This year, the Vilnius “Roma Integration into Society Program,” which started in 2020, comes to an end. It is therefore an opportune moment to review how such projects work in Lithuania. Let me remind you that “Roma integration” project cost the taxpayers of our country 1.24 million euros. Looking from the standpoint of the “general public” in Lithuania, or from outside, it may appear that the Roma community lives well. An upper crust Roma restaurant has been operating in Vilnius for the third year. It promotes Roma culture. Roma performers can often be seen on television. In September 2023, the colorful International Roma Culture Festival called “Gypsy Fest” took place, during which a veritable caravan of luxury cars and carriages drove around Vilnius, emphasizing the romanticized vision of Roma life.
The sad truth is, however, that this is only a facade, a function of the tiny Roma elite, because the vast majority of Roma from the lower social strata, who call themselves “Čiorna Roma” (Black Roma), live as they have always lived — in social isolation and in abject poverty. It is the women and children who suffer the most. True, thanks to great efforts and good social initiatives, some sparks of hope do light up even for ordinary Roma. It is moreover good that the number of Roma women in prison has decreased significantly (see on this topic an earlier report in Defending History). They no longer constitute half the population of the Panevėžys women’s correctional facility, as had long been the case.
Perhaps the dismantling of the closed Roma tabor (Lithuanian taboras) or settlement (“ghetto”) in Kirtimai, on the southern outskirts of Vilnius, had an impact as well, but Roma themselves remember with nostalgia the times when they lived together in their own communities — by choice. Not a single Roma says that living conditions have improved for many, but it has become more difficult morally, because they feel that they have lost ties with the community from one side, and from the other, they have not become part of wider Lithuanian community and society.
As I mentioned, this year, the Vilnius “Roma Integration into Society Program” ends, but there are still Roma who did not receive the promised social housing and were forced to leave Vilnius, where they were born and lived all their lives, and where they have deep roots. Their last house in storied tabor at Kirtimai was demolished in the spring of 2020, and many Roma were left stranded and homeless, as only large families were given priority for housing. Others stood in a long queue and still live as homeless people. Elderly, lonely people are forced to stay with relatives, because social housing is not foreseen for them anytime in the near future. It is not much better for young families who do not have many children, so many of them settled in regions where housing is cheaper.
I have previously written about the life of Roma in the provincial town of Troškūnai. Today, twice as many Roma live in this town, where they can afford cheap housing and can try to rebuild in miniature their long-time home, now demolished. There are moreover conflicts with the locals, who are angry that more and more Roma are settling in the town. Sometimes I sadly joke to myself that the only place where Roma are comfortable next to Lithuanians is inthe cemetery, where they lie next to each other. The magnificent Roma tombstones in the Troškūnai cemetery stand next to the more modest Lithuanian tombstones. And they all seem to have found peace.
But the living do not find peace so easily, and there seems to be no end to it. I am not surprised that quite a number of Roma overall have now emigrated from Lithuania. It is good that someone from the organizers of the integration programs realized that it is not enough to evict the Roma from the settlement that had become a ghetto, but that it is also necessary to organize the professional training of Roma and integrate them into the labor market, and help them establish small businesses to get started. It has helped a few younger folks, while the elderly are once again left behind and dependent on the mercy of their relatives.
The Kirtimai settlement (camp) was destroyed because of its lamentable and deeply harmful drug trade. Lithuanian media constantly flashed headlines with negative information about the Roma and almost always talked about Kirtimai, without ever, it seemed, publishing a positive story. Vilnius authorities and politicians took the easiest way to fight the drug trade — by destroying the camp. But drugs did not decrease in the city, not at all! The only “good thing” is that now all the blame for the spread of drug addiction can no longer be placed solely on the Roma. Therefore, from the point of view of the Roma image, it can be said that the integration program was on this important point truly beneficial.
I sincerely hope that the social situation of Roma will improve with each collapse of stereotypes about Roma. That there will be more good examples that will inspire the young Roma generation to study, acquire a profession and become a part of Lithuanian society.