On the Road 2010: Day Seventeen

June 12, 2010

By hammersmith

Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Romania for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.

Am Norgren (’06)

Saturday, June 12th was an extremely busy day. It was physically exhausting, as we walked around the city of Targu Mures while the temperature was over 100 degrees and very humid. It was also mentally exhausting, as we went to three lectures and a tour and discussed some important and weighty issues in Romania. However, while exhausting, the day was satisfying, as it provided us with more perspectives and viewpoints on the history, culture, and social issues in Romania.

One of the recurring themes of this trip is the obvious tension between different ethnic groups in Romania, including Romanians, ethnic Hungarians, and Roma people. We have attended numerous lectures that discuss these issues, and the latest was a lecture on minority issues given by Maria Korek, former Project Manager for a Romanian organization dealing with inter-ethnic relations. In her lecture, Ms. Korek explained the tensions between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. Before the 1920 Trianon Treaty, much of what is now Romania belonged to Hungary. Therefore, after the treaty, much of Hungary became part of Romania, even though it was home to an extremely large population of Hungarians.

Still today, millions of Hungarians live within Transylvania in Romania. For the most part, they have fought to keep their language and culture alive. In fact, in Transylvania, an ethnic Hungarian child can go to a Hungarian language school or even live in an entirely Hungarian-language town. The reason for the tensions between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians come from the fact that Romania has attempted to get Hungarians to assimilate, while Hungarians have fought to live as Hungarians in the lands that their families have lived in for generations. Ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania are stuck in between two identities: they are not Romanian, but they are not allowed to be entirely Hungarian either. Therefore, they are caught somewhere in between, and there are still many unresolved issues as a result of this century-long tension.

To give a more tangible example, I will provide a metaphor. Imagine that next year the US signs a treaty where (somehow) Arizona becomes part of Mexico. If Mexico acted as Romania did when this happened in 1920, Mexico would then force Arizonans to speak Spanish, teach their kids Mexican history, and follow Mexican norms. Then Arizonans would rise up, gain influence, and establish society of their own—an English-speaking community within Mexico. In response to this, people would ask Arizonans, “Why don’t you just move to the US?” And Arizonans would reply, “We didn’t move to Mexico. Mexico moved to us.” That is essentially what happened (and is happening) in Transylvania. Just imagine the tensions that causes.

Unlike the Hungarian minority, which has power and influence in Romanian society, the Roma minority, which is probably close to two million people, has little to no influence in the larger society. The Roma, or Gypsies, are marginalized by society and live in extreme poverty. The unemployment rate is 90% among the Roma, which illustrates how little this minority has been able to integrate into society. The strong prejudices against the Roma by Romanians and Hungarians alike further pushes them to the fringes of society, and their situation does not seem to be improving. Ms. Korek pointed out that a change in mentality of the majority is required before the Roma will ever be able to get out of their current dire situation. But only time will tell what form this “change” will take.

After the lecture on minority issues, we attended a lecture on social issues, given by an employee of the Alpha Transylvania Foundation, an NGO devoted to increasing life opportunities for disabled persons within Romania (unfortunately, I was not able to get the lecturer’s name). The most striking part of this lecture was the discussion about civil society in Romania, which was a communist country where the nonprofit sector did not exist until after 1989.

Our speaker discussed how nonprofits are forming in order to “fill in the gaps” in social services that government and for-profit agencies cannot address. Yet these new nonprofits still have to fight to be heard by the Romanian government. For example, the Alpha Transylvania Foundation applied for a government grant to run their daycare center, and the government agreed to the grant and signed a contract to give them the funding. However, when it came down to it, the government did not come through, and the foundation was forced to close down the center for a week while lobbying for the funds that were promised to them by the state.

Therefore, as much as the third sector is gaining more weight in the previously-communist state of Romania, it still has a long way to go to be accepted, influential, and supported by the government and by the general public. However, this sector has had some major achievements, and unlike many of our lectures in Romania, this lecture provided an extreme sense of hope. The speaker was optimistic about the possibilities for her foundation and for the entire nonprofit sector in the future, and pointed out that the general public, including the media, is starting to understand and offer to help. She made clear that the nonprofit sector is built using the freedom that Romanians gained after the fall of communism in 1989. And she had hope for the future of the sector, claiming that NGOs are playing an increasingly larger role in Romanian society.

Now that I am reliving the day of June 12th, I feel even more lucky to be hearing multiple different viewpoints on the major issues in Romanian society. In one way, Romania is a very old society, with traditions and culture from the Roman Empire and earlier. Yet in another way, Romania is a very new society, which underwent major transitions in the 20th century that are still affecting everyday life. Who knows what the future will hold?