Roma Project: Backstory

A Roma community. Image by Jeneen Interlandi. Hungary, 2014.

This story started over coffee, late last spring, somewhere between SoHo and the Bowery, where I was catching up with my friend and fellow Nieman alum Karim Ben Khelifa. Karim is a 42-year-old Belgian-Tunisian war photographer who has spent much of his adult life documenting human atrocities. He’s covered armed conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Israel-Palestine, and many other places.

When I first met him, in August of 2012 at the start of our Nieman Year, he was pivoting away from that work. He had a lovely wife, two lovely children, and a newfound desire to not get shot at for a living. He also had an idea. He called it “Portrait of the Enemy.” It was based on the notion that if we could truly see our enemies, in all their humanness, we would have a much harder time vilifying / discriminating against / killing them. What he wanted to do was use holograms, artificial intelligence and virtual reality machines to get Israeli and Palestinian soldiers to inhabit one another’s psyches.

Back then, the whole thing sounded kind-of mad to me. In fact, Karim himself seemed a little mad, not so much for thinking it up as for believing, rather ardently, that it could be brought to fruition. The persistence (and money! and science!) required to put something like that together was more than I thought the guy could muster.

Now, two years later, as we drank our coffee, he was winning me over. For one thing, he had made serious progress. He was on his way from Boston to Paris to meet with some collaborators just then, and it was clear that the airy dreams of his Cambridge year had morphed into something much more concrete; he was talking exhibit space, prototypes, and timelines.

For another thing, I had started to feel some of the same restless frustration that first drove Karim away from documenting conflicts and towards a search for their resolution. I still loved writing about science, but I was growing weary of the ivory tower. I’d devoted my Nieman year to the study of global health: sat in lectures with Paul Farmer, read tomes on the history of colonialism, tried to think critically about the large structural forces that create and perpetuate poverty. Now, back in New York, I was churning out articles about the triumphs of western scientists, every last one of them a white male older than 50.

To be sure, some of these triumphs were truly fascinating. They were figuring out how to map all of the neural connections in the human brain, unlocking the secrets of the bacterial genome, using sensor technology to redefine aging. Visiting their labs and telling their stories was not the worst job in the world.

But I kept thinking about how the people of Port-Au-Prince were still living in tents six years after the big earthquake, and how the children of India were still plagued by malnutrition 60 years after the Green Revolution. I’d read Katherine Boo and Adam Hochschild back-to-back that spring, and now everything I was working on seemed beside the point. And the idea that it was beside the point, felt even more beside the point.

It was a sentiment that I knew Karim would understand, and so I offered it up as a point of commiseration. My last three assignments were on rich white men working inside laboratories, I said. I couldn’t seem to break the pattern.

“You should talk to my collaborator at MIT,” he said. “He’s a white guy, too. But you will find his work intriguing.”


So I did, and Karim was right. I was intrigued. I won’t say too much about this now, except to explain that the colleague was a cognitive neuroscientist interested in the psychological underpinnings of racial prejudice. In addition to consulting on Karim’s project, he was planning a trip to Hungary, to look at anti-Roma prejudice in the school systems there.

All I knew of the Roma came from a single ethnography I’d read in anthropology 101. They had been nomadic for ages, the ethnography said, and were so distrustful of outsiders that any one of them who spent time among us was considered contaminated for a period and shunned.

Here’s what a cursory Google search added to that picture: The Roma — aka Gypsies — have a long history of persecution. They were enslaved by the Mongols in the 13thcentury, chased through Western Europe in the 15th, and exterminated at Auschwitz in the 20th. Today, in Central and Eastern Europe, they live mostly in isolated, “Roma-only” neighborhoods — often referred to as settlements. Their children attend vastly inferior “Roma-only” schools. And they are blighted by poverty: three generations of unemployment and houses that lack electricity or running water.

For a brief period in the early 2000s, it looked like the ascension of former soviet bloc countries into the European Union might provide a turning point in that narrative. To meet the requirements of EU membership, countries like Hungary had enacted equal rights laws and allocated huge sums of money to programs that promised to help the Roma integrate into mainstream society. But a decade in, the situation seems to have only gotten worse.

Plenty of people were blaming the recession, and the familiar problem of racial scapegoating for this backslide. But Karim’s colleague saw another force at work: deep-rooted psychological bias. He wanted to develop reliable ways to measure this bias, and to predict it, so that one day, perhaps, we might figure out how to eradicate it.


My American friends were not entirely unfamiliar with the Roma, or Gypsies, as they’re known in the west.

A nurse-friend pointed out that there is a whole community of Gypsies living in New Jersey, near where we grew up. They come to the hospital sometimes, she said. They steal everything that isn’t nailed down. Another friend, a first-generation American whose parents came from Poland and who returned there often as a child told me that she used to give them money when she saw them begging in the streets around Warsaw, but that her aunt caught her doing it once and yelled at her: They are actors, you fool! They pretend to be poor and they dupe tourists. A third friend, whose family came from Hungary, said that a lot of them actually hobble their own children so that they’ll fetch more pity — and money — as beggars. I watched a BBC documentary that supported this claim.

And then I watched this other documentary. It shows little Roma kids who want to go to a non-Roma school. They want an education. They want to make non-Roma friends. But they are thwarted at every turn. They don’t have running water in their homes, or parents who can read. And the teachers at the non-Roma school are overtly prejudice. We do the best we can, one teacher says. But these kids have violence in their blood. The school principle and the mayor of the town feel the same way.

Towards the end of the film, the producer asks one boy what his biggest dream is. “I’d like to own a car one day,” he says. “To be a real man.” His father, sitting next to him, breaks into tears.



I’ve been in Hungary for about five weeks, on a Pulitzer Traveling Grant, reporting what has sometimes felt like one story, and has sometimes felt like ten. For now, I’ve broken it up into two main parts. The first part is about Karim’s collaborator’s research, and should be published sometime this winter.

The second part is about the Roma of Central and Eastern Europe: The schools they are trying to integrate into, the neighborhoods they are trying to save from being razed, the people who are trying to help them, and the people who are trying to thwart them.

Here is what I want to know: how much of a role does individual psychological bias play in the perpetuation of inequality — relative to, say, electoral politics and global economic calamity? Is the former responsible for the latter, or vice versa?

Here’s what else: Can science help society resolve conflicts as deeply entrenched as these? Is confronting people with their biases a reliable way to dismantle those biases? And, if the answer to both of those questions is no, then what is the point of anything?


Karim’s project, The Enemy, has made it to Sundance and Tribeca!