On a late afternoon this past October, a dozen or so mothers set out with their children from Keleti, the smaller of two Roma settlements in the city of Nyiregyhaza, Hungary. They walked across the four-lane highway that borders the settlement, past the Mercedes Benz dealership on the other side, and down a footpath that led to a municipal building, where a class called "Story Telling Moms" was being held by the Roma Education Fund.
The goals of the class included learning to read, developing parenting skills, and working to build community. Each week, the same group of mothers gathered around a large table — kids in laps, plates of sugary treats in the center — and took turns reading aloud from a children's book. This week's book was Cini az eger Nem tud Elaludni. The cover pictured a mouse standing in pajamas against a dark blue night sky with bright stars and a crescent moon. The story was apparently about how the little mouse hated bedtime, and how his mom helped him ease into it by making each part of the routine a game.
The mothers laughed when they got to the part where the mouse brushes his teeth and washes his face.
"Wouldn't that be nice," one of them joked. "Toilets and water inside the house!"
The barriers separating the residents of Keleti from the city that surrounds them are not physical. A low slung concrete wall marks the perimeter on three sides, but it is not impassable; nor is the highway that runs the length of the fourth side. To leave those few square blocks of dirt road and crumbling row house, though, is to smack repeatedly into another kind of barrier, one constituted almost entirely of absences: absence of education, absence of gainful employment, absence of indoor plumbing.
The thing about that kind of barrier is that from the outside it doesn't look like a barrier at all. From the outside, it is easily understood as a willful disregard for the unspoken laws of normal society. Here's how non-Roma Hungarians explained the Roma situation to me: They don't work because they are lazy. They would rather steal and cheat than earn an honest living. Also, a lot of them are mentally deficient, and violent, by nature.
For a brief period a few years back, these attitudes seemed to actually be changing. "There was a national anti-discrimination campaign," says Anna Kende, a social psychologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. "And a number of national representative surveys showed that the amount of empathy and warmth people felt towards the Roma was growing. I'm not saying that people started to be really open. But it was becoming less accepted for someone to say overtly racist things in a parents' meeting at school, for example." When I visited in September though, a full-scale backlash was underway: elected officials expressing conspicuously anti-Roma sentiments in the national press, a rising tide of neo-Nazism across the region, and a growing clamor over "gypsy criminality" among the laity.
The experts I talked to — Roma and non-Roma professionals who have spent the past decade trying to drive the inclusion initiative forward — tended to explain this losing of ground in more or less the same way: The global economic crisis had turned the country rightward, and the incoming political party had capitalized on that shift with campaigns that inspired racial scapegoating and revived old biases before they had time to fully erode.
As a result, reformers had been forced to retrench. Forget large-scale, national-to-regional campaigns. Now was the time for small-scale, community-based approaches.
"We have to work at the family level, now" Judit Szira, executive director of REF told me. "We can't have hope for big policy level reforms." The Storytelling Moms program that her agency developed, has been running since 2010, currently serves about 80 mothers, and is due to conclude in August of 2015.
"It's not better or worse," Szira said. "It's just where we are at the moment."
When the book was finished, a local Roma woman named Aggie led a discussion on the importance of "socially useful" activities, by which she meant activities that would help the women improve their image in the larger community. Aggie was the local partner for REF, and served as a "mentor" to the mothers. Her credentials for this position consisted of the fact that she had lived in Nyiregyhaza for most of her life, and had a husband who grew up in the settlement. She urged the women to keep their children in integrated schools, and gave them tips on parenting, and, as she told it, helped solve an untold range of crises that were part of everyday life in the settlements.
Today, she was explaining to the mothers that it would be up to them to come up with the ideas for community involvement, and then to organize the activities themselves.
A couple of the women suggested volunteering at the local hospital. They could dress up as clowns, or maybe read stories to the kids whose parents lived too far away to visit everyday. The other mothers liked this idea. Some of their mothers and grandmothers had worked as nurses at that hospital, back before the fall of communism, and so it seemed like a good fit. "The families may not accept us," one mother said. "But we should at least try."
Similar "socially useful" plans were being hatched in other Roma settlements, in other Storytelling Mom classes, throughout Hungary. In Kántorjánosi they were organizing a charity evening with the local kindergarten for a young girl suffering from chronic disease. In Hodász and Nagydobos they were planning to make rugs for public buildings. And in Szamoskér they wanted to introduce traditional cross-stitching to the wider community.
Here in Nyiregyhaza, Aggie beamed with pride at the dialogue unfolding.
"These moms work the most," she said. "They have to walk a lot because they take their kids to the integrated schools. They cut trees for cooking and heating, and they fetch well water day in and day out." They also held workfare jobs when they could get them, she said, and worked in the fields picking apples and breaking tobacco leaves when they could not.
It seemed unfair to expect them to volunteer on top of all that, I said. How would they find the time, given how full their days already were?
"It sounds like a lot," one of the mothers told me. "But if you do it, it's even more." The others laughed.
"We could tell you," another mother added. "But what it is it to hear? You have to do it to understand."
This is what it looks like to hoist oneself from the depths of poverty onto the mantle of deserving poor: mothers who have to raise children without indoor plumbing or steady employment or money for food, searching for ways to endear themselves to neighbors whose wants are slightly less dire.
We know about the structural forces that create and perpetuate inequality. We understand how dearth of opportunity and institutional racism can subvert the will of individuals as well as whole communities. But the notion that equality might be achieved easily if members of the underclass would only clean up their act is a difficult one to shake, no less so in Hungary than in America. When it comes to effecting change, we still hold personal responsibility paramount — not as one element of reform, but as the element, the thing to credit every success with, and the thing to blame every failure on.
Among the mothers of Keleti, this chasm manifested itself as a vague sensation: they understood that greater forces held sway over their lives than they themselves had the power to direct. But they could not quite fathom what those forces were, or who was directing them, or how.
"We'd like to do more," one mother told me. "But we have no perspective."
Several of the Roma I spoke with — not just in Nyiregyhaza but throughout the country — had made similar remarks. In fact, it was a common refrain:
We have no perspective.
Our perspective is so small.
What can we do without perspective?
The mothers from Keleti agreed that it was better in their section of Nyiregyhaza than it was in other places. In other places, they said, Roma couldn't even enter the white parts of town.
"That pediatrician is running in the election," one mother said to the others. "And he's saying they should do here what they are doing in Miskolc." Miskolc was another Hungarian city, just an hour or so west of Nyiregyhaza. The settlements there were facing mass evictions based on a mayoral campaign built on a promise to "eliminate the ghettos." The Roma families that lived in those settlements were being offered a few months' rent in exchange for leaving the city altogether and promising not to return.
"We are not here to talk politics," Aggie said. "And you must have misunderstood, because I know that doctor and he is not like that."
Aggie's husband, the only man in attendance, reminded the women that they were better off than the families in Gusev. At least their kids went to integrated schools, he said. In Gusev they were still segregated. The school system in Nyiregyhaza had made a fickle experiment of desegregation; back in 2007 they closed the settlement schools in Keleti and Gusev and launched a bussing program modeled after the one implemented in the American South in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Ed. But a few years later that program was discontinued. For reasons that no one I spoke to could quite explain, the Gusev school had been re-opened, and the students there re-segregated. The Keleti school had remained closed, leaving the mothers to transport their children across the city to the mainstream schools. For the ones who could not afford bus fare, this involved a lot of walking.
One mother pointed out that at least the families in Gusev received support from the Church, in the form of shoes, scholarships and summer camps. Aggie's husband countered that it was a poor tradeoff.
"What kind of network do they have, surrounded by only Roma?" he asked.
A woman, in a pink fuzzy jacket blamed the parents themselves. "They're lazy," she said. "They take their kids to the settlement school instead of walking them to the better school down the street."
After some debate, the women agreed that the mothers in Gusev were indeed lazy, but that they themselves were not necessarily any better off for all their hard work. It was impossible to improve the Roma situation, one mother told me, with the others nodding in agreement. "You pay your bills so you don't get kicked out, but then you can't buy food. And wood is very expensive for heating. So you have to skip some bills in winter or you freeze."
"And there is no escaping it," another said. "No matter how hard you work. Not with two to three month Public Works contracts."
"There are opportunities!" Aggie protested.
The mothers shook their heads, and looked at me. " You can pay your bills or you can eat," one woman said. "You cannot do both."
"But you are doing," Aggie insisted. "You are trying. There is hope for better times." The women nodded half-heartedly. "If not for us," one said, "then for our children."