When large numbers of Roma refugee claimants began arriving in Toronto's downtown west end a few years ago, the local schools were ill-prepared.
I n a single week in 2010 around 250 Roma children from Hungary, most of whom did not speak English, enrolled at the Parkdale Public School alone. The school board was overwhelmed, and could find only one Hungarian speaker on staff.
A desperate school trustee called Gord Perks, the local councillor, to ask if the city had any culturally specific programs to help Roma kids transition into school. Perks could only answer that the city did not.
Perks related that anecdote in his opening remarks Tuesday at the first ever Roma Health Forum, and it clearly resonated with the roughly 200 city and non-profit workers in attendance.
Since 2008, when Ottawa loosened visa restrictions for Hungarian immigrants, not only schools, but community organizations of all kinds have struggled to deal with the influx of Roma, whose historic marginalization presents significant barriers to connecting them to vital services like health care, education, and financial assistance.
The forum was organized at the 519 Church Community Centre by Toronto Public Health to discuss "effective outreach and service delivery for Toronto's growing Roma population," and while ostensibly focused on health issues, it was attended by representatives from groups as diverse as the Toronto Public Library, the Red Cross, Toronto Employment and Social Services, and the Toronto District School Board.
Several participants reported that a lack of Hungarian translators in Toronto is a major problem. City and non-profit agencies have traditionally focused on other language groups, and not many have Hungarian interpreters on staff. This means families seeking medical or legal help are often gouged by untrained, predatory translators, who may charge up to $50 an hour for less than reliable services.
But according to Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the Roma Community Centre, the bigger issue is that many Canadians lack even a basic knowledge about the Roma people, who for centuries have been maligned as vagabond gypsies, thieves, and witches. It's difficult to create culture-specific programming for a group many Canadians know little about.
"One of our biggest barriers is people really [not] knowing who we are," said Csanyi-Robah, who gave the keynote speech at Tuesday's forum. "People have heard a lot of gypsy stereotypes, and people don't know we identify ourselves as Roma. We try to distance ourselves from being labeled as gypsies because of the many negative stereotypes associated with that."
Those stereotypes remain strong in Europe, particularly in Hungary, where the neo-fascist and openly anti-Roma Jobbik Party won 17 per cent of the vote in the 2010 parliamentary election.
But racism against the Roma is also alive and well in Canada, Csanyi-Robah says. She points to an on-air rant by Sun TV host Ezra Levant earlier this month, in which he equated Romani people with "swindlers" and accused them of coming to Canada to "rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries."
Victims of officially-sanctioned persecution throughout history, Csanyi-Robah says Roma have become deeply distrustful of any authorities, including school officials and social service workers.
"It's a community that has a huge fear of institutions and agencies, and anything [that could be related to] the state in any way," she says. "Because the state has often been a perpetrator of violence in the past."
To break down that distrust, community groups have to go the extra mile.
Rosa Ribeiro of the Parkdale Community Health Centre told the forum that two years ago her organization realized it wasn't reaching the Romani people in the area, so it held a Roma-themed open house. The event attracted 100 people, who were encouraged to sign up for medical services.
"Everything, from the entertainment to the food, it was culturally specific. We wanted to make sure that they did feel welcome," Ribeiro said. "That made a big difference. That established the link."
Ruby Lam of Toronto Public Health recommended program providers be as flexible as possible; don't be fazed if tight-knit Roma families want to be treated as a group rather than as individuals, she said, and condense services that are normally stretched out over eight visits into one, because government-wary Romani clients may not come back.
Soon however, even those Roma who social service providers are reaching may have no choice but to cut their stay in Toronto short. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has singled out Hungary as a prime candidate to be added to the government's list of "safe countries" this fall, which would make it much easier for the government to deny Romani refugee applications and deport failed claimants.
Hajnalka Klein, a school settlement worker with CultureLink, says the uncertainty of how long Romani clients will remain in Canada makes building bridges to the community that much more difficult.
"It takes time," she said. "Unfortunately we don't know how much time they have."