Why is the 8th of April the International Roma Day?

Each year has 365 days (every four years even 366), and each one of them is worth being celebrated – every sunrise gives us new hopes, as well as the chance to achieve new goals. But in the horizontal sequence of days, there are such that stand out significantly and reorganize the rest of them. Precisely those days turn the astronomical years into historical time, which marks “the rise”/awakening of the individual, the community and the state. The sense saturation of specific dates is part of forming identity, whether it is common or personal. But why exactly the 8th of April? What is the story and the meaning of this date?

On the 8th of April we mark the celebration of the first World Roma Congress, which took place exactly on this date in the year 1971 in London, where several key symbols were accepted in regards with the contemporary Roma identity:

  • The Roma flag – today it is well-known that the blue and green parts (symbolizing the sky and the earth respectively) and the red Indian circle “chakra” (symbolizing the Indian roots of the community and their long way to Europe). The participants in this congress decided that this variant will be the official Roma flag (there were other variations before that);
  • The Roma anthem – the song “Jelem, Jelem” (also written “Gelem, Gelem”, “Djelem, Djelem”) which means “I wandered, I wandered”. The song is pretty common amongst the Roma people in the Balkans from before the Congress in London. One of the organizers is the Serbian Roma Zeljko Jovanovic authorizes/alters the lyrics of the song to include the memory of the “black squadrons” and the Holocaust, as well as the opening of the modern Roma movement. Precisely, this song was chosen as the Roma anthem.
  • The appeal to all the governments, states and organizations to use the term “Roma”/Romani”, instead of “Gypsies “,”Tsigan “, etc. In fact, the word “Rroma” (or Rromani) was literally “chosen”, because back then, as well as nowadays, in Europe there is a large number of Roma groups, who opt for different denominations (such as Sinte, Kalo, Beasha/Rudari, Millet, and many others). This is an essential peculiarity of the modern Roma identity – it includes all of the subtypes of the Roma identity. This is why the European Commission, The Council of Europe and many other international organizations opt for the name “Roma” as collective term, aka “umbrella term”.
  • The appeal “Opre Roma” becomes a universal call of the Roma movement, whose translation should not be taken literally, but figuratively as “Wake up, Roma”.

The intents of Roma in different countries, as well on European/international level, to self organize initiated long before 1971; Bulgaria is one of the first countries, in which a Roma organization was founded – on December 19, 1905 as a reaction to the deprivation of their voting rights in 1901. After WWII, these efforts became more expressed and obtained pan-European status. The main reason is the Holocaust against Roma people during the Nazi regime: at least 500,000 Roma were slaughtered by the “black squadrons”, the Nazi military and paramilitary formations. This is how the Roma population in Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Romania and Yugoslavia, as well as in many other countries occupied by the Nazis, became subject to systematic persecution and annihilation. Nearly three decades after these events, the Romani Holocaust (aka Porajmos) was kept unseen and unrecognized. This accelerated additionally the determination of Romani people to create their own movement, to receive recognition for their identity and culture. The first World Roma Congress in London is a natural result of their efforts. Roma gathered to say “We exist, we are here, we are proud of our language, culture and identity and we will be a factor for our societies!”

The Roma movement did not begin on the 8th of April 1971, but this is a key date and this is why it was chosen as the International Roma Day. Because the memory of the Roma Holocaust and the efforts for its recognition is one of the main factors that lead to the first World Roma Congress in London, on the 8th of April we honor the nearly half a million Roma victims during WWII. In reality, the 2nd of August is officially accepted as the European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, but it is common to pay tribute on the 8th of April.

Many times I have been asked if we should celebrate this day in such a festive way, since there are very few Roma families who acknowledge it at home. I have always responded that it is necessary! In fact, the 8th of April marks the beginnings of the Roma awakening. Throughout the history of every nation we can observe a very important transition – from patriarchy and tradition to modernity. We denote “awakening”, the time in which patriarchy breaks down and individuality becomes more active, defining the behavioral models and social life for themselves and their communities. Hundreds of generations of Roma have followed and reproduced the same models of living, some of them were part of discrimination stereotypes and prejudice, the attempts for assimilation by the majority. The first World Roma Congress ceased this “tradition” and became the symbol of Roma Awakening. Therefore it is important to celebrate this day, to organize variety of events, through which we commemorate the victims of the Roma Holocaust, to recognize the efforts of Roma activists and awaken the community, to build bridges to the majority and not let another genocide take place, or hare or Holocaust… And to wave proudly the blue-green flag of tolerance, Roma identity and awakening.

It is not a coincidence that the 8th of April is celebrated by all (or nearly all) of the Roma organizations all over the world, by the European Union, the Council of Europe, and numerous other institutions and governments. We, from Center Amalipe, mark the 8th of April every year with hundreds of events throughout the country, because this day is key for the modern Roma identity.

The other important date in our calendar is Vasilitsa/ The Roma New Year when we celebrate Roma Culture Day. There are many questions regarding this day as well: why it should be celebrated, since it is not recognized by some of the Romani subgroups, and in others – it is already forgotten… The days that are highly saturated in meaning are exactly like that – they build the identity and this is why they organize the rest of the days around them, they turn us into creators of worth and events, creators of our new existence.

Deyan Kolev