Nothing to hide

Amoun Sleem runs the only Gypsy community center in the Middle East.

Gypsy community center (photo credit: PATRICIA CARMEL)
Gypsy community center
(photo credit: PATRICIA CARMEL)
Ask anyone if they know there are Gypsies in Israel, and you’ll likely get a look of surprise.
Yet a Gypsy community has lived in the Holy Land since the days of Saladin in the 12th century.
Today, there are about 12,000 Gypsies in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Legend has it that some 3,000 years ago, the Gypsies, who hailed from India, split into two groups: One group went to Europe, where today they are known as Roma; the other group went to the Middle East, where they are called Dom.
The Roma adopted Christianity, while the Dom became Muslims.
According to Amoun Sleem, director of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, the Domari language, which has no alphabet, is similar to one of the languages spoken in India but bears no resemblance to the language that the Roma of Europe speak.
“Roma and Dom speak different languages, although there are some words that are very similar,” she says.
“But a Dom can’t have a conversation with a Roma. The Roma have a written alphabet. The Dom do not have a written language. We have to create the letters.
It’s a spoken language. We learn the language from our old people.”
Sleem was born in 1978 into a family of nine siblings and was raised by her grandmother following the death of her mother when she was seven years old.
She grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem in a house with no electricity, where the whole family lived and slept in a single room.
Though she was born into extreme poverty, treated roughly by the Arabs among whom the Gypsies live, and neglected by the Israeli establishment since 1967, Sleem nonetheless succeeded in establishing the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem as a nonprofit in 1999; six years later, in 2005, she opened the Domari Community Center on the Shuafat Road, the only community center for Gypsies in the Middle East.
“I was one of many Gypsy children who were raised in the Old City, disconnected from school and from the neighbors because I’m a Gypsy. And it was very difficult for me to understand why,” she recalls. “Now I understand that Gypsies all over the world are not accepted in society. Wherever we go, people are unhappy with us. In Europe, they don’t like the Gypsy style of living, of moving around every three months, because it means the community doesn’t have a commitment to the people or the government. But then they tell stories against the Gypsies, how they steal children and are beggars.”
Even “countries like Sweden and Norway, which [profess] concern for human rights, don’t like having Gypsies living in their countries,” she says.
Sleem dropped out of school when she was eight and appeared destined for a life devoid of purpose and mired in poverty.
“I left school because of the head teacher, who treated all the Gypsy children badly,” she recounts. “She’d bring us up in front of the whole class and say things like, ‘Dirty girls, bad Gypsies.’ So I told my grandmother, I don’t want to go to school any more.”
She explains that “education wasn’t considered important. And she said, it’s up to you. My father said the same thing. So I began selling postcards to tourists – for two years of my life, I sold postcards, running around from this area to that. That’s how I learned English, from the street, not from school.”
But she was determined to overcome the circumstances into which she had been born, to change her own life and improve the prospects for her people.
“In the end, I said, I can’t be in the street all my life; this is not the life I want. I decided I would survive under that teacher for two more years and then go on to another school. My grandmother, she was a good woman, she supported me. She came with me to the school and she shouted at the teacher, ‘If you hit her, I’ll hit you.’” She credits her sister with inspiring her to return to school.
“My sister was an example for me. She was the first nurse in the community. I saw she had a goal and she ran after it. At night, she lay in bed on the floor, reading by candlelight in the middle of the night. I said, if this is what she’s doing, I want to do it, too. When you’re young, you want to be like your big sister. That’s really why I went back to school. I wanted to be like my big sister.”
Sleem eventually graduated from high school and studied tourism at the University of Notre Dame. “I could see that my community was suffering. I had no money, but I was young and I knew I had to build myself before I could help my community. I finished university but was disconnected from everything around me. People looked at me differently when they found out I’m a Gypsy. Even when they think you’re a wonderful person, when you say you’re a Gypsy, it’s like you’re saying ‘cancer.’ I have no answer for this.”
In 2000, she continues, “I went to a lawyer to establish an amuta [NGO]. It took time, but it was easy enough to do. In 2005, I rented this house in Shuafat and started the center.”
The center’s mission is to provide after-school tutoring for children and to encourage them to remain in school; to teach women design, sewing and handicrafts and to help them sell their work in order to achieve a measure of independence; and to preserve Gypsy culture and the Domari language by fostering cultural pride in the community and developing the Domari alphabet.
Currently about 50 percent of Gypsy children study in school, and some of them take advantage of the tutoring the center offers. Some 35 women from Jerusalem and the West Bank work at the center, using one of the two sewing machines. Others do embroidery, working from home.
When money allows, the center offers additional courses, such as jewelry-making. All items on sale at the center were created by members of the Gypsy community. Recently the center collected a number of local recipes and published a cookbook in English.
The problem is lack of money, says Sleem, who works full-time at the center. “We’re always looking for sponsors. We had funding from Holland, but it stopped.
Every year we apply to the European NGOs, but they don’t like to fund us. They refuse the Gypsies, but every year you see them giving to the Palestinians. We don’t get anything.”
She says she spoke to Mayor Nir Barkat about funding the center, “and he sent a social worker to us. I’m not pleased with their work. Social workers in east Jerusalem have people running around in circles. They complain they don’t have a budget and then keep people hanging around for hours until they’re so tired they just give up.”
In the last few months, Sleem has been providing lunches for groups of up to 16 people. Extending hospitality in this way gives her an opportunity to present to visitors the center’s aims and aspirations. All proceeds from the lunches are fed back into the center.
In addition to her involvement with the local community, she has been active in communicating with her Gypsy counterparts in Europe.
“The Gypsies in Europe didn’t know about the Gypsies of the Middle East,” she says. “They were shocked to hear there were Gypsies in the Holy Land.
Last November, there was a Gypsy festival in Norway and Sweden, and I was invited to attend the conference.
They spoke especially about the Gypsy history and culture.”
While she was there, she says, “I spoke about the Gypsies of Jerusalem, but the European Gypsies want to be called Roma. They think it’s better if you switch to another name to please others. In my opinion, they should make people accept the term ‘Gypsy.’ Jews have a problem because they are Jewish, but you don’t say, I’m not Jewish, and use another name to get accepted.
You work on that name to get accepted. That is the problem of the Gypsies.”
She recalls that during a radio interview she had in Norway, “the interviewer told me I shouldn’t say ‘Gypsy,’ but I ignored him. He wasn’t happy, but I said to him, it’s your problem and I say what I say.”
Back home, she continues the struggle to advance the Gypsies’ cause and help the community toward a better future. Unfortunately she faces some opposition from within the community itself.
“We have good men – but they are the troublemakers,” she laughs. “As a woman in a patriarchal society, I have to struggle a lot with men. The mukhtar [community head man] is against me, and he gets others, men and women, to be against me, too, because I am a woman.
He doesn’t want Gypsies to be open-minded, because he wants to control them. He wants to be the only one who knows how to read and write. So I am in his way. He was threatening me, saying bad things about me – trying to frighten me. I struggled with his father, who was fighting me for many years before he died, and now his son continues the fight against me. But I ignore him; he doesn’t exist for me.”
She explains that “from my dad, I learned if you’re doing good, you’re not scared. But if you’re dirty and play games, something will always frighten you. I’m not frightened, and I have nothing to hide.”
Her personal story, Dreaming Gypsies in Jerusalem, will be published in the summer and can be bought through Amazon. Website: