Growing poverty, violence and prejudice against Hungary's Roma have exposed the fissures in Hungarian society and have left the Roma facing a bleak and uncertain future.
A heavy rainstorm overshadowing his concert in downtown Budapest didn't bother the young Roma singer and special ambassador of the European Union. Ferenc "Caramel" Molnar, seemed more concerned about clouds hanging over the future of fellow Gypsies, also known as Roma. They are suffering of a new wave of fire bombings, the rise of the far right and poverty.
Caramel, whose nickname refers to the color of his skin, is among the few Roma to have been able to escape rampant poverty after winning the Hungarian talent search show Megasztar, to become a megastar himself. The 28-year-old sang about life's challenges this weekend at a picnic for Roma and non-Roma in a Budapest park.
The first-ever gathering of its kind was aimed at easing tensions between the two communities. And that is necessary, explained Caramel. Two decades after communism collapsed, Hungary's Roma face new challenges.
"Of course I was very young when communism disappeared. But I can say that the transition has brought poverty and stress to many Roma," he told Deutsche Welle.
Yet, he wants to encourage the Roma to build a better future, despite discrimination and violence that killed at least nine Roma in the last few years.
Caramel is one of the EU's special ambassadors for the 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.
At the weekend concert, rain-soaked crowds watched him perform a mixture of Roma and Western style music and songs. "Let's sit around the table," was a slogan at the open-air event, where Roma and non-Roma lined up for traditional Hungarian goulash soup with bread.
"This is a symbol of unity," explained chief organizer Eszter Eva Nagy, a 27-year-old non-Roma Hungarian.
But Nagy admits that her youthful ideals often seem far removed from daily reality after the Movement for a Better Hungary, or Jobbik, entered parliament last week as the country's third largest political party.
Jobbik has been criticized for verbal attacks against Gypsies. The party also supports the banned paramilitary group Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, which marched through Roma villages in uniforms and flags resembling Hungary's pro-Nazi regime during World War II.
Jobbik denies wrongdoing, saying it works in the interest of Hungarians.
The independent Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) suggests however that these and other groups are contributing to an atmosphere of hatred towards the roughly 800,000 Roma living in Hungary.
ERRC Programs Director Tara Bedard told Deutsche Welle that there have been fire bombings against Roma families in recent weeks. Nobody was injured, but she explains that the violence was similar to earlier, deadly, attacks.
"In the last two years, nine people, nine Roma, have been murdered in Hungary. The persons believed to be responsible for those attacks have been taken into police custody. However, the trial of those individuals has not yet started.”
And the arrests did little to ease tensions, she said.
"Since those individuals were taken into police custody, numerous attacks have taken place in the meanwhile. Most recently in March and April there were a number of attacks targeting Roma in two different locations in the country."
Activists say Roma, who often lack adequate housing and basic facilities, are suffering from attacks and discrimination across Europe at a time when people are seeking scapegoats for the continent's economic difficulties.
"There is a lot of hidden tension," explained Nagy. "And if we can speak about those things, or if we can just spend one nice afternoon together with another, different person, I think it's something we want to reach."
Inspired by Obama
Nagy said she was inspired to organize Saturday's rare picnic by her experiences in the United States, where she worked as a volunteer for President Barack Obama's election campaign.
Just as Obama became the first African-American president of the US, Nagy hopes qualified Roma will one day be able to take a more prominent role in Hungary's political life and help create a more peaceful future for the country.
That's music to the ears of Caramel, relaxing after an eventful concert.
"Still, we have all kinds of people here. Black and white people. They are able to talk with each other."
It shows, he says, that not all hope is lost for Hungary - and Europe.
Author: Stefan J. Bos
Editor: Martin Kuebler
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