SOFADES, Greece — Dimitris Triantafyllou’s cellphone rings as he drinks Greek coffee at his home in this small, central town.
A local student is on the line asking to talk about an incident on a school bus.
A new driver is refusing to take more than 40 children home from a school for Roma, the traditionally marginalized ethnic community still often described as gypsies.
As president of the local Roma community, Triantafyllou is used to dealing with such incidents. Earlier in the day, he tried to convince the national power company to send a technician to restore electricity to Roma neighborhoods after three days of outages.
"The racism Roma face is not only personal but institutional," he said. "We’ve seen many similar attitudes from the local authorities over the past few months. But we’ve learned to live with the burden and fight for change.”
Prejudice against Roma appears to have been on the rise since October, when police took custody of a blonde, white-skinned 5-year-old named Maria in Farsala — a small town just 24 miles away — because she didn’t resemble the dark-skinned family caring for her.
When the news hit international headlines, European media suggested she may have been the abducted child of an unknown German or Scandinavian couple that had traveled to Greece years ago — or the offspring of a British boy who disappeared in 1991 while on vacation with his family on the Aegean island of Kos.
Neither was true. It turned out that the press had fed into an old stereotype of gypsies as child snatchers.
DNA testing showed that Maria was the child of a Bulgarian Roma couple who gave the little girl away because they couldn't afford to raise her, and the story vanished from the news.
Revelations about the bias did little to change perceptions about Roma in Sofades or elsewhere in Europe, however.
Last year, Amnesty International called the approximately 12 million Roma in Europe “the largest and most disadvantaged minority” on the continent.
In Sofades, a town of 6,000 that’s evenly divided between Roma and “balamos” — what Roma call white Greeks — many Roma live in unheated, jury-rigged houses of asbestos, stone and zinc. Although they patronize local Greek-owned shops, they aren’t welcome in cafes and bars.
“Every one of us has a similar story that shows our exclusion,” said Spyros Mpantis, a 27-year-old unemployed Roma who says he’s been denied coffee in the center of town. “Is this life?”
Greece’s financial crisis has made matters worse. Many Roma families receive financial assistance for low-income households and having more than three children, an issue that’s bred resentment among others.
“The Roma population has become so big that our weak local economy can’t support them,” said Mayor Babis Papadopoulos, who blames high unemployment rates and other problems on the increase in the local Roma population.
However, many Roma can’t buy food without the help.
Roma market owner George Ramantanis says members of his community constantly ask him for free food.
“Until they receive their pensions or welfare benefits every beginning of the month,” he said, “I get nothing.”
In a country where the official unemployment rate remains more than 27 percent, Roma suffer from disproportionally high levels of joblessness.
Some admit breaking the law in order to survive, by using extension power cables to steal electricity from their neighbors, for example.
Others have reverted to their centuries-old occupation of tinkering: roaming the streets to find and sell scrap metal for a few euros.
“If I can’t buy milk for my babies, aren’t I going to steal?” said 53-year-old Vassilis. He says he’s only partly unemployed because Greeks prefer to hire less expensive Albanians and Pakistanis who have flooded the rural Greek labor market in recent years.
“Roma people here do not have food to eat,” he said. “There are no jobs anymore and the balamos look down on us with contempt.”
The rise of the xenophobic far-right Golden Dawn Party thanks to the financial crisis is complicating efforts to bring the Roma into mainstream society. Polls show it’s helping make Greek society become increasingly conservative.
Schools are legally segregated despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights last year that the practice violates the European Convention for Human Rights.
Christos Govaris, an education professor at the University of Thessaly who directs programs for Roma children, believes integration would be the best way to achieve progress.
“The rise of Golden Dawn makes our effort to integrate the Roma community through education much more difficult,” he said. “Twelve years of going to school is a long period of time that could result in mutual acceptance.”
In Sofades’s segregated fourth primary school, where more than 500 Roma students are registered, teachers typically leave for home before the school day ends.
When the Education Ministry attempted to integrate Roma children two years ago, parents organized protests and sit-ins. Some were later seen distributing Golden Dawn leaflets before integration was abandoned.
However, Greece isn’t alone in mistreating Roma, says Eleni Tsetsekou, a consultant on Roma to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.
“There’s no difference in Roma lives in other European countries, or in how they’re confronted by the majority of people,” she said. “Negative stereotypes are always present and deeply rooted.”
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Romanian and Spanish schools also remain segregated between Roma and non-Roma children despite the European court’s decision.
In France, police have dismantled Roma shantytowns and deported even minors, violating laws allowing for the free movement of EU citizens.
In Hungary, local governments have turned off water supplies to Roma districts. In Slovakia, towns have erected concrete barriers to isolate Roma neighborhoods. In Bulgaria, the far-right political group Ataka openly blames Roma for the poverty-stricken Balkan country’s economic ills.
Back in Sofades, Roma leader Triantafyllou says the Greek authorities aren’t helping.
“They want us to be lawful citizens, pay our taxes, enlist in the army,” he said, “But they don’t want us within their society. That’s selective equality.”
Nikolia Apostolou provided additional reporting.