Stereotyped, misunderstood, and facing discrimination, there are few ethno-cultural groups more in need of advocacy than the world’s Roma.
Dafina Savic understood this early in life, growing up in Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood, and as a young adult she took up the cause.
The Montreal-born daughter of Serbian Roma, now 27, studied Law and Society at Dawson College and graduated in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science at McGill, specializing in comparative politics and international relations.
With that academic base, Savic then launched Romanipé, which translates as Roma identity, a not-for-profit group where she began researching, organizing, and speaking out for fair treatment of Roma in immigration issues and refugee claims.
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“A lot of discrimination against Roma today is based on stereotypes, related to the derogatory term Gypsy,” Savic said while discussing her initiatives, which led to her winning this year’s Young Quebecers Leading the Way Award, presented by the Quebec Community Groups Network.
Image and self-image are part of the problem Roma face, and Savic is trying to change that. She not only seeks to identify and combat “ongoing discrimination against the Roma community,” but to reverse the negative stereotyping of its members.
Because of this negative stereotyping, “those who are positive examples for the community hide away from their Roma identity,” she says, and that fuels the discriminatory cycle.
“Our mission is not only to fight against discrimination but also to empower and mobilize Roma to embrace their identity.”
Romanipé also seeks broader recognition of the Romani genocide during World War II when the Germans murdered as many as 220,000, almost one quarter of the total number of Romani living in Europe. For the past few years, the genocide has been commemorated internationally with ceremonies.
This spring, Savic began working on her Master’s degree on Refugee Law and Forced Migration studies, a new program at the University of London and part of its distance-learning program.
“These are issues we don’t often talk about in Canada,” Savic says.
But things are starting to evolve. A Roma community centre has been established in Toronto since 1998, and its founder, Ronald Lee, is assisting Savic in her work.
In nominating her for the award, the Montreal-born Lee credited Savic with working, at a young age, “to combat the misconceptions and prejudices rampant in Europe and elsewhere that are preventing young Romani people from gaining access to equality in education and employment.”
Roma have been in Canada since the early part of the last century, “living an invisible life,” and only relatively recently has their status become an issue. In 2012 refugee board officials began to treat Roma migrants seeking asylum here as bogus claimants, in spite of evidence of persecution and threats in Hungary and elsewhere.
As things stand, her not-for-profit organization is a low-key operation, with no public funding, and depends on volunteers.
“Any money we get in fund-raising operations is usually for individual refugee families, to help cover their costs for asylum claims. It’s difficult to get public funding when you work in advocacy.”
As New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair said while nominating her for the award, “the lack of easily obtained funding and resources is no hindrance to her resolve to make a difference.”
Mulcair got to know Savic while she was lobbying for changes in Ottawa. He was effusive in his praise, saying she is “resourceful, innovative, and does not give up.”
“Her ethical principles and desire for transparency truly comprise a beautiful profile of leadership for youth.”
Following her graduation, Savic was hired, in 2013, for a pilot project as a settlement worker with the Marguerite Bourgeois school board. It had a concentration of Roma children from some 50 families, attending three elementary and one high school, in LaSalle borough. Many of them were asylum seekers. Rather than simply focusing on Roma children, which Savic viewed as discriminatory, the project was expanded to include all immigrants at the schools.
Earlier this year, she worked with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre as part of Romanipé to raise awareness of the Roma genocide with an event, August 2, to commemorate it.
Savic took part in a five-week United Nations fellowship program in Geneva that trains participants about ways to promote minority rights. At the World Social Forum in Montreal earlier this year as part of Romanipé, she organized events on institutionalized racism against minorities and the political economy of global migration.
Although the acceptance rate for Roma refugee claimants has increased under the Liberal government, Savic says there are still cases of alleged racial profiling and discriminatory actions aimed at preventing Roma from flying to Canada from central Europe.
Savic now works as a human-rights coordinator with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre where she is seeking to raise awareness about contemporary human-rights issues and educating people about the Holocaust, “making a link between the past and the present.”