BERLIN — Numbering roughly 12 million across Europe, the Roma people make up the continent’s largest ethnic minority. A new institute in Berlin aims to empower Roma people by showcasing their arts and culture.
The European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, the first organization of its kind dedicated exclusively to the Roma, will feature the works of performers, artists and thinkers. After four years of planning, it is to open in September. The Council of Europe and the philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, among others, have supported the project.
Those supporters and other stakeholders gathered on Thursday at the German Federal Foreign Office for a celebratory event featuring various speakers, performances, and the arts exhibition, “Transcending the Past, Shaping the Future,” which includes the works of contemporary artists from eight different countries.
“There were times when many of us felt discouraged,” said Zeljko Jovanovic, chairman of the board of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, regarding efforts to establish the institute. “What made us carry on is the basic proposition that a story of who we are should be told by us — that the power of defining who we are lies in our own hands. Today this proposition is the founding principle of the ERIAC.”
Ferenc Snétberger, a guitarist and composer, said he agreed to perform at the event to help demonstrate the rich culture of the Roma people. Emphasizing the importance of empowering Roma children, he said he hoped the new institute would inspire their next generation of artists.
Speakers on Thursday, including Mr. Soros; the German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth; and the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, lamented that Europe’s Roma still experience discrimination regularly. Members of the Roma community spoke of pressure to abandon their ethnic identities, with Mr. Jovanovic describing the heritage as a “source of shame” for many.
Supporters of the institute hope that the project will serve as a newfound source of pride for Europe’s Roma and promote more positive views of them.
“Today we are focusing on what the Roma culture can contribute to open the eyes of people across Europe to the richness of its culture, and therefore to help with doing away with prejudices and stereotypes about Roma people,” Mr. Jagland said. “This institute will of course be a very important place for empowering the Roma people itself to make it proud of its history and culture, but also of course to spread the Roma culture across Europe.”
Mr. Soros, whose charitable foundation will provide the institute with 200,000 euros per year (about $220,000) through its five-year start-up phase, said the best way to support the people is to position them to advocate for themselves.
“It is not a project given to the Roma community, but a project by the Roma community,” Mr. Roth said. “This is what our liberal and democratic societies should be based on.”
He also noted the importance of acknowledging Germany’s past, including the genocide that took place during the Nazi era. Hundreds of thousands of Europe’s Roma were killed during the Holocaust.
Timea Junghaus, director of the institute, said her team was searching for office space in central Berlin. She added that the organization will focus not only on arts and culture, but also on Holocaust research and how best to build on the works of related organizations across Europe.
“The European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture is a result of the activism and hard labor of three Roma generations,” Ms. Junghaus said.
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