Roma in Society – We Are Different

Tuula Åkerlund

Executive Director of Romano Missio

The Roma have for centuries been an oppressed and discriminated group excluded from society in European countries, including Finland. It was not until after the Second World War that Finland recognised the Roma as an ethnic group whose living conditions should be improved. Afterwards the Roma have been recognised as a national minority. It has been estimated that there are approximately 10,000 Romanis in Finland. Around 3,000 Finnish Romanis live in Sweden.

The Roma have preserved their own language and culture for centuries, although each era has posed different challenges. The position of the Roma in present-day Finland has improved during the past few decades thanks to common efforts of the authorities and the Roma. Furthermore, participation of the Roma in social activities has increased interaction between the majority population and the Roma. It is important to support spontaneous participation of the Roma population and help them find alternative ways of influencing society. The Roma have invested in educating themselves, which gives hope for a better future and is an effective way of preventing their marginalisation.


Nowadays we often meet people with different cultural backgrounds. It is difficult to understand and respect a different culture without enough information on it. Correct information helps to reduce prejudice.

When I was a child, I became a victim of several unpleasant prejudices because of my origin and because of being different. When I was at upper secondary school, my roots became important to me and I was pondering my identity. For me, inequality was a heavy burden. I felt as if I were in an aquarium, visible from every direction. I thought it was a gross injustice that I was thrown out of a bar because another Romani had misbehaved. Deep inside I was often furious when I was treated unfairly only because of being a Romani. These situations helped me to see that it is in fact easier to fit into the undesirable mould people build for different persons than to show that I am not the kind of person people think I am. Fighting against prejudices requires mental resources.

Whether we want it or not we will always represent our own group. If we mess up, the whole group will be judged. If we succeed, we are usually exceptions.

It is often difficult to accept people who behave differently than we do in our routine life. We find strange and alien things bewildering. We speak for equality but many of us still think that equality means the same as similarity. When a person can appreciate himself in a healthy manner, he also has the courage to find out about different people. This way unnecessary fears and prejudices diminish and difference is no longer experienced as a threat but even as richness.

If an individual feels already at an early stage that he is considered a second-class citizen, he starts to feel himself an outsider and no healthy commitment can develop to shared ‘norms’. Respect and appreciation for the environment changes into an arrogant, defensive and aggressive behaviour.

It is surprisingly difficult to overcome our prejudices and negative attitudes. Even though a person did not have negative experiences on representatives of another group, negative labels and images are transmitted from one generation to another. My own experience has taught me to understand the importance of support as well as that of negative labels. My self-esteem is largely built on the basis of how precious or worthless other people see me.

Finland is becoming more and more multicultural and international. It is therefore important to first come to terms with our own minority groups. This also helps to understand people coming from other parts of the world and their cultures.

Roma in Finland

In this article I will discuss the Roma as well as their history and culture. I use the term ‘Roma’ since I consider it a more appropriate and positive word than the word ‘gypsy’, which easily evokes negative associations in many people. Some of the Roma perceive it as an epithet.

The Roma constitute a linguistic and cultural minority group in Finland, which has lived here for over 500 years. It has been estimated that there are approximately 10,000 Romanis in Finland. Around 3,000 Finnish Romanis live in Sweden. The size of the Roma population in Europe has been estimated to be around 10 to 15 million people.

Most of the Roma in Finland are members of the Lutheran church. The Roma are Finnish citizens and have equal civil rights and obligations. They participated in the wars waged in Finland and have made sacrifices in defending Finland’s independence. Despite their small number, they have been able to preserve their uniqueness and old cultural traditions. The status of the Roma as a national and traditional minority is safeguarded by the Constitution of Finland of 2000.

Journey of the Roma throughout history

To understand the Roma people better we need to know their history. The journey of the Roma has been long and tragic. They have lived scattered around Europe for nearly thousand years. Along with eradication and destruction attempts, the Roma culture has always been threatened by assimilation efforts. One state after another passed laws to deport and destroy the Roma. They did not have human rights anywhere. Laws often also included a death penalty. They really were between a rock and a hard place. Hardly any people can go through similar experiences without them leaving a deep imprint on its culture, values, attitudes and educational objectives.

Early history

The early ages of the Roma are partly unknown. The origin of the Roma has been studied mainly on the basis of the Romani language. The language has allowed to conclude their route, along which they have assimilated loan words into their language from countries where they have stayed. It was not until in the 18th century that linguists presented an assumption that the original home of the Roma people, who had already by that time spread to different parts of Europe, would be in North-Western India.

According to some opinions, the Roma would have had to leave India around year 1000 at various points. Possibly a famine affecting the country, foreign invaders or natural catastrophes forced them to move out. It is also likely that the Roma left in order to sell their products to the West along the old trading routes as they were well-known gunsmiths and Indian iron was famous already in antiquity.

Arrival in Europe

Historically reliable documents are available on the arrival of the Roma in Europe. The first references to the Roma in Europe have been found in Crete in the travelogue of Simon Simonis dating from 1311.

In the 14th century Europe operated under a feudal system, which was based on a strict corporative system. As new immigrants, the Roma did not ‘fit’ in the corporative hierarchy based on feudalism but were left outside social classes. The Roma differed in terms of their looks, customs and language from the majority population to such an extent that people started to persecute them as heretics. Deportations took place on a constant basis. For example, in Germany anybody was allowed to kill a Romani. In Spain they were decapitated or killed at the stake. In countries were they were accepted they were assimilated into the rest of the population by force.

Unstable economic and political circumstances also, in part, forced the Roma to move from one place to another to practise their livelihoods. They were already at this point smiths, fortune tellers, horse dealers and animal presenters.

The most recent persecution touching the Roma took place during the Second World War. According to estimates by researchers, from 600,000 to 2 million Romanis were executed in Hitler’s gas chambers and at concentration camps. The Roma population of several countries was completely destroyed at concentration camps. This happened, for example, in the Netherlands, Estonia and Lithuania.

It is amazing that despite the persecutions and difficulties, the Roma have been able to preserve their cultural characteristics surprisingly well.

History of the Roma in Finland

The first written references to the arrival of Romanis in Finland date from the 16th century. The Government of Sweden-Finland took a negative stand towards the Roma. They were denied church services, children were not baptised, marriages were not solemnised, they were not allowed to bury their dead in the sacred land and even health care was forbidden. When Finland was made into a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809, the state objective changed into assimilating and controlling the Roma. It was not until in the previous century that the government gradually started to pay attention to the improvement of the Roma living conditions.

A transition of Finnish society and economic life started after the mid-20th century. Former livelihoods no longer provided a living for people in the countryside. Along with industrialisation, people started to migrate from the country to cities. The social change also influenced the Roma: a large number of them moved from the countryside to cities. During the past couple of decades the material well-being of the Roma has improved, although they are still in the midst of a strong transition.

Romani language

The Romani language has always been an endangered language. It has had neither status nor appreciation among outsiders. Gradually its value has also been recognised and acknowledged in legislation.

Language is highly important to human beings. We are maybe not even aware how a great and significant value it has to each of us.

Experts have told that languages spoken in today’s world are dying faster than ever before in history. Some estimate that out of 7,000 languages spoken in the world, only 600 languages will still be alive after hundred years. It is a sad fact that when a language dies, we do not only lose its beauty but also a part of human wisdom and life experience. In a certain sense, an entire explanation of the world, the history of a people is lost.


Awareness of the historical background of the Romani language opens a window into the past and thereby expands the perspective into the life of the Roma. The Romani language belongs to the Indo-European language family and more specifically to its Indo-Aryan branch. It originates from the old cultural language of India, Sanskrit, from which Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, etc., have developed. The Romani language and Hindi are sister languages, but the Romani language separated from the Indo-Aryan family tree already over two thousand years ago.

The Romani language is an international language with several millions of speakers in the world. Over time the Romani language has split into several dialects, which have been influenced by local languages. However, according to researchers, the basic vocabulary has remained nearly the same in different dialects. This has been facilitated by the fact that the Roma have always had a lot of contacts with Roma communities living in other countries. In this sense, the Roma in Finland have been in an exceptional position due to the remote location of the country.

‘Cipher’ function of the Romani language

At the beginning of the last century, the objective of official policy in several European countries, including Finland, was to assimilate the Roma by force. One means to this end was the destruction of the Romani language and culture. Since in Finland most of the Roma still led a nomadic lifestyle at the time of the Second World War, they were highly dependent on the help of the agrarian population in, for example, getting a place to stay for the night in winter time. People were suspicious about the use of the Romani language and often allowed the Roma to stay overnight on the condition that they would not speak their language. Families had to live among outsiders. As they did not have a home of their own, they had to live at the mercy of others. However, the only possibility of talking about family matters and feeling at home was to use their own language. The situation was controversial. This resulted in a situation where the Roma had to be cautious and avoid speaking their own language.

The older Roma thought that the less the outsiders know about the group, its customs and language, the less they can harm the group. For this reason, the Roma have not wanted to teach their language to outsiders. The Romani language was the only property of the minority that had been discriminated against for centuries. We can best understand the protection mechanism related to the Romani language if we can identify ourselves with the situation where the Finnish language was threatened when Finland was under foreign rule. Educated young people who were members of the Saturday Society, such as Runeberg, Topelius and Snellman, had a significant task in awakening nationalism among the Finns with their writings and opinions. Finns were regarded as lazy and primitive people and Finnish as a poor language of the lower class. Runeberg’s work Peasant Paavo and Topelius’ work The Tales of Ensign Stål gave quite a different picture of the Finns, such as Peasant Paavo – a hard-working peasant who did not give up when faced with difficulties. Our national writers were able to show how rich the Finnish language is.

Romani language in the midst of changes

By the 1960s and 1970s the older people realised that worryingly few young people knew the Romani language. The radical change of the living conditions of the Roma during the previous decades and the cultural changes inevitably contributed to the reduction in the use of the Romani language. A people who had had to travel for centuries finally settled down and tried to get used to a new kind of lifestyle and rhythm. In a way, the use of the Romani language was forgotten in the midst of this ‘chaos’.

The Romani language had only been a spoken language, i.e. oral communication. It had hardly been recorded in a written format. The use of the language and its knowledge decreased especially among younger people, and the vocabulary started to dwindle and decay in a threatening manner. Real measures, i.e. revitalisation, were necessary.

Legal protection for the language

Finland made history in the 1990s and also attracted wider attention across the world. The importance of the Romani language and the right to use it were taken into account in the Constitution Act of Finland of 1995. The same provision was included in the new Constitution of Finland of 2000, in its Section 17(3). This provision is regarded as a general provision safeguarding the minorities as it obligates the public authorities to allow and support, for example, the development of the Romani language and culture.

An amendment to the Decree on Children’s Day Care entered into force in 1995. According to the Decree, the educational objectives referred to in the Act on Children’s Day Care also include support for the Romani language and culture. An amendment was also made to the acts concerning education in 1995 which allowed for the teaching of the Romani language as a mother tongue to Roma children at school. The same provision was included in the Basic Education Act of 1999. The above-mentioned acts have not, however, directly obligated municipalities to arrange Romani language teaching. The Act on the Institute for the Languages of Finland was amended in 1996 so that the tasks of the institute also include research and planning of the Romani language. Minority language research was transferred from the Institute for the Languages of Finland to the universities at the beginning of 2012. At that time, two researcher posts of the Romani language were transferred to the University of Helsinki. University-level education in the Romani language and culture started in 2012 when it became an official subject at the University of Helsinki. Since then it has been possible to complete a 60-credit module in the Romani language and culture as a minor subject. The Act on the Finnish Broadcasting Company was amended in 1999 so that the duty of public services is to also provide services in the Romani language. When Finland ratified the Conventions on minorities of the Council of Europe, it also recognised the Romani language as a traditional minority language.

Roma in today’s society

Educational tradition of Roma population
The Roma have lacked an educational tradition. On the other hand, education was not highly appreciated in the Finnish agrarian society, either, but professions were handed over from fathers to sons and from mothers to daughters. However, the structure of Finnish society changed surprisingly rapidly and technology transformed our country in a few decades. The change did not reach the Roma equally quickly. Some of them still travelled from one house to another without a permanent home till the 1960s. There was no time to think about education since it was a hard work to bring food to the table and find a roof for the night.

It was impossible to receive education while travelling by horse carriage. The Roma did not settle down until approximately 50 years ago, and they have had proper housing only for around 30 years. Education was also partly avoided because it was deemed to convey only the values of the majority population; the Roma needed to accept the alternatives offered by the school system as given. The values of the Roma have differed from those of the majority population in several respects. It is partly for these reasons that the Roma did not previously appreciate school education as much as the majority population. Nowadays the development needs of the Roma education are fortunately understood as well as the importance of education to the preservation of the Roma culture.

In 2008 the Finnish National Board of Education launched a still on-going project for supporting the basic education of Roma pupils. More than 30 municipalities have participated in the project. The level of education of Roma pupils has increased considerably over these years.

Working life and livelihoods

During the same 50-year period as the migratory Roma people settled down, Finnish society changed for good into an educational and industrialised society where professions and income are nearly completely tied to education. This has meant that the economic opportunities of the Roma have shrunk since former occupations no longer provide a living. Many Romanis have ended up in a professional vacuum.

The changed environment has compelled the Roma to consider their future prospects in a totally new manner. Time forces us to change. On the other hand, Finnish society has become more tolerant. The decision-makers have reached out to the Roma, and nowadays the legislation guarantees an accepted existence for the Romani culture and language. The Roma no longer need to be afraid of assimilation but they can educate themselves for various professions and still retain their own identity. At the same time, they have realised that a small minority group will not survive without education. It has been pleasing to note how many adult Romanis have started to educate themselves and thereby found a new zest in life. ‘Even though obstacles are still abundant, we also have resilience and perseverance. We need to clear the path and will not give up.’ This is what several Romanis have told about their feelings when they have applied for a job or searched for suitable education.

Today Romani parents encourage their children to go to school more than previously. A few young Romanis are already participating in further education at upper secondary schools, vocational schools and different university faculties. The first generation with academic education has already entered the working life. Compared to the total number of the Roma population, the percentage is still not high. However, it is a bold start into tomorrow. Positive models are needed. It is important that young people see examples of Romanis who have the courage to reach out, educate themselves, find a good job and who are still able and willing to retain their Romani identity.

Administration of Romani affairs and Romani organisations

National Advisory Boards on Romani Affairs

The National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs has been appointed by the Council of State, and it operates under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The task of the Advisory Board is to enhance the equal participation of the Roma population in Finnish society and to promote their economic, social and cultural living conditions. It functions as an important cooperation and expert body between the Roma and the authorities in Finland.

To make the cooperation between the authorities and the Roma more concrete, four Regional Advisory Boards on Romani Affairs were established in 2004 in Southern Finland, Eastern Finland, Western Finland, and in Northern Finland. The latter represents the area of Lapland.

Finland’s first National Policy on Roma was drafted in 2009. In 2010, the Government made a decision in principle to start the implementation of the measures included in the policy.

Education services for the Roma population

A Roma Education Unit has operated under the National Board of Education in Finland since 1994. Its activities are based on the opinions of the Parliament, Government and the Ministry of Education and Culture on the development of the education of the Roma population and implementation of their culture. The task of the unit is to represent expertise in the field of education and culture and to influence the planning and implementation of teaching in such a manner as to ensure that the basic and vocational education of the Roma population is realised on an equal basis.

Nationwide Roma organisations

Romano Missio organisation was established in 1906, and it is the oldest and largest Romani organisation. Its key activities consist of Christian child protection, welfare, consultation and social work. The organisation publishes its own magazine called Romano Boodos four times a year. Over the past recent years, it has specialised in the rehabilitation of Romani female prisoners.

Elämä ja Valo association (Life and Light) was established in 1964. The association is engaged in spiritual and social work among the Roma population in Finland and in different parts of the world. It publishes its own magazine called Elämä ja Valo five times a year

The Finnish Romani Association was established in 1967. It concentrates on advocating social affairs. Over the past recent years, it has focused on work with the aged Roma population.

The National Roma Forum of Finland was established in 2007. It seeks to empower small local Romani organisations. Its goal is to promote and monitor the realisation of fundamental rights and equality under the Finnish law.

Over the years, nationwide organisations have had various projects which have concentrated on supporting the education of Roma children and young people as well as on family work, alcohol and drug education, revitalisation of the Romani language and care for elderly people, etc.

Romani culture

Revolution of the Romani culture

To understand the Romani culture it is important to realise that the culture is build around the family, relatives and community. All minority cultures have specific binding factors, such as the sense of togetherness and solidarity towards other members of the community. The Romani culture also puts a strong emphasis on relationships between people, customs and old traditions.

An important aspect of the Romani culture is also the fact that, like the rest of society, it is in the midst of revolution and change. The traditional lifestyle has started to change along with the changes in the surrounding world. When the nomadic lifestyle came to an end around 50 years ago, this also meant a totally new era in the life of the Finnish Roma. All these great changes have in fact taken place during only one generation. Settling down after travelling for centuries has, however, required getting used to it.


Genuine and real Romani culture emphasises good manners and getting along with all people. The Roma regret that the majority population often categorises inappropriate behaviour of an individual as a characteristic of the Romani culture.

The Romani culture is based on respect for the elderly, and most of the customs and rules are somehow connected to this. Older people always eat first, go to sauna first, etc. The elderly are regarded as mental capital and an asset due to their life experience. Respect for older people is manifested in the use of decent clothing and respectful forms of address. The family usually looks after the elderly and seeks to take care of them at home as long as possible for health reasons.

Romani family

Traditional Romani families have been large. In addition to parents and children, the family often consisted of grandparents, uncles and aunts, and sometimes even included cousins. The Romani family emphasises the position of the man, but women are also aware of their value and have a lot of power within the family. It could be said that the man is the head of the family and the woman its heart.

There are clear roles within a Romani family. The man has the main responsibility for the family’s income, while the woman takes care of the family’s well-being and home. Parents are primarily responsible for raising children, although close relatives also have rather a significant role in their upbringing. In addition, the grandparents have an important role.

The Roma seek to raise independent children who are responsible towards their own community. Children become gradually committed to their community and start to appreciate their own roots and culture. This is one of the most important tasks of parents since outside their community, children are subjected to a lot of negativity and prejudices. If a child does not have a strong identity, he will collapse under stress. A Romani child needs, in particular, a lot of acceptance, encouragement and support to develop into a balanced adult with a strong self-esteem.

The Roma appreciate internationally-minded people who can appreciate difference. An old Romani has expressed it this way: ‘A real Romani has to know how to live in three ways: as a master, as a peasant and as a Romani.’ The ability to adapt to different situations is one of the strengths of the Roma. Warmth of feelings, family unity and contacts with other Romanis are considered as virtues.


The Roma do not greet each other by shaking hands or introduce themselves by their family name. A loud greeting at the doorstep ensures that everybody in the room will be greeted at the same time. Romanis also greet other Romanis who they do not know, and if they have time, they exchange news. A traditional Roma greeting is ‘Tsihko diives’ (How do you do), to which the other person answers ‘Deevel mo del’ (May God allow it). When saying goodbye the Roma say ‘Aahhen Deuleha’ (Let God protect you).

Hygiene manners

The Romani culture includes strict manners related to hygiene and modesty. When they were living a nomadic lifestyle, they had to take care of hygiene as well as possible. On the other hand, manners have maintained internal order and unity. Hygiene manners also function as guidelines in life. Cleanliness is both physical and symbolic. The hygiene tradition originated from the concrete need of the nomadic people to separate people and animals for health reasons in housing, eating and health care. The hygiene concept is also reflected clearly in the attitudes towards food and cutlery, which are not put in places where people sit or walk. On the other hand, nothing is lifted from the floor to the table. Tea towels and table cloths are not washed with other laundry. Table cleaning cloths are not used for wiping chairs or floors; there are separate cloths for them. The principle has always been that everything that is put in the mouth has to be clean.


The Romani customs emphasise unity. Clothing expresses the originality and culture of the Roma population. The most visible external symbol is the traditional dress of a Romani woman. It is not insignificant what a Romani woman wears since she has to take into account traditional customs and the opinions of those belonging to another clan. When a girl grows into a young lady, she usually starts to wear the traditional Romani dress, which symbolises her adulthood. After this she is treated as an adult and has the corresponding rights and obligations. As daughters have grown up in a community where nearly all women wear a traditional dress, wearing it feels natural to young girls.

Even though the Romani dress does not alone make a person a Romani, it is one of the most important items that strengthens identity. However, everybody will make their decisions themselves. If a Romani woman does not wear the traditional dress, she still wants to wear a decent dress to show respect to older Romani in their presence. The dress of a Romani woman is an everyday dress which does not prevent her from participating in education or working life.

The Romani men also have traditions related to clothing although they are not as visible as those of the women. Men do not wear a short-sleeved shirt or only a shirt and trousers in the presence of older Romanis. They wear either a vest, jacket or pullover over a shirt. The clothing for the upper body may be of any colour, and neither is the material important. However, men usually wear dark straight trousers.


The Roma are deeply religious. They have probably always believed in a great God and the hereafter. Even though a family were not religious, it still respects spiritual affairs. Religiousness is a part of the Romani culture, and the Roma talk openly about religion. There are probably no atheists among the Roma.


Preservation of the Romani culture and identity is a proof of resilience and perseverance in the midst of difficulties. Today’s Finland is a multicultural and international country. It is great that the Roma have gradually been accepted in Finland and efforts are also taken to preserve their culture.

The distinctive lifestyle of the Roma is a way to exist and survive. This way of existence nowadays includes the will and possibility of educating oneself, working for common goals and living according to common rules. The Roma must be given equal opportunities and resources for achieving all this: education, cooperation channels and services.

Reference material and links:

Romano Missio

Elämä ja Valo

The Church and the Roma working group

Ministry of Education and Culture/legislative proposals (minority languages)

Ollikainen, Marketta: Vankkurikansan perilliset – Romanit, Euroopan unohdettu vähemmistö, Helsinki 1995.

Strategies of the Policy on Roma, Reports of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 1999:9, Helsinki 1999.

Hernesniemi, Päivi & Hannikainen, Lauri: Roma Minorities in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Rovaniemi 2000.