Meet Szilvia Szénási

Szilvia was born to Roma musician family and so Hungarian Gypsy music has always been important to her. She has played cello since preschool age and went to a music high school. Even though she has chosen another profession, love for music has remained a significant part of her life and made her what she is.
Szilvia studied social work at one of Hungary’s biggest universities, ELTE, and worked for over a decade at various institutions within the social sector. Her work at Uccu Roma Informal Educational Foundation started in 2013 when she began as a volunteer. Since 2016, she’s been the director of the foundation. Uccu’s goal is to trigger and facilitate discussion between the Roma and non Roma youth to fight prejudices against the Roma. The baseline of the concept is that young people receive information on the Roma first hand, from their Roma peers. The approach is based on the personal stories and personalities of the volunteers. They speak openly about all issues, addressing prejudices and openly discussing and refuting them by creating personal ties and experiences. However, the programme also has a direct effect on the Roma volunteers themselves: they learn about themselves, the Roma history and culture, which strengthens their identity and self-confidence too. In addition, via their work with non Roma youth, their Roma volunteers also learn how to cope with prejudices and react to unpleasant situations.

The revelatory moment

She hated discrimination even as a small child because she faced it directly, at first hand. And she could not tolerate injustice and discrimination even if these happened to someone else.
She has many times faced prejudices and discrimination because of her Roma origin. In her teenage years, her head teacher told her that she would become an excellent housewife. At the beginning of her school years, her classmates would lock their lockers so that she would not steal anything.

The bumps in the road

Often she would not know what to do in such situations and become paralysed. After such situations she always felt very bad mainly for “abandoning” herself. In such situations her first thought always was that these reactions does not actually target herself but the “Gypsy”. Then she would feel ashamed for being a Roma even though she had not done anything wrong. She needed a long time until she realised and understood that this feeling and reaction is bad and it is not true even if others think so.

Coping mechanisms

When she felt that she has to stand up not only for herself but also for some else, something triggered inside her. It happened when a classmate told her son that he would not play with him because his mother is a Gypsy. Due to her work and her experiences with Roma youngsters and her own son, she has learned how to cope with the common prejudices and discrimination cases.
Recently, she entered a very expensive shoe shop because she fell in love with one of the shoes and wanted to buy it. But she was not served. The shop attendants did not pay attention to her as they would not see her. The second time, when she returned to the shop and asked for the shoe to try it, she was told in a humiliating way that the shoe is not available in her size, even though the shop attendant had not checked it. She did not want to leave it like that and so she returned to the shop for the third time but now with her son (who does not look like a Roma). They were approached right away by a helpful shop attendant and provided them with the shoe to try it but they just said smilingly and easily that they don’t need it anymore. They were able to let it go.

Extremism explained to a 5-year-old

If she were to explain extremism/racism/radicalization to a 5-year-old child, she would say that it all comes down to love and respect for people, for individuals, irrespective of their race, ethnic origin, skin colour etc. You should not differentiate between people and discriminate others based on these characteristics. The person’s personality and nature matter most and these do not depend on external characteristics. Personalities have no races.
All kinds of statements, which are directed against other people because they are perceived to be different based on their ethnic origin, race, skin colour, religion, sexual orientation, gender etc. are signs of extremist/racist/radical thinking. The baseline is that no one should hurt another. Anything goes as long as it does not harm others. We have to create a society in which we all can live together in peace.
She has stood up against discrimination and racism not only in her work but also in her personal life. She raises her voice not only for the Roma but also for other vulnerable groups that are targets of discrimination and prejudices. Her mission is to teach young people how they can cope with situations, where they are discriminated against or become targets of prejudices. She mainly works with first-generation Roma intellectual youth, in whose environment there are only a few Roma and so they are often confronted with prejudices. It’s important that they think and talk about that.

Some thoughts for undecided activists

Her most important advice is that discrimination and prejudices should not become a habit, and people should not get used to them and accept them. These things are not okay and no one should accept becoming a target of these.
Her second main advice is that you rather should do something against discrimantion than silently and implicitly accept it, remain passive. Most of the time, even an imperfect reaction is better than no reaction at all. However, do not react with anger and rage spontaneously. Think about such situations in advance and try to be prepared to challenge those who express their prejudice and discrimination towards you. Find a reaction (solution) that makes you feel better and allows you to leave with head held high. There is no general solution and good practice. Each situation is unique and depends on the circumstances. However, humour is often a good tool to cope with such situations. Taking everything seriously and personally can be very depressing.

Adequate responses in uncomfortable situations

Every time when you stand up for something that is important to you, you make yourself vulnerable. However, it also makes you stronger. But you should carefully consider how to react to extreme situations, when there is a chance of things turning violent. It depends on various factors, such as the nature of the perpetrator(s), how many they are etc. It can be dangerous to get engaged in such a situation. In addition, it will not make much sense and impact probably either. Always think about your personal safety at the first place and do no harm to yourself. In risky situations, look for allies and support around you. But remember that an important precondition of getting active is to have self-confidence, have peace with oneself and one’s identity.

Challenge your inner activist

Fighting extremism/racism/radicalisation begins with believing in democratic principles, the power and benefit of acceptance and that an inclusive society is a better place to live in. If you think like that and express your beliefs, you’ve already done a lot for these values and against extremists. Young people can do a lost (if not the most) for change.