Amish versus Roma

Roma in Slovakia

photo: Stanisław Ciok

Flipping through a recent issue of the Polish news magazine ‘Polityka’, I had a chance to read an article about the Roma people, perhaps better known Stateside by the more colloquial ‘Gypsies’.  Entitled ‘Romofobia’, the piece describes the challenging situation of the 8 million-strong Roma minority living within Europe.  Poland, where I live for a good chunk of the year, has a number of Roma, though not nearly as many as nearby countries such as Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

As I thought through the issues raised in the article, I was struck by a number of similarities between the Roma and the Amish-some superficial, others of perhaps greater substance.  And of course there are also extreme cultural differences between Roma and Amish societies.  I thought a brief  comparison of these two disparate, culturally distinct groups may be of interest.

To a large degree, Roma live separate from society, due to differences in language and cultural practice, just as the Amish do.  Aspects of both groups are romanticized by the majority population—the Roma, as evidenced by the popularity of Gypsy restaurants, music, and folklore throughout Europe, and the Amish, in the tourist industry and pop portrayals of the culture.

Both groups have high birth rates compared to the general populations of the countries they inhabit.  Both have something of a ‘transient’ mindset–the Amish ‘in the world but not of the world’, on the planet but briefly, on the way to an eternal kingdom–the Roma, eternally stateless yet traveling to all corners of the world, wherever pastures may seem greener at the time.

Amish house

Like the Amish, the Roma are not a group one associates with placing a high emphasis on education.  Yet across the board, the Amish do tend to recognize the functional value of a solid eight grades of schooling.  Parents typically take a keen interest in their children’s scholastic upbringing, being actively involved in the selection of their teachers, and also visiting school while in session and caring for the upkeep of facilities.

The Roma have traditionally been known to stop at a primary school education or even forego most of that, placing stress on experience and age over book-learning. A 2007 EU study on Bulgarian Roma shows that only 60-77% of Bulgarian Roma enroll in primary education, compared with 90-94% of the non-Roma Bulgarian population.  A mere 6-12% of Bulgarian Roma enroll in secondary education.  And enrollment does not equal attendance, as apparently many Roma youth are frequently absent.

Recognizing that this is likely at the core of the Roma social problems, governments and NGOs, to varying degrees have pressed for incentives and have used methods to coerce the Roma into sending their children to school.  One example is by providing housing in exchange for school attendance.

This final, somewhat dubious comparison of the Amish and Roma approaches to education was the last similarity I could come up with.  Now some differences:

In North America, the majority of the non-Amish population has a positive or at least indifferent attitude to their buggy-equipped neighbors.  It’s probably safe to say that only a small minority of North Americans show outward disdain or prejudice towards the Amish people.  With the Roma, these numbers flip.  The Roma are typically looked down upon and even despised, much of which is based in stereotypes which have, rightly or wrongly, persisted for generations.

Roma Girl

Positive and negative perceptions are based on the characteristics the public wrongly or rightly assigns to each group.  Ask an American what qualities he connects with the Amish, and you’ll often hear mentioned largely desirable concepts such as industriousness, humility, and honesty.  Conversely, associations readily attached to the Roma include thievery, violence, and sloth.  To the present day, many have undoubtedly seen the Roma as something of a social plague, one to be driven as far away as possible.

Having suffered forced sterilization, segregated schooling, and even, at the hands of Hitler’s regime, extermination, Roma have had a long history of persecution in Europe, which continues, albeit to a lesser degree, even today (come to think of it, perhaps historical European persecution is another similarity between the Roma and Anabaptists I’ve overlooked).  The most glaring example is recent measures in Italy sanctioned by prime minister Berlusconi’s government, calling for ‘express deportations’, dismantling Roma settlements, fingerprinting and requisite identity cards identifying ethnicity.

Poland has just in the past week decided to liquidate its segregated schooling for Roma children, which it will gradually phase out over the next two years.  The Polish government has also decided to examine its policy of sending masses of Roma children to schools for slow learners, often only on the basis of the youngsters having a weak command of the native language.  Segregatory policies such as these are not only found in Poland.

Amish Girl

The impact of formative time spent outside the classroom also cannot be overlooked.  While you often find the typical Amish youngster helping out around the house, barn, or shop, sadly it’s not unusual to find his Roma counterpart learning the begging trade with his mother on the street.  Unemployment runs rife in Roma society.  Roma can be found asking for handouts on European street corners, sometimes quite aggressively.  It’s not unusual in Krakow to see Roma board city trams, equipped with a creaky violin or accordion.  On concluding their (often quite well-rendered) song, they proceed to pass the cup around.

Amish Girls

The Amish, while not fully assimilating, have adopted certain customs and have successfully integrated in the majority culture, producing a net contribution to American society.  While according to a Polish informant who works with the Roma, some do assimilate over time, the typical Roma frustrate outsiders in sometimes seeming to not even be interested in the idea, thumbing their collective nose at the dominant culture.  Discriminatory, often institutionalized policies towards the Roma certainly do not help to combat this attitude, however.

Roma in regards to self-sufficiency can seem the complete opposite of the Amish, and have a reputation for taking advantage of governmental support, exploiting benefit loopholes when possible.  Roma women have been known to have many children, which some claim is motivated in part by childbirth subsidies.  Due to this, when countries with Roma populations entered the EU in 2004 and 2007, some nations with little or no experience with Roma found themselves attractive destinations, often to their dismay, as one of the provisions of EU membership is freedom of movement.

It may seem I’ve painted with a big brush here.  Within the Roma diaspora there is a significant degree of diversity on issues ranging from social mobility to dialectical differences, just as there is among the Amish.  In certain countries, Roma have been able to assimilate and become contributing members of society, notably in England and other Western European nations, where Roma are found in politics, all the way up to the European parliament level.  ‘Polityka’ points out that for Roma in countries of the former Yugoslavia, which have constructed an education and information system in the Roma language, relations are better than in those that haven’t, such as Slovakia or Romania.

At the same time, statistics tend to back the general claims up.  As one would expect, the Amish generally have very low levels of unemployment, crime, drug use, and other negative social indicators.  According to UNICEF data from 2005, the vast majority of Roma in Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, three countries among those having the highest Roma populations, live below the poverty line.   Crime stats reveal disproportionate numbers of Roma in prisons, with for example 25% of female prisoners in Spain’s jails being Roma, while Roma in Spain comprise, at most, 4% of the general population.

The Amish and the Roma are among the most outwardly recognizable and most socially separate cultural groups of note on their respective continents.  Despite this, the cultures themselves, and each group’s relations with the dominant society, are worlds apart.

The ‘Romofobia’ article cites a Polish Roma expert who describes the Roma situation as an ‘enormous political, social, and economic challenge’.  Demonizing the Roma has been the easy, and often politically expedient, thing to do.  Manifestations such as a recent vigorous protest in Nowy Sacz (a southern Polish city with a high Roma population) against a proposed housing development for the Roma and other low-income groups, show that the Cyganie are far from being accepted by the typical European man-on-the-street, despite some recent institutional policy change towards the group.  Travelling Roma get nothing near the welcome that migrating Amish often do by non-Amish recognizing the economic and cultural benefits of having the peculiar outsiders in their midst.

Is the Roma problem one that can be improved upon?  Much will likely depend on the political will of local leaders and efforts of national and international groups that work to improve the Roma lot.  Cultures may not be able to be changed through-and-through (nor is that by any means necessary desirable), but they can be influenced and encouraged to compromise for their own good and that of the society which hosts them.  Thoughtful, well-executed policy, with strong incentives for education would be a good start.

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    1. Marc

      The most glaring example is recent measures in Italy sanctioned by prime minister Berlusconi’s government, calling for ‘express deportations’, dismantling Roma settlements, fingerprinting and requisite identity cards identifying ethnicity.

      The Italian government is deporting Roma who are in Italy illegally, and destroying camps that were erected without the proper authorization (i.e. illegally). It is not persecution to expect members of a minority group to obey the same laws as everyone else.

    2. Marc

      Most recent Roma arrivals in Italy are EU nationals, but I believe that only around 40% of these arrivals have the proper documentation, if I’m remembering the numbers I’ve seen correctly. Some Roma have been in Italy for hundreds of years and are, as far as I’m aware, Italian citizens. But the bulk of the Roma currently in Italy moved there when the EU expanded to include Romania.

      Regarding the fingerprinting program, it is being carried out on everyone in Italy (Italian, Roma, Albanian, whatever) so that it will be non-discriminatory while still allowing the government to achieve the legislation’s original aim of better tracking child laborers and beggars, which really are rife among the Roma.

      Majority-minority interactions are complex, but my impression is that minorities incur the most resentment when they either seriously under- or overachieve relative to the majority. Market dominant minorities like the Jews in Europe or the Chinese in Malaysia become targets of pogroms carried out by members of the relatively worse-off majority, who resent seeing the “other” in a position of relative affluence. The LA riots in 1992 were sparked by the outcome of the Rodney King trial but quickly degenerated into an ugly racial pogrom against successful Korean and other Asian immigrant storekeepers by their much less affluent black neighbors. On the other hand, Italians are burning down gypsy camps – as you pointed out – because the gypsies are perceived (and statistics support the perception) that, as a population, they are far more criminal than native Italians.

      As a whole, people don’t really perceive the Amish as being either relatively wealthy like LA’s Korean storekeepers or troublemakers like Europe’s Roma, so people have a tendency to be more positively predisposed to them. Of course you’ll always get the stupid, drunk teenager who throws a rock at the “weirdo in a buggy,” but that’s a very different thing for the Amish from having their stores and homes burned down.

    3. Roma and other minority groups held to same standards?

      Marc very good point which I agree with. As I understand it though, with the freedom of movement allowed among member countries of the EU, it can be very difficult to deport someone for illegally residing in a country. Maybe if they are undocumented, which may be the case here. Some may be non-EU, but as I understand it, alot, if not most, are EU nationals. Apparently the fingerprinting and so on, as I understand it, was directed solely at the Roma, so in this situation I think there would be a case to be made for that being a discriminatory policy.

      And the ‘dismantling’ I refer to is definitely justified if it’s there illegally. The government has the right to take it down, point well taken. Worth mentioning though is that certain parts of society is also taking it upon themselves to do the same by attacking and burning Roma camps, including a legal one in Rome the day following the ‘fingerprint census’ the government is apparently carrying out after all.

      Minority groups should be held to the same standards–but in the real world there are numerous exceptions, as we see among our own Amish (religious exemptions for army service, schooling; Social Security), minority preferences in university admissions, etc.

      An interesting question is whether Roma, if they enjoyed the good public opinion and organized representation which the Amish have had, would be able to acquire formalized legal exemptions/privileges too(whatever those might be)? I think alot rests upon public perception and support, and with public opinion the way it is on the Roma, it would be doubtful.

      I really think the Roma situation needs honest effort from both sides to see progress. And a prerequisite to that is both sides actually wanting progress. Which at times is questionable.

    4. Helen Parnell-Berry

      Erik, another fascinating write up on your blog. However, this time I have to take issue with what you said about the Roma here in the UK. They are known as Gypsy/Travellers. They are supposed to have the same rights as everyone else here in the UK. Sadly, this is often not the case.
      As I’ve told you before, my daughter studied anthropology at university and has recently graduated. For her dissertation she wrote about the social and cultural differences between Gypsies/Travellers and non-Gypsies (Gorgias). She had real problems with Traveller liaison officials on the local county and district councils (The area we live in has the largest Gypsy/Traveller population in the UK).
      There is discrimination and predjudice. Misinformation and ignorance. Because of the Gypsies wanting to preserve their culture they feel that sending their children to mainstream schools is not helpful to the cultural diversity that they strive to maintain. Also, they feel that their children learn everything they need to know by the time they are 11 years old. They feel that secondary education is a waste of time. However, they send their children to school so that they don’t get into trouble with the authorities.
      Because of the mainstream views about Gypsies (i.e that they are lazy thieves that live off the state; not MY view I hasten to add) they don’t have the same voice here that the Amish have in the US.
      There are many misconceptions about this ancient people, whatever you want to call them whether it’s Roma, Gypsy, Gitanos or Travellers; until both sides make the effort to talk and LISTEN to each other those minconceptions will continue.
      Rant over…..sorry.
      I should get my daughter to email her dissertation to you.

    5. bunchesofun

      I found your article quite interesting as we adopted our (Roma) son from Ukraine and saw first hand the view people had of the Roma. Finding homes for orphaned Roma children is somewhat the same as finding homes for African American children in the system. They are not seen as the most “desirable” children to adopt. We have contact with our son’s birth family and indeed they live in a home that looks nearly identical to the one shown in your piece. I don’t know what the answer is, I just know the problem is huge.

    6. Marc


      Black children are adopted out of foster care at the same rate as white children. They are overrepresented in the system because they enter the system at a far higher rate than white children, which is due to the fact that they suffer far higher rates of abuse and neglect than white children. They also spend a slightly longer time in the system because a larger number are taken care of by kinship caregivers (aunts, grandmothers, etc…), and kinship care isn’t considered a permanency option for children once they have entered the foster care system, though there are two bills in Congress (HR 3607 and S 3038) that might change that. BUT… that is neither here nor there. The point is that the idea that black children are overrepresented in the system because evil whites won’t adopt them is a myth which slanders whites (who adopt upwards of 30% of black kids being adopted out of foster care) as racist while letting blacks completely off the hook for their elevated rates of child abuse and neglect. Stop it. Stop absolving people of bad behavior because they are in a minority and trying to twist the truth to blame the majority population. It is counterproductive.

      1. Ellen C Cassidy

        Let the Hatred Stop !!!!

        I am a Social Worker and I can assure you that much of what you are saying is untrue. Yes there are many black children in the foster care systems, but if you take a look at the current data and statistics you will see the rates of black children in the foster care system are high in inner-cities where drugs and poverty levels are very high. Not all children in the foster care system are there because of physical abuse, many children are removed from homes for neglect which could simply mean there parents were unable to care for them financially, their parents could be deceased, mentally ill or incarcerated. I am a social worker in Helena Montana, where the percentage rate of African Americans is only 2 percentage of the population. If you lived here or white children would far out number any other race in the foster care system. It depends on the demographics of each state. There are many contributing factors that lead to abuse no ethnicity or race is immune abuse is prevalent in every country, culture and race. It is a horrible reality. And instead of pointing fingers and or making assumptions that are not based of fact doesn’t help. And yes there are many many white families who adopt black children, and if you do a little research you will find black families who have adopted white children. Tele-evangelist Creflo Dollar has two adopted white children. Actress Victoria Rowell adopted a daughter who is white, the point is when are we all going to start treating each other as one nation under God. There is good,bad and ugly in everyone. We see it in the media each and everyday. Hate and wickedness is color blind. When will we stop bashing each other, being divided, it goes against everything our constitution stands for. I am so tiered of Americans bashing each other. Where does it end ?

    7. Segregation of Roma people by governments in Poland, Italy, other European countries

      The Roma issue is a hard one for me because the values that seem to be most dominant in that culture are ones that repel me personally. Generally speaking, someone that shows no desire to even take the first steps to improve their own lot themselves should not be coddled by government. Yet at the same time, some of these governments have active policies in place that do nothing to help the problem and rather further it. And I’m not talking about something that happened 50 or 100 years ago to these people’s grandparents and ancestors, but active policies going on today. Specifically, the segregated schooling and sending disproportionate numbers of Roma youth on the basis of not knowing the country’s official language. I think it would be hard to imagine sth like that taking place in America today, and this is the supposedly more-enlightened EU we are talking about.

      Poland announced that they’d revoke the first part of this package only last Friday after it was publicized in the media, and that they’d take a look at the second. But on the other hand, no telling what parents of non-Roma Polish will do when they learn their children will be attending class with a large group of Roma kids. I imagine some will do what they can to send their children somewhere else, which may mean you end up with a similar situation.

      I can perhaps understand the sentiment but certainly can’t justify the actions of governments who employ the sweep-the-problem-under-the-rug methods as well as those who say perform arson attacks on these Roma settlements, some of which have been legally built.

      Those governments running these policies are shooting themselves in the foot and it will take will from both sides to deal with the issue, especially considering that there are 8 million Roma and with a high birth rate in a demographically shrinking Europe. I think if you continue to either officially or non-officially segregate members of this group you are just going to have a much bigger problem to deal with down the road,and a weakened ability to act.

      The Italy numbers I saw were 150,000 Roma total, with 70,000 Italian Roma and the rest were said to be mainly Romanian and former Yugoslavia. To be frank I am not up to speed on what happens when someone lacks the proper documentation in the EU. As I understand a significant number of Roma lack identification. With most of the EU in Schoengen they would be able to freely travel through around 25 countries without a border check.

      The information I read said nothing about fingerprinting every citizen in Italy…might have been omitted but if so that is a major detail- especially in our recent cultural climate which fears government invasiveness (and which I imagine in socialist-leaning Europe would be even more intense), I would frankly be surprised if the majority Italian population just stuck their thumbs out without protest. But again, I don’t have perfect information here.

    8. Roma private schools and adhering to cultural standards

      Helen thanks for your comment! and I’d be glad if you or your daughter shared more info, even the thesis.

      I found what you wrote here interesting:

      Because of the Gypsies wanting to preserve their culture they feel that sending their children to mainstream schools is not helpful


      they feel that their children learn everything they need to know by the time they are 11 years old. They feel that secondary education is a waste of time

      …because it sounds akin to the arguments the Amish have used in favor of their own schooling. I’ve never heard of a Roma private school however. If that were the case it may be an interesting way to approach the situation. Of course you would have to have it run something along the lines of the way the Amish do, with kids learning almost solely in the dominant language and having to adhere to government standards. I wonder if anything like that has been tried.

      Bunchesoffun thanks alot for sharing as well, what I found fascinating is that you said you still have contact with your son’s birth family. It must be a positive situation for everyone involved, I gather, or you wouldn’t continue to do so–I’m thinking more about issues for the child–or if I can ask, was that a pre-arranged agreement when you adopted?

    9. Cris

      “Rom” people, not “Roma”.
      Roma is an italian city, Rom are people from Romania, or gipsy if you prefere.

    10. Honestly speaking

      The reason there exist segregated schools for Roma is because many Roma themselves want to be segregated so to preserve their culture and language.

      The US forces integration which is equally as wrong as forcing seregation. People should have a right to self-determination and not be forced either to segregate or integrate.

    11. someindian


      This is such an interesting thing to observe as an indian. The roma are known to have emigrated from northern india 1500 or so years ago.

      What might not be as well known in EU is that we have their ‘cousins’ that live the same lifestyle in india. (banjara’s etc). I grew up with them ‘coming’ by each year and making a living doing similar things. The difference is that in india, there is much more of a ‘let live’ attitude than in EU. There is generally little friction, if at all. It is truly a melting pot where different cultures coexist, without having to be ‘assimilated’. EU and US (European descendants rather) clearly have little tolerance for this. That’s a shame

    12. Slightly-Handled-Order-Man

      I’ve seen documentaries about these people, but don’t know too much about them, I did no that they where Asian in origin. The last thing on TV I saw was this bizarre British filmed, but TLC aired extravagant wedding series featuring young and over the top gypsy couples going far beyond their means in either England or Ireland, or maybe it was Whales, anyway, it was so dumb and the story lines where so feeble that I’m glad I no longer have access to TLC. Another thing they have in common with the Amish, poor representation on train-wreck television channels.

    13. Bulgarin AMerican

      Amish versus Roma

      Amish vs Roma? That must be a joke. Amish vs the Pacific Ocean would make more sense. There is no reason on Earth to mention Amish and Roma in the same sentence.

    14. Lara

      Whites are discriminated against in South Africa. They are not hired in the public sector at all and in the private sector, 80 percent of the jobs are for “Black, Indian, mixed race” only. There is a political party called the “Economic Freedom Fighters” or “EFF” that keep calling for the 4.5m White South Africans to be murdered like “Hitler killed the Jews”. Whites are only 8 percent of the entire population of South Africa and are blamed for all its problems. Oh and I am too young to remember Apartheid so no use blaming me for that history. It is worth knowing that my British ancestors came to South Africa to kill the Afrikaners (descendants of The Dutch from The Netherlands) in a war over gold. This event along with many others, had nothing to do with “Apartheid”, a system I can’t even remember.

    15. Lara

      English South Africa

      On a lighter note, because my ancestors came from Britain, I too am referred to as “English” so I found it funny (as in funny laughter ha ha) that the Amish call the rest of America “English” and have their own language, Pennsylvanian Dutch (Duits lol). My counterparts, the Afrikaners (sometimes called “Boers” and descended from the Dutch of Holland / The Netherlands) speak a dialect of Dutch (Nederlandisch or Nederlands, the language of Menno Simmonds). Us “English” South Africans call them “Dutchmen” which they hate lol! The only difference is us “English” do know how to speak, read and write in “Afrikaans”, their “Dutch” dialect. Dutch (the language of Holland) came from German long ago and there are words like “alles,wolke,antwoord” etc that are the same. That is “everything,clouds and answer”. Yes, I do know that “Duits” or “Deutsch” refers to German lol!