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Roma minority asks Finns to look beyond the stereotypes

Most Finns have little contact with the Roma people that live in their midst, and negative stereotypes abound. Jari Stenroth is one of a growing number who are out to set the story straight.

Päivi Svart-Stenroth ja Jari Stenroth.
Jari Stenroth and Päivi Svart-Stenroth live in Southern Ostrobothnia. Image: Päivi Rautanen / Yle

Jari Stenroth and his wife Päivi Svart-Stenroth are one of two Roma families that they know of that live in Ylistaro, Finland, near Seinäjoki. They are Romani or Roma, an ethnic group originating from the northern Indian subcontinent that has spread to Europe and the Americas over the centuries. Once called Gypsies, Roma people now reject that name as pejorative.

There are estimated to be around 10,000 Roma in Finland, with the first arriving from Sweden already over 500 years ago. They first made a living as craftsmen, moving about the country as itinerants, shoeing horses and doing odd jobs. The Stenroths say many stereotypes about the Roma have developed in Finland, and most of the country's inhabitants haven't made the effort to learn more about the Roma culture and identity.

"It is important to me that the majority of the population sees me as a Finn, first and foremost, but also as a Roma," Stenroth says.

He and his wife say it is not enough that the population knows only the clichés and stereotypes about Roma, such as their work with horses and affinity for Mercedes. Jari works to expand people's awareness as chair of his local Roma association, Lakeuden Romanit, and as a board member of The National Roma Forum of Finland.

Communal rules of honour and respect

Päivi Svart-Stenroth and her husband are foster parents. She is proud of the high value Roma put on their extended family and community elders in particular. Women are expected to honour their husbands, as the men are the head of the family. Does it bother her to be surrounded by a culture that increasingly emphasizes gender equality?

"I don't know, I've lived deep in this [Roma] culture since I was small and accepted these things. It is so natural for me that I'm not bothered by it really," she says.

"My personal take on it is that we should cherish our good traditions and give less visibility to things that are a burden on certain levels," her husband responds.

As a worker in the field of education, Stenroth says he hopes that the educational levels of the Roma community in Finland would improve.

"I would also like to see young people adopt the cooperative spirit of the older generation once more," he says.

Jari Stenroth and Päivi Svart-Stenroth honour traditional Roma ways, but they are prepared to be flexible when the circumstances require it. For example, when they moved to their home in Ylistaro a year ago, they broke with Roma tradition and arranged to have all of the bedrooms on the same floor. Normally children's rooms would be situated on a lower floor, to avoid situations in which the children would be higher than their elders.

"I talked to my brothers about it because it bothered me. I told them that our choice was not a protest against them. They understood our situation. They were sympathetic and they understood that we had a dream to be a family that could host foster children," Stenroth says.

Finnish radio programme on the Roma every Tuesday

Jaakko Laakso, a Finn from nearby Jalasjärvi and teacher of music in Kauhava, is a friend of the Stenroths.

He says he has had an interest in the Roma culture ever since he was a young boy in Lapua.

"There was a camping area near our home and Roma groups would come there every summer. The way they dress and their animated way of moving through life intrigued me," he says.

Päivi Svart-Stenroth ja Jari Stenroth sekä Jaakko Laakso.
Jaakko Laakso pays a visit Image: Päivi Rautanen / Yle

Today Laakso works with two other journalists to produce a radio show for Yle's Radio 1 called Romano mirits, a weekly broadcast that highlights events and phenomena in Finland's Roma community.

"The mainstream population only has a surface knowledge of the Roma culture and their ways. There are many stereotypes and misconceptions out there. I thought the programme could be my way to contribute to society," he says.

Vestiges of Hindu purity laws

The Stenroth home is as clean as a whistle. Päivi Svart-Stenroth says she has a washrag in her hand on-and-off pretty much all day.

"I always have to find the time to clean the place up a little bit. It's in my nature; everything has to be in order," she says.

Cleanliness and order have a deeper meaning in the Roma culture. Jari Stenroth says home is a sacred place for the Roma because for centuries they travelled from place to place without one.

"There are a lot of things that people wonder about, like about how much gold jewellery we wear. Gold was something of value that we could carry with us when we had no place to keep our belongings," he explains.

Today he wears only one single thin gold necklace.

"Yeah, I used to have a bunch of thick gold chains around my neck, but then I had a spiritual awakening in the early 2000s and I felt that they had become unnecessary. I now value things inside me over exterior objects," he says.

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