Interview with Romani psychologist Andrea Tibenská

Hradec Králové, 16.9.2014 19:06, (ROMEA)
Andrea Tibenská (PHOTO: personal archive of Andrea Tibenská)
Andrea Tibenská (PHOTO: personal archive of Andrea Tibenská)

ANDREA TIBENSKÁ is from the town of Prievidza in Western Slovakia. She works as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at the Psychiatric Clinic of the Teaching Hospital in Hradec Králové, Czech Republic.  

Tibenská studied psychology at the Philosophy Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno. She has three sisters and her parents currently live in Slovakia.

Hradec Králové, Czech Republic is now home to Tibenská and her partner. Her appearance and manner are charming at first sight.  

Q:  When you were little, did you and your family live in a town or in a settlement?

A:  First we lived in town. After the fall of commmunism our family became impoverished, and we lived in buildings that were crowded with Romani people in financial difficulty. It was a kind of "ghetto" in the center of town. Now my parents live on a housing estate.

Q:  Did you follow Romani customs and traditions in your family?

A:  Well, we followed the main ones. I don't know how to speak Romani though. In the town I come from Romani people were under strong pressure to assimilate. Social workers back then forced families not to teach their children to speak Romani. They told them it would harm the children. They threatened to take their children away if they didn't teach them a "normal" language. So my mother understands Romani, but she doesn't know how to speak it. Grandma and Grandpa used Romani as their secret language and spoke Slovak to their children. From my Grandma I know just a few words, I picked up something here and there, but I don't speak Romani or understand it fluently. So I'm basically a kind of non-Romani Roma woman. I'm dark, our family didn't fit in among "whites". There wasn't any Romani culture or customs left, we didn't know the fairytales... what survived were the Romani songs. Those are passed on from generation to generation, but I don't know what some of them are about. Romani people have many classic ritual customs around the preparation of food and about hygiene. Those include, for example, that you don't eat food in the homes of Roma of lower caste, and you also don't eat in "white" people's homes or in institutions - we used to boycott the school cafeteria, restaurants, and hospital food. We wouldn't use a stranger's WC, not even a public one. For my mother, every time she goes to the hospital it's still a big problem - we have to request a separate room with a WC, she brings her own bedding, and if we don't bring her food from home, she prefers to go hungry. If she's supposed to travel somewhere, she prefers not to drink anything all day. I learned not be alarmed by a strange WC when I was in primary school after I wet my pants once in the second grade because I couldn't hold it until I got home. I also eat in restaurants and in the homes of "white" people whom I know - although the fact that I am a vegetarian means that I avoid a lot of food during many of my visits. I remember that when I was younger, the men and the women would converse separately during family celebrations, and a woman did not have the right to speak alone with a man to whom she was not related. However, we didn't keep to that custom, not even as children - Mom just kept that a secret from Grandma and Grandpa. Since the oldest generation has passed away, no Romani people maintain that custom in our town.  

Q:  Do you have any Romani traditions you maintain even today?

A:  I have to say that I am growing away from that more and more. I don't have Romani family here to be in contact with. I'm beginning to deal with the fact that I regret that I am basically "less Romani". The feeling that I am losing my Romani ethnicity makes me sad. I feel like I'm gradually changing into a "white" person and I'm not comfortable with that. I mainly realize it in the way I express emotions - I definitely do not display them as openly. Sometimes it's hard to uphold traditions when I'm here alone. However, I am glad to be a Romani woman. I last felt ashamed of it at the age of 13, but I haven't felt that way since. I have the feeling that if I am a good psychotherapist, then it is because I am Romani, because I am basically drawing on what I learned from my family, to establish very close, warm relationships, to work with emotions. I know of one Romani custom that I do honor - I am used to clearing the air about matters in front of everyone, for example, in front of the entire family. Many things are discussed and resolved that way. My partner is not enthusiastic about that, because sometimes these are private things. My partner is not Romani and he doesn't understand it - I have to remember that it frustrates and hurts him.  

Q:  Did your family lead you toward an education, did they support you in it?

A:  When I began living with my partner I was surprised by how many books he had at home. We also had books at home when I was a child, children's books or literature, Mom loved to read, but we didn't have encyclopedias or educational books, we didn't pay attention to that at all. Mom wanted me to get good grades, even though she couldn't teach me how. I wasn't made to do my homework at home, I went to school unprepared, I forgot my books, my compass, my notebooks, my pencil. Mom always wanted to me to prove myself, though. Her dream was that I would be a sales clerk - that seemed like an accomplishment to her. She didn't agree with my going to academic high school, because she was convinced I should have chosen an apprenticeship or a business high school so I would have a job. She believed that when I completed academic high school and didn't get into college it would be hard for me to find work. My teachers convinced my parents to let me study. Our parents had very little knowledge to pass on to us, and they didn't have much money. We didn't subscribe to any magazines that would have developed us, and when I was naughty as a child, they forbade me to read my books as punishment.  

Q:  How did your schoolmates view you at primary school, at high school, and then at college?  

A:  I always had the bad luck to be the only Romani girl in the class. The children at nursery school and primary school did not accept me at all. They laughed at me. I began attending nursery school at the age of three. To my parents I was a confident little girl - I was just awesome, cute, and a little pampered - and suddenly I found myself at nursery school where everyone began laughing at me. I didn't understand it, they were laughing at me and telling me I was a Gypsy, that I was something terrible. Their parents even forbade them to play with me. The other kids always said:  "I would like to play with you but I can't because my Mom won't let me." The beginning of nursery school and later of primary school was very hard. I shut down and seriously believed something was wrong with me. I had a couple of little girlfriends who played with me secretly. In the fifth grade, one of my schoolmates got a failing grade and began to cry, she was terror-stricken that her mother would beat her for it. The teacher suggested that I go home with her and help her explain it to her parents. I told the teacher I couldn't do that because the girl was forbidden to play with me. When she asked why, I told her it was because I am a Gypsy. That caused a terrible fuss. The teacher convened a parents' meeting and explained to the parents what the problem was and arranged for things to be different. After that the other children were allowed to play with me. Basically we became a really good team. At high school no one was worried about my ethnicity. I think that at college some of my fellow students didn't even know I was Romani. My identity was attractive and interesting to my teachers. I never encountered any discrimination, on the contrary, I was interesting to my fellow students, they asked what it was like for me. It is true, however, that during my educational process I sometimes felt like a monkey who just knew how to talk by some miracle, someone people came to stare at, and that hurt me.        

Q:  You studied psychology - how did you find that field?

A:  I always knew, more or less, that I wanted to work with people. However, we psychotherapists realize that we are all a bit narcissitic - we want to help others, but we also have the feeling that it's because we are the good ones, that we are better than others. So I was probably led to psychology by some sort of narcissism within me [laughs]. I enjoy working with people.  

Q:  What is your view of the current anti-Romani mood and prejudice against the Romani minority in society?

A:  Naturally it hurts me very much. At the same time I am aware that I live among "whites", I move around a lot among them, which means I know their attitudes, I know how they think. I can see that they have certain prejudices, but once we are in closer contact with one another, they are able to set those prejudices aside. They accept me authentically, as Andrea. When we get to know one another better, they even take an interest in Romani culture and often lose their prejudice. I know the principle behind all of this from my psychotherapeutic practice. I used to work in a community with people who were addicted to alcohol or drugs. It was wonderful to follow how they made progress, how they developed with the aid of psychotherapy. However, if, for whatever reason, the atmosphere in the community wasn't good, then they always found a black sheep to blame - for example, a lady who defamed everyone else or who isolated herself more from the others... experienced terrible aggression from them because they needed to take their frustrations out on someone. Something wasn't working the way they liked so they needed to find a lightning rod and identify the culprit. Suddenly the woman who had been defaming everyone was the reason the group was in a bad way. Whatever petty thing that person had done (defaming others, responding too emotionally, not responding at all), she didn't deserve to have 50 people yelling at her who wanted to exclude her from the community. That's how it works in dysfunctional families - when they are dealing with a problem, when the family members aren't doing well, they unconsciously seek the weakest member to bear the burden. This could be, for example, an adolescent child whose behavior they criticize. However, the child then can take on that role and begin to confirm what is said about her, suddenly she is a black sheep. She begins for example, to use addictive substances or alcohol, or she starts to overeat and then vomit, or she cuts herself so she can draw attention away from the unsolvable schism between her parents and onto a less explosive topic that will bring the family together. This also happens on a large scale when an entire society, if it isn't healthy, needs a lightning rod and a topic to bring them together. They point the finger at Romani people, how we are on welfare, how because of us, they are badly off. They look for solutions - what needs to be done with these Roma (deporting them to another state, not giving them one more crown, forcing them to work with whips, "let's protest against them in a parade and show them how sick of them we are") - and they may even be seeking a functional solution, but by doing so they are relieving their own tension. In its own way, this is rather natural. It's a human characteristic that I don't like. We also have great fear of the unknown. Now, for example, the global society has rather significant prejudices against Muslims. They are focusing on Muslim women wearing headscarves, claiming this is anti-democratic. Up to now I had always naively believed that it was undemocratic not to accept other people's attitudes, opinions and religious practices, that it was undemocratic to ban them....                    

Q:  Have you personally encountered discrimination outside of school?

A:  Yes I did. Our family was respected at the housing estate, everyone knew the girls were studying at an academic high school, that the mother was a decent lady, that the laundry she hung out on the balcony to dry was clean, that the father worked. However, some of the children from the neighborhood could only play with my "lighter-skinned" sister and not with me, otherwise it would look like their child was promenading around with a Gypsy. If boys liked us it was suddenly a terrible problem that someone's little son with prospects for a good future was falling in love with a Romani girl - even though the family had maintained friendly contact with ours up until then. When I was older and had my first boyfriend, his mother did not take it lightly, but she got used to it. Today when we meet each other, she apologizes to me greatly for not accepting me then. She says I taught her a lot about prejudice. My identity has also been a cause for concern at home for my current partner, but they worked on it and have accepted me. Several times I have been accused in shops of having stolen something and had my bag searched. I always cause a terrible scene, because it angers me when someone follows me around constantly in a store surveilling me. Now that happens less because I go to shops where they know me and where I won't experience that as much. It's amusing to me to follow how "whites" behave when they encounter me in the shops, on the street, on a train - they clearly know I am Romani and treat me as such. If they meet me in the context of my work, however, it never even occurs to them. They ask me whether I'm Brazilian, Greek, Indian, etc. I get a kick out of answering "No, I'm a Gypsy girl from Slovakia". When I was younger it used to hurt me when people told me that I didn't have admit to my origins because I don't look Romani, or that I'm completely different from other Roma, or when they apologized a great deal for not anticipating such a confession, or when they said they were sorry to hear it. Now it doesn't hurt me anymore - rather, I have empathy for their embarrassment. Recently I had to sincerely laugh when my patients told me I had disappointed them because they had imagined something more exotic.          

Q:  How do your colleagues perceive your identity?

A:  I believe most of them don't notice. Many have heard or know I am Romani, but it's not something they refer to when they are in contact with me. Then there are some whom it attracts, in some way, and they have the need to ask a lot of questions. I don't fit into some other colleagues' constructs and they need to constantly return to that so they can frustrate both me and themselves somehow. We get into various disputes. Some people - mainly when I was more vivacious when I was younger - were bothered by the fact that I would bang on doors and express myself too emotionally, too loudly. They knew it was because I am Romani, but they asked that I adapt to their ways if I was going to live among them. They didn't much want to hear that I was already 99 % adapting myself and holding myself back, that I couldn't do any more to adapt, and that they needed to accept my difference. Now, fortunately, I'm no longer as vivacious or young, so that doesn't happen as often. Or people have gotten used to me - basically I still speak loudly and bang on doors. Maybe it's because I don't seem as young, they don't dare communicate such things to me or try to "educate" me.        

Q:  Do you feel that your acquaintances or family won't accept you because you are educated?

A:  It's not like that in our family. We are the first generation in which many family members have an education. My cousins are doctors and engineers. My sister is studying at a college in America. My neighbors' children are college students. It's not something that I am alone or unique in. There is a mix there of college students and people with technical training. Many of us experienced harassment at school, we didn't enjoy the conditions that "white" children do, and even my cousins whose intelligence is above-average are walking the line between physically very hard, poorly paid work and unemployment. I believe the other Romani families who do not have educations are also proud of us. They tell their children:  "See, if you do well in school, you will have a good life. You will travel all over the world and never go hungry." However, more often they don't trust themselves, they have the feeling that they are incapable, stupid, unacceptable to society, that personally they could never succeed at something like that. The schools in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the encounters with an unaccepting majority society that children have there for the first time, are producing thousands of young Romani adults with inferiority complexes. I personally motivate the Romani children there: "Do you want to be hungry all the time like your Mom, or will you study so you can be somebody?" I know those children live in such difficult conditions that unless I am able to offer them something more than just empty talk they have almost no chance, at their age, of avoiding their fate. There are still many children going hungry in Slovakia.    

Q:  You are currently designing a project called "Come to our place for coffee". What is that about?

A:  The project is just now being created - you could say it's in diapers. It will take some time. Most of the majority society has some notion about Romani people, one that is often delivered to them by the media, and they basically don't know much about them. They are not in contact with them, which means their experiences are of this type: "A Romani man approached me at the train station who smelled awful and wanted money." They have also been approached by "white" (homeless) people, but they don't worry about that, because they know the "white" people around them. They personally do not know any Roma, so they imagine all Roma are like the guy at the train station - for them, he is a representative of all Roma. A friend once said to me:  "I don't like Romani people because when I was little a Romani boy slapped me." Another said:  "I don't know any Romani people, but they robbed my cousin." Or they say:  "I see them in front of Tesco, where they all huddle together and are really loud and I'm afraid of them." These contacts are at a very low level, often they are second-hand stories, but these people are able to hold long debates about Roma all the same. Even Romani people whom I meet during psychotherapy tell me they themselves are not like most Roma, that they are the decent ones, even though at the moment they are in financial difficulties or unemployed. They set themselves apart from those other "bad" Roma, whom they also do not know personally. It's sad that some Romani people will not admit their Romani ethnicity even to themselves - and they have the right to deny it. At the same time, however, they are not giving their children the chance to deal with their own identities. I have also had several patients who "clearly" looked Romani, and who explained their appearance by their being part Hungarian. These patients don't like Romani people, they don't have anything to do with any Roma outside their own families, and just to be sure, they have married a majority-society partner. In psychotherapy with them we deal with what it's like to look Romani in an anti-Romani society when one is not Romani. On the basis of that it occurred to me that it would be good to make it possible for the majority to meet us Roma - people who have the desire to create their own opinions and get their own information. The "whites" could visit Romani families and learn how we live, how we think, what we talk about, get to know us better over coffee. I don't believe this would lead to the total disappearance of prejudice from the country, but it would help at least some people form their own opinions on the basis of their own experience instead of what they hear on the radio, read in the papers and see on TV. The project would involve a couple of Romani families inviting majority-familes for a visit to chat.            

Q:  I know you like traveling. Where have you been?

A:  I went abroad for the first time at the age of 17 to the Czech Republic. I began traveling basically once I was in college and for work, I had to commute to be educated. I didn't start traveling a lot until I met my partner. I don't know some of the landscape of Europe and he always laughs about that - he was born in the Czech Republic but his father is Lebanese. I am attracted to mountains, I love them. We mostly travel to the mountains, but this year I went to Cambodia and Thailand. I have also been to Paris and visited my family in California. For the time being I am most excited about the Himalayas - about Buddhism, about the natural beauty there. We are planning to go there too, but first this year we're revisiting Nepal.    

Iveta Kokyová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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