“Every family cooks borscht their own way”

fot. Andrzej Rafael

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“At times, someone standing next to me in a shop would start holding their bag tighter. They thought that I would steal from them. Sometimes I asked jokingly, “You know why I won’t steal from you today? Because it’s a Thursday”. On Ukraine’s Independence Day, we talk to Nadia Ohly about religion, being a Ukrainian Romani and building a new life in Poland

Valeriia Buchak: You refer to yourself as a Christian, yet you mention Islam quite often.

Nadia Ohly: My father was a Muslim, and my mother was a Christian. However, no one forced anyone to renounce their faith. Everything was voluntary. As children, we were not forced into anything either. I was baptised at the age of 26. I did not embrace Islam. It was my own conscious choice. We were not a conservative or very religious family. My father did not pray five times a day and did not always fast during Ramadan. My son converted to Islam with his wife. It was their decision. They had a Muslim wedding two months ago. Their children have not embraced Islam yet, but they pray and learn about it. I believe in God. It doesn’t matter to me which temple we go to. For me, God is one – whether in a mosque or an Orthodox church.

In Ukraine, Muslims are a minority, and Romani people are often a discriminated group for various reasons. Did these two factors – being part of the Romani community and practising Islam somehow affect your daily life?

When it comes to Islam, it doesn’t affect our lives. As I mentioned, my father was not very religious. He practised his religion within his circle of Muslim Romani friends, so he did not face any discrimination. Where we lived, in the Donetsk region, in Krasnoarmiysk (Pokrovsk since 2016), the Romani community is quite large. We respect each other. I did not feel marginalised.

Of course, there were times when someone standing in front of me in the queue started to hold their bag tighter or whispered to another person “Be careful, you may get something stolen”. What could I say? Sometimes I reacted, but never with aggression. Instead, I would ask jokingly, “You know why I won’t steal from you today? Because it’s a Thursday (or any other day of the week)”. Then people got embarrassed. They didn’t expect such a response. I just turned the situation into a joke. I’m a Romani and a person just like others. I buy the same things in the same shop. I don’t think we are any different from each other.

Where do these prejudices come from?

Romani people vary on many things, just like everyone else. They may have a different approach to life. There are nomads, and there are the more affluent ones. Sometimes it may be difficult for two Romani people to get on the same page. For the Romani, who I know, nomadism is a thing of the past, but for some, it is a way of life. In my region, living on the road is not a widespread practice. We have our houses, and we are friends with our neighbours. Everyone knows each other here. The city respects the Romani community. However, the situation is not so good everywhere. I know that in other regions, people don’t even try to get to know us better and go beyond the imposed stereotypical thinking of Romani as thieves or crooks.

I came to Poland after the invasion of Ukraine began in 2022. Here in Krakow, I met people from my city. It was difficult to hold back the tears. I miss my home and these people very much.

I have to ask about the cultivation of the Romani culture in Ukraine. 

You know, there is an expression, “Every family cooks borscht their own way”. Where we live influences our culture. In the Romani community, we cook the same dishes as all residents of Donetsk. We also have some customs typical of Romani culture. Some Romanini men and women prepare dumplings on Old New Year’s Day [New Year according to the Julian calendar celebrated on the night of 13 to 14 January, for example in Ukraine – editor’s note], and throw a coin into each one of them for luck. However, no one else in the region does this.

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On 8h of April, International Romani Day, everyone gets together, there are concerts, we dance, it’s an important day for us. Nobody forbids us from celebrating our holiday. On the other hand, on Good Friday, Romani men and women jump over the fire. I have gotten to know Romani organisations, such as Harangos, here in Krakow. Sometimes I pay them a visit. On Easter, for example, Romani, at least those in Krakow, celebrate Orthodox holidays. Others fast during Ramadan.

How did Poland become your new home?

It’s pretty obvious. Donetsk. The war. The train and the evacuation, a journey that lasted four days. That nightmare made my heart ache. It’s difficult for me to talk about it.

Due to our heritage, the escape route was tough. Even though all of us were in the same difficult situation, some people did not want us to sit next to them on the train. We all slept on the floor, sometimes we fell asleep while standing up. Then we arrived in Lviv. There, it was not easy for us either. The problem arose when I wanted to enter the room for mothers with children. People don’t understand that you can’t perceive other people through stereotypes.

Yes, someone might have had some bad experience with Romani. Still, you cannot base your judgment on just one bad experience. Especially when your country is at war, then you have to help each other, and that’s it. The worst thing is that we desperately needed support at that moment, and we couldn’t count on it. Our family arrived in Krakow by train. At the station, we were directed to a refugee help centre. There, we met Polish Romani, who offered to help us. Thanks to them, we were accommodated in a hostel for the Romani community fleeing Ukraine. As it turned out later, the place was set up by the Salam Lab. At that time, I did not expect the big changes that would come into my life.

What changed in your life?

I met people from Salam Lab, including the hostel coordinators. I started to help them, I engaged in various activities. When the Romani hostel project was coming to an end, Salam Lab offered us housing support. The children enrolled in school, and we were able to start a new life in Krakow.

After some time, quite unexpectedly, I was offered a job as a receptionist at Salam Lab’s “R3” Help Point. I was supposed to support Romani families. I was shocked, but the people in the organisation believed in me. That’s how I started working at “R3”.

Salam Lab became my second family. When I come to the Help Point, all problems seem to disappear or stay behind closed doors. It’s also very important for me to see the Romani flag hanging at the Salam Lab Help Point.

I like my new life in Poland, and the children like it too. I like what I’m doing. However, as soon as the war ends, I will return home. My husband and son are waiting for me.

Valeriia Buchak – a Polish-Ukrainian, member of the editorial board of Salam Lab, co-manages the media of SPA – Space of Public Activities.

Translated by Aleksandra Leks.


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