My experience as a Scottish Traveller.
My experience as Gypsy/Traveller in Scotland has been better than most, I was always aware of how lucky I was to go through life almost free from direct discrimination, I grew up listening to awful stories from my cousins of them being beating daily by non-Travellers just for attending school and being open about their ethnicity. I know many Gypsy/Travellers who hid their ethnicity in school just to receive a good education without fear of discrimination, it honestly makes me sick to think that people are scared to be themselves in that young developing ages where its most important to find yourself, from a young age you are told to alter your personality and mannerisms and to act differently around the settled community to protect yourself. This is creating a kind of us versus them mentality, we are isolating ourselves from normal life. It’s so damaging to a young growing mind to always feel the anxiety, the fear of judgement, over something you have no power to change.
I attended school freely simply because I grew up in a small town that was near the islands, over the years they had become accustomed to Travellers coming in and out of the town to visit the islands during the summer for work, they over the years got so used to Travellers living in their community they didn’t have any prejudice against us. I was always aware of the racism people of my ethnicity faced, I had from a young age experienced some nasty comments from mean children, everyone in my town knew I was a traveller but all through primary and high school I barely spoke openly about it, I had this idea that I don’t have to mention it unless they ask me. I was neglecting this huge part of my life because I was scared of how people would react. , I am so glad that part of me is gone; the fear of how people will react is gone. I am so proud of my ethnicity and way of life and I can talk openly about it to anyone. I imagine there will always be some people who just can’t help themselves from making racist jokes or comments, I try not to let it get to me much though, I know many have it way more worse off.
My family however indirectly faced discrimination daily, my sister unfortunately has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, our living conditions were not the best as we grew up on a council run site in a caravan, there was almost no space for my sister to move freely around the caravan in her wheelchair, and to make matters worse it was very difficult for her to move freely outside as well due to the bad conditions of the road, it is made from very cheap materials and is bumpy with lots of giant speedbumps very difficult for a wheelchair to navigate over, the site itself was in a disused area miles from the nearest town and surrounded by wooded areas and industrial estates just as all the sites in Scotland are, always out of sight and in places no one else would want to live. My mother fought almost daily to get better facilities for my disabled sister just the basic needs for her were impossible to achieve due to blatant racism from the local council and health services. I remember one particularly bad instance where my sisters wheelchair had broken due to years of not being replaced or even serviced, it was basically falling apart, and because of this the school bus could not risk taking her on the bus to school and back due to safety concerns, of course my mother immediately phoned the relevant health services to organise getting her a new wheelchair, it was an emergency case but it took them weeks to provide my sister with a new chair. We were completely aware of the fact that other disabled people living in the same area had access to these services on a same day basis. My sister missed out on weeks of her education because of this. I could continue on with millions more stories like this, my mother has had to fight every day of her life just for the basic things for my sister that other people take for granted. She was missing out on the most basic of human rights just because we lived in a caravan and not a house.
I’ve heard the same stories millions of times where in the UK ambulances refused to do their job correctly and enter a Gypsy/Traveller site to provide emergency medical assistance because they feared for their own safety, they would park their vehicle at the entrance of the site and refuse to get out, they wait for you to bring the person in need of help to them, and load them into the vehicle manually without help. Surely that’s illegal or at the very least immoral but it happens countless times and nothing is done about it. Luckily we have never been in that situation personally and I hope we never are, but it could very easily happen with the discrimination we face.
I have always been passionate about activism and human rights because of the conditions I grew up in. I saw injustice so often it became normal to me; I thought these situations were normal for everyone. This mentality is very common among Gypsy/Travellers, they become so accustomed to discrimination they stop fighting it and just learn to live with it. The fact that we are so accepting of it leads people to believe that it is acceptable; they believe it is okay because no one questions them. Racism against Gypsy/Travellers is considered the last acceptable form of racism because it is accepted; hardly anyone stands up against it. This is unacceptable and needs to be treated as such; people will continue on with their racist behaviour until they are told it is wrong, they have to know we will no longer accept it.
From a young age my mother took me along to MECOPP (Minority Ethnic Carers Of People Project) meetings, she like me is very interested in equal rights and activism work, there I learned a lot about other people’s experiences, MECOPP I seem to remember always focused a lot on mental health, it is a proven fact that Gypsy/Traveller men are at higher risk of suicide than non-Travellers, the risk of suicide for young Gypsy/Traveller men are seven times higher than that of the general UK male population, I believe this is directly linked to the fact that the government and local authorities are making it impossible to travel in a caravan, in Scotland we call this act shifting. Shifting is extremely important to Gypsy/Travellers, it is a big part of our culture, and it is a tradition. However over the past 50 years or so the government and local authorities have been shutting down traditional stopping places that my family have been staying on for hundreds of years, they take away these grounds soaked in our history to build new housing schemes. Because all of the camps have been shut down Gypsy/Travellers are forced to pull their caravan onto the side of the road or in carparks, places that they don’t want to be, being in these well build up residential areas causes a strain on the local communities because they don’t want us there either, and therefore we are discriminated against and moved on. It is getting harder and harder to be a Traveller in this day and age. My people are getting forced into housing because they have nowhere else to go. For a lot of Gypsy/Travellers being in a house and not being able to move around causes depression and makes trying to have a traditional job harder. They make it harder for men by discriminating indirectly by introducing new laws that says you need a permit to do certain jobs that from the Travelling community traditionally do and makes it impossible for them to get these permits, they also introduced new driving laws that means you have to go through a separate test for an addition to their license just to make it possible for younger people to tow a caravan, they’re just doing anything they can to make it harder for my community to even live.
I often think that people are trying to stop Gypsy/Traveller from living authentically altogether and placing them in houses to stop them from moving, they think if they cannot travel they are no longer Travellers. However this is obviously not always the case, some Gypsy/Travellers are happily in houses, it just depends on the person because a lot of people prefer housing to caravans, and that is their choice, each case is individual to the person. Being a Gypsy/Traveller is not a case of circumstance, it is a culture, an ethnicity, and you do not have to travel to be a Traveller. This is an extremely damaging misconception that many people from the settled community have.
As I got older I got involved in more organisations that work with Gypsy/Travellers, I am a photographer and I find expressing how I feel and trying to tackle difficult issues faced by my community through my art makes it universally understandable. I have had many photography exhibitions held all over Scotland, all of them have been based on my culture, it has been so encouraging to see my culture and history being displayed in mainstream areas where everyone can see. I hope I have managed to change the perspective of some people. I find that with Gypsy/Travellers the discrimination we face in some cases just steams from an unknowingness of our community, they fear what they do not know. And the travelling culture has always been a very closed off group. I like being able to teach these people who hate my ethnicity meaninglessly something new that they didn’t know, something that will shift their perspective. Photography and art can be understood by everyone I think that’s why I love it so much, a lot of people I know in my community are uneducated but with photos they can look and understand just the same as anyone else. I love that art is so accessible to everyone, regardless of their background.
I have worked with a group in Scotland called Article 12 for many years now; through them in 2017 I got the opportunity to attend the event held in Krakow, Poland every year to commemorate the Roma genocide in Auschwitz every year, Dikh He Na Bister. This event was life changing for me, I learned so much it completely changed my outlook on life. There I met a Roma genocide survivor called Raymond Gureme that inspired me to get more involved in this area of work. His story was simultaneously heart breaking but also so inspiring. Before this event I had barely any experiences with any European Roma, I thought that we were a different type of people, that we had very few similarities, but spending time around Raymond honestly sometimes brought a tear to my eye just with the likeness he had to my own grandfather that’s been dead for many years now, the mannerisms and even the way he spoke were almost identical to me, one particularly strange habit that he had the same as my grandfather was he would flick his ash from his hand-rolled cigarette onto his thigh and wipe it away leaving a horrible ash mark on his clothing, it was like seeing my grandfather again. I know they were of course entirely different people but somehow the same, in the way they are strong old hard working men. It made me realise that we are all the same people regardless of geographical location. I had always been involved in Gypsy/Traveller rights but this almost confirmed my need to do more, my need to work more to help change things.
I then after this joined and help build a new group called the GTYA or Gypsy/Traveller Youth Assembly. Through this group I have had the opportunity to speak at the Scottish Parliament and raise issues that no one talks about, one point I raised that I managed to actually do something about was regarding the site I live in, it is called ‘Travelling Persons Site’ this racist title raised a lot of problems for me and my family and the other families who live on the site. The name places a label on us, on our home; you wouldn’t see that blatant racism anywhere else, in any other community. Why do we need to be labelled in such a way? When I raised this point I remember being asked many times, ‘why does the name bother you?’ my answer to this was why do we need to be labelled like this, grouped together in this name. I am in no way ashamed of my ethnicity but with no other ethnicity or race would local authorities find the need to label in such a way. The name acts almost as a warning. The problems we faced because of this were the following, it was difficult to find delivery services to deliver to our home address because of the name, I remember for about 6 months the postal services refused to enter the site and we had to pick up our mail in the nearest town 7 miles away. It can be difficult to get car insurance because as soon as people hear the address they immediately think of all the stereotypes they’ve heard and car insurance companies assume we will be a liability, that somehow our ethnicity affects our driving abilities. It proved to be very difficult to apply to jobs with this address, I learned to change it on job applications as to not face discrimination, I was denied a placement at an entry level course in a community college where I had the necessary requirements and years of experience doing photography semi-professionally but the interviewer had asked me about my address and refused to conduct the interview after I told him it was where I live, I was meant to get an email saying whether I had got in to the college or not a minimum of two weeks later but I got an email saying no not even 24 hours later. Another instance was my sister had been working at a job she was enjoying for 7 months, and she was doing well at work, her colleagues liked her, she did her job amazingly, she was always receiving compliments about her customer service from patrons who frequented the establishment. However she usually drove to work but one time she was unable to use her car as it was being serviced and she had to use public transport to get to work, her manager saw her get on the bus at the entrance of the site and she was fired that day for no other apparent reason. I raised all these points at parliament and thankfully they listened and about 3 months later the address was changed to a generic street address. This was a big accomplishment for me, as my family had been trying to get the address changed since before I was even born, I am yet to see the positive effects of the address but I am sure there will be many.
Another monumental moment for me was when Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland, publicly addressed the discrimination faced by Gypsy/Travellers, she spoke about it on mainstream television, and she even called it ‘the last acceptable form of racism’. It was amazing to see such a big public figure speak so openly about it on a mainstream platform. In her speech she welcomed the GTYA back to the Scottish Parliament whenever we need. It was very encouraging, it seems in Scotland we have some people in high places who are willing to help, and things are changing slowly.
I am very excited about my new position at ERGO Network because I can’t wait to continue working with Roma as well as Gypsy/Travellers, and to learn more about my culture. And hopefully help change more small things that will help benefit people of my ethnicity. I honestly can’t believe in this day and age we still face this level of discrimination; I can’t even fathom how people dislike a person simply because of where they come from. In most cases the people who hate all Gypsy/Travellers (and Roma alike) indiscriminately haven’t even had an experience with them; they form their opinions on what they see on the media, they have no personal opinions. I can maybe count on one hand how many positive stories about the Travelling communities on any form of media, and all of those have been created by Gypsy/Traveller run organisations.
A few years ago this horrible fake reality show came out regarding Gypsy/Travellers in the UK, it was very popular in the settled community, and it was entirely scripted and made a mockery of travelling culture. It affected my community very badly, for many months even years after Gypsy/Travellers faced discrimination based on what they saw on the show. It was all a myth but people thought it was the truth because they didn’t know any better, it was called ‘my big fat gypsy wedding’ and it was a complete false representation of the travelling culture, I remember I was in school once and kids were making fun of it and clearly directing the comments at me because they knew I was a Traveller, and my teacher was an English man from the settled community, he told the class to stop the comments and said ‘’the show makes a fool of the Travelling community, its completely false, I spent a couple years living with some English Travellers and they were nothing like that, it’s entirely scripted.’’ I really appreciated his comment; I thought it was amazing that he had his own good personal opinions that he was telling impressionable children, I have always remembered his support. I think if more teachers were educated in Travelling culture it would help target discrimination because they can help change the minds of young people, they could educate them, whilst also helping children from the travelling community in the school from feeling ostracized.
However the main issue is I have always believed is the media, I think if mainstream media covered the history of my community (an accurate one) it would help combat Antigypsyism exponentially; it would banish the negative stereotypes and show people from the settled community that we are just like them that they have no reason to discriminate against us. It would provide a personal touch, a face, to all the negative stereotypes, a face that doesn’t fit the stereotypes. We are all different, no two people the exact same, there is good and bad in every single community, you cannot condemn an entire group just because of the acts of a few bad people. We are all just on this Earth together trying to live our lives, why would you want to waste your life hating another so strongly because of something they cannot change? They are wasting their lives on negativity.
In the words of my favourite writer Charles Bukowski, “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing.”