For Yvonne Slee, being an Australian Romani isn’t just a label, but a way of life.
Music, food, music and family are the centre of her and her families’ lives. And like her family before her, she too travels as a way to keep that culture alive for her children.
“When we lived in Brisbane, we always took a Romani information board to the markets. I've done lots of activism and written a book called Torn Away Forever about my Sinti grandmother and her stories,” explains Slee, the president of the Sinti-Romani Organisation in Queensland.
“I moved all over Australia to promote our culture with different Romani groups.”
“I tell my kids the stories that my grandmother told me, so that know where they came from."
Romani - or gypsy - are part of a 1000-year-old culture that originated in India but later migrated to Europe, where they became known for their large families, travelling and nomadic lifestyles. While the European branch - where they are reportedly the most disadvantaged minority group - is the best known, there is a small but enthusiastic Roma population in Australia.
Slee moved to Australia from her native Germany 12 years ago with her husband and brought her proud Roma culture with her. The family has moved to many parts of Australia, in part because of her husband’s job, but also to seek out other Australian Romani.
“We came out looking for other Romani groups but they were hard to find, so we went to Melbourne and we found a Macedonian woman there, then we went to Adelaide - my eldest son went to school there for a while,” she explains. “We went to Cairns, did a Romani exhibition there, then Perth, where we met Romani, too. We visited Coffs Harbour and I did school talks there and more information boards at markets.”
“I tell my kids the stories that my grandmother told me, so that know where they came from. I cook a lot of Roma food for them and, like goulash, which has spices it in, I make cabbage leaves and minced meat and rice, and chicken paprika.”
The Romani are probably one of the most misunderstood cultural groups in the world. For many people, the idea of the Roma entails stereotypes of gypsies throwing their babies at hapless tourists in Italy in an effort to steal their wallets and phones.
Slee says these stereotypes are deeply upsetting to the Romani community, who continue to battle discrimination and hostility across much of Europe and misunderstandings in other parts of the world.
Romani in Australia
There is very little data on Australian Romani; we don’t know how many people identify as Romani or practise their culture. It is not known when the first Roma arrived in Australia; some claim that it was as early as the late 18th century, while many migrated after World War II, in which hundreds of thousands of Roma were persecuted and murdered in concentration camps.
However, Slee estimates there are up to 25,000 Romani living in Australia, although that has not been officially verified.
In this vacuum of information, people like Slee are working not just to keep their 1000-year-old culture alive but to replace stereotypes with a real reflection of what being Roma is all about.
“I try to put out information about us, that’s about our food, culture, traditions,” Slee says.
“Our history is so important, some of our traditions go back hundreds of years and we need to preserve them.
“It is our identity; without it, we would be lost.”
Episode three of 'Gypsy Kids: Our Secret World' airs on SBS on Wednesday 21 June at 8.30pm and will be available on SBS On Demand after broadcast.