At school in Slovakia, Marcela Adamova's pale skin and blue eyes qualified her for a seat at the front of the class with the white pupils - while Roma children were pushed to the back. Marcela recalls: "The other children would say, 'You are white, you are like us, not like them.' But they were wrong. I am Roma, they just didn't know it."
Even now, living in Scotland many years later, it still haunts Marcela that her classmates' hatred of the Roma compelled her to stay silent. Marcela, 32, said: "It wasn't right. For a while I lost my identity. When they were talking about the Roma community, it was always in a bad way. I was a child and didn't have the courage to stand up against them."
The memory makes Marcela's role as Oxfam Scotland development worker among the Roma of Govanhill in Glasgow all the more personal. Marcela, who lives in the area on the city's south side, has set up an organisation called Roma Lav - Roma Voice - who hope to stop the growing demonisation in Scotland of an ethnic group forced to the fringes of society across Europe.
They want to bring changes in the community and spread cultural awareness through volunteer work and social events.
The 1800 Roma who have settled in Govanhill have been blamed, some say scapegoated, for creating a mess over the five years they have been there. So, for the last four weeks, a group of 10 have taken to the streets to clean up the area.
They can't tackle fly-tipping or the waste from local landlords refurbishing flats but by painstakingly taking their litter-pickers through the streets, they have made a difference. And they have expanded the clean-up to the surrounding areas not occupied by Roma but unkempt and strewn with litter all the same.
Michael Hamilton, of the Glasgow Community Safety Partnership (GCSP), said: "It is not a problem that the Roma create. Wherever you put human beings they create litter. All different sections of the community are responsible for that. The established community will always scapegoat the new community. It is the way it has always been but people should know that the Roma have really put their backs in to this."
The volunteers' project, run with the backing of Oxfam, GCSP, Govanhill Community Development Trust and GREAT Gardens, will last for 12 weeks and includes tree and flower planting. Marcela is hopeful that there is a brighter future for the Roma in Scotland than in countries already entrenched in centuries of prejudice.
"How can you integrate when people don't want to accept who you are? It is deeply rooted racism that everyone takes for granted," she said. "Here in Scotland, we are at the beginning and we want to avoid misconceptions.
"I come from the Roma community. I want to be proud of it. There is nothing wrong with being Roma, it is the same as any other nationality. In any community, you will find good and bad. We are very often blamed for the mess but we are working in surrounding areas where the Roma don't live and they are in a mess."
As part of the scheme, the Roma workers will be given English lessons in return for their labour. In general, most of the community coming in are uneducated because the system in Slovakia resists Roma children going to mainstream schools.
A study of Roma children showed that 85 percent of the youngsters interviewed in the UK had been placed in special schools in their country of origin. After they came to the UK, only 2.4 percent were found to have special educational needs.
Children regularly attending school tend to mix better but there have been problems persuading Roma to attend regularly.
Marcela said: "Some of the families don't have that routine. If your parents didn't go to school, your grandparents didn't go to school, there is no motivation. Most of the Roma kids were enrolled in special schools without any future. You can't expect the kids can all go to school now and become lawyers and doctors. It can happen but probably not for this generation but for the next."
An increasing number of Romanian Roma have moved in to the Govanhill area but there is not an automatic integration with the Slovakian Roma there because, regardless of ethnicity, they are still from different countries.
As nationals of one of the so-called A8 nations who joined the EU in May 2004, the Slovakians have full rights to work and benefits in the UK. But Romanians are not entitled to any benefits and poverty levels have reached a critical stage in their communities with some reported as scavenging through rubbish for food and objects to sell.
Marcela knows there is resentment towards the Slovakian community and their access to benefits but many are employed in factories that have struggled to get workers from the local populations. She said: "We are all human beings. We all want a better future for our families. That is all these people want."
David Eyre, of Oxfam Scotland, said: "Govanhill is a place where immigrants have always come. A lot of people in Glasgow came from Donegal in the 19th century and a lot of the things written about those people at the time and a lot of the attitudes to those people were very similar to the attitudes that folk in Scotland have towards the Roma now.
"The Irish have been here a long time now, settled and made a huge contribution to Scottish society. In the years to come, I am sure the Roma will do the same. They just have to be given the chance."
Originally posted via The Daily Record