectively defanging discrimination is a complicated process. Writing in the Guardian, Natalia Antonova, a Ukrainian author and journalist, argues, “Tracking hate, analyzing it, understanding the damage it can and does inflict on communities is important—but it will not be enough in the days to come. Active resistance will be needed, and a crucial component of resistance is teaching people to connect with one another in meaningful ways, to establish horizontal ties that engage them not just intellectually and ideologically, but also emotionally.”
Advocates for Roma rights in Lviv agree. They recognize that in order to stop the Gypsy Catchers, they cannot make this struggle about the Gypsy Catchers.
“That’s what they want,” explains Zhmurko. “They thrive on the attention.”
Roma advocates, human rights groups, and open-minded city officials are working together to provide the public with “alternative narratives” intended to show a more accurate depiction of who the Roma people in Ukraine really are.
There is an emphasis on storytelling; Roma people have shared their experiences growing up in, and living in, Ukraine. Participants have talked about their experiences helping defend Ukraine in the East, pursuing advanced studies, and working in civil society to build a more tolerant country.
“We are trying to lift the curtain between Ukrainians and Roma,” explained Victor Chovka, an activist from an NGO called Pativ.
Two events have been held to date—one in a university library, the other at a local café.
Alya Yurchenko, a Roma youth activist who works with the NGO Ternipe, told her story at one gathering.
“That notorious mythical image of a Roma thief affected my own life, too,” she said. “When I was a child, I dreaded staying alone in the classroom; I thought that if anyone lost anything — even a small thing — everyone would say I was the one who stole it.”
“We are amplifying untold, or undertold, stories,” Zhmurko says. “It’s not a recitation of facts.”
Lviv is well suited for an intervention like this. It’s small enough that people feel a sense of community. Local government is not antagonistic towards Roma people. The city sends, for example, social workers to visit poor Roma communities. The purpose of the narrative change activities is to build on this sense of community.
To date, advocates say, they have begun to make progress.
“Others believe in fighting fire with fire,” Zhmurko explained. “We are fighting fire with compassion, understanding, and love.”
*Lacho Drom, Pativ, and Ternipe are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.
About the author: Mariana Berbec-Rostas is a program manager with the Open Society Human Rights Initiative.
This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here.