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Will Roma cultural route help bypass prejudice?

A new tourism route will connect gypsy settlements in nine countries.

Finnish Roma activist Miranda Volasrata and Romanian writer Luminita Cioaba, who fought her Roma family to attend school, at the inauguration of the Roma Cultural Route at the Roma Kamenci settlement near Lendava, Slovenia, in November 2009. (Brigid Grauman/GlobalPost)

LENDAVA, Slovenia — The word "gypsy" is often used pejoratively. But the Council of Europe is trying to change that with a new tourism route focusing on Roma culture and history.

“People see gypsies by a squalid dump at the side of the road,” said Jake Bowers, a militant British gypsy and journalist, “but they don’t really know us. I’d like a situation where we are recognized as a transnational European nation with representation at the United Nations.”

Bowers was speaking at the inauguration of the Roma Cultural Route last month, sponsored by the Strasbourg-based Council, which is not related to the European Union and works on European integration through culture and human rights. The route will link dispersed gypsy, or Roma, communities across Europe to strengthen existing networks and encourage Roma and non-Roma people to meet. Nine countries are already taking part with museums, shows and documentation centers. The inauguration took place in Slovenia at the Roma Kamenci settlement near the spa town Lendeva.

With his crewcut reddish hair and ruddy complexion, Bowers doesn’t look like a typical Roma, who usually have darker features, and that’s partly the point. After much historical research, including DNA testing, it seems incontrovertible that the original Roma came from India through Greece more than 1,000 years ago, dividing into groups according to trade and sometimes intermingling with outsiders. Today’s Roma are made up of many clans and tribes, and for practical purposes include Britain’s travelers and Ireland’s tinkers, who are native to the islands but share the same problems of social exclusion.

“Yeah, we’ve got problems, big problems in some places,” said Bowers, “but we belong to European society.” He believes that it’s time to replace negative stereotypes with more positive images that have a strong resonance in a globalized world. “We transcend notions of national borders,” he said, “and offer a permanent challenge to Europeans to live with diversity.”

The Kamenci settlement is a pilot project along the cultural route. Here, a Roma village has opened its doors to visitors with a museum and creative activities and workshops for Roma and others. In the field behind the settlement of rudimentary wooden and brick houses, little girls wearing long, colorful frocks gyrate their hips to taped music before an audience made up of Roma, Slovene and European NGO officials. Guest singers, musicians and dancers have come from other countries to celebrate the official launch.

Among the striking personalities is Miranda Volasranta, a Finnish Roma who runs a Roma civil rights forum in Helsinki. She dresses in traditional clothing that includes a 22-pound black velvet skirt.