Human rights hero shines light on Romani history

Activist Petre Florin Manole learned a lot about himself from books while he was growing up in Bucharest. The most important, he says, was a volume on the history of the Roma that he discovered in secondary school. That book made Manole, himself Romani, “conscious of my identity, of racism and mechanisms of marginalization.”

Petre Florin Manole sitting with hands clasped (Courtesy of Petre Florin Manole)
Petre Florin Manole during a meeting with Roma constituents in Romania (Courtesy photo)

That discovery has been the engine of his work in the years since he graduated from the University of Bucharest in 2010.

Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the Roma have suffered — and continue to suffer — discrimination in Europe and the Americas.

Just this month, racist graffiti appeared on a tent erected in Bucharest to mark April 8’s International Roma Day, prompting worldwide condemnation. “This represents an aggression against the Roma community and an act of discrimination incompatible with Europe’s core values on human rights,” the World Bank said at the time.

Romania has among the world’s largest Roma populations.

Raising awareness of past, present

Manole sees cases of anti-Roma racism firsthand as a member of Romania’s National Council for Combating Discrimination, a nine-member committee appointed by the parliament that considers complaints of discrimination throughout the country.

Ten years ago, when Manole was just 23 years old, he helped create the Center for Roma Studies at the University of Bucharest. For his part, Manole wanted a government commission to study the history of Roma slavery in Romania. “Roma were slaves for 500 years, but this is completely unknown,” Manole said.

Manole continued getting the word out about the Roma history through his work with Roma Education Fund Romania and the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, two nongovernmental organizations that focus on Romani issues. He participated in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in 2010, furthering his study of human and civil rights.

In commemoration of International Roma Day, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Romani children deserve the same educational opportunities as their peers, Romani families deserve to live their lives free from the fear of violence, and all Romani individuals deserve the opportunity to provide for their families and have their voices heard by their government.”

Manole is optimistic about the Roma’s future: “Helped more or less by the state — sometimes oppressed — the Roma have not only survived, but we have risen up.”

Part of that progress has been in encouraging the Roma of his country to educate themselves about their history in the same way he did as a teenager. “You know what the most dangerous thing in Romania is, right?” he said, adapting a famous line from the U.S. TV show The Wire. “A Roma with a library card. And we have more and more Roma with library cards.”