Living with Gypsies through TRU

Students will travel to Eastern Slovakia and explore how Roma people live

In May 2015, David Scheffel will be instructing TRU’s Field School in Romani Studies, which takes students on a dynamic expedition to Eastern Slovakia. The six-credit course, ANTH 3000: Current issues in Cultural Anthropology will immerse students in Romani culture.

In partnership with the Institute of Romani Studies at the University of Prešov, Scheffel has been working with faculty member Alexander Musinka to provide the course to students.

Dr. David Scheffel (middle left), socializing with local Slovakian Roma in May, 2010 (David Scheffel/Submitted)

TRU has been sending students to Eastern Slovakia since 1993, when the field trip was instrumental in the development of a Romani community. The 2015 trip however, promises to be different. Previously, visiting Romani communities was just a chapter in a much broader field trip in Eastern Slovakia, but this year the course will entail spending the entire three weeks living with host families in cites of oppression, discrimination and poverty that Gypsies are segregated into by mainstream society. According to Scheffel, “there is no other field school in the world that will have this kind of focus.”

In Canada we have many cultures who, for the most part, live side-by-side harmoniously. However there are other countries where this is not the case.

“People can learn from these extreme examples, which is the case in Slovakia,” Scheffel said. “For centuries, the Romani people have been at the centre of those inter-culture controversies.”

That is why ANTH 3000 focuses on the “Roma question,” which examines why mainstream societies are having such a hard time living side-by-side with the Roma.

The communities that students will visit are not just sites of poverty, dirt, discrimination and oppression. They are also cites of a degree of resistance where Gypsies maintain their cultural identity and practice the mentality that “we do things differently, we remain untamed and we remain independent.”

Scheffel expanded on this mentality by noting that what is being studied is a “counter-culture that sees things and does things differently.”

“I don’t want it to be a poverty safari. I want them to think more about [the Roma question] and think about this kind of segregation from mainstream society.”

This experience is open to all TRU students and students from other universities. Since there are no prerequisites for the course, a diverse selection of students from all programs can enroll. The program fee, which covers all travel expenses in Slovakia, is $2,575, but all attending students also qualify for a $500 CUEF travel bursary. International airfare, travel insurance and immunization are the responsibility of participating students.

A Gypsy family and friends gathered outside their hut during the field school trip of May 2011 (David Scheffel/Submitted)

Because students will be exposed to an entirely different culture and are going to experience culture shock, Scheffel comments that the course is open to anyone looking for a “high impact” experience.

“It requires an open minded attitude and pioneering spirit,” Scheffel said.

In order to prepare students for the trip, mandatory readings are assigned before the trip so that students know what to expect.

The coursework for the class is designed to let students focus on their experience while in Slovakia. There is a test on these readings and a paper that is due a month after students are back in Canada. Scheffel claims the experience itself promises to teach students more about cultural discrimination than a classroom ever could because you can depend much more on peer learning and feedback.

According to Scheffel, the site of the field school is no more dangerous than some Canadian cities, but he did note that there are “pockets of unexpected behaviour.”

“I take it seriously, and the host families take it seriously. In all the years I have not had a single incident where a student has felt threatened or in danger,” Scheffel said. Slovakia is a country that is part of the UN. Law and order are maintained and medical care is easily obtained.

Accommodation with host families is one of the main experiences that a student can get out of this course. The families are welcoming and provide the support that students need in order to reflect on the experience, according to Scheffel.

“You need a bit of guidance. You need a niche that you can relax in and that you can feel safe in. And that is what these host families are designed to do,” Scheffel said. “Going into these settlements as an outsider can be a very emotional experience.”

Host families live in apartments, houses or huts and students have the choice to decide where they will live and for how long they want to stay.

According to Scheffel, this experience is “the core of what students take out of there. They don’t just learn from books or from looking at something as if they’re on a safari, but they actually are expected to interact with people.”

As an expert on the Roma peoples and having facilitated these trips for the last 20 years, Scheffel is extremely sympathetic to the Gypsies current quality of life. He compares the communities of Eastern Slovakia as similar to those of sub-Saharan Africa, but this is in Europe.

Five years ago, in partnership with Alexander Musinka, Scheffel founded a non-profit organization helping Roma families integrate into Slovak society by providing the support necessary for these families to buy houses. The official webpage at www.svinia.org provides more information on the organization’s goals and how to help.

For more information on ANTH 3000: Current Issues in Cultural Anthropology, contact David Scheffel at dscheffel@tru.ca.