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The Gypsies of the Wall

Amoun Sleem, a Gypsy and Founder of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem, in front of their Community Center in East Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Shu'fat.

 Israel is a glorious mix of people and cultures. One of these is the tiny Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem. For centuries, they have lived along the alley known as The Way of the Stork, tight up against the wall of the Old City near the Lion's Gate.

It was not that long ago that the Dom people lived in tents and earned their living by singing and dancing in the streets. Many Dom men were tinkers, repairing small items and doing day labor. They had a strong distrust of authority, so few went to school.

Although they have lived apart from the political situation in the area, they are still affected by it. For example, during the Six Day War, the entire community took refuge in Saint Anne's Church by the Pool of Bethesda.

I was visiting Israel from Canada last winter and was delighted to meet Amoun Sleen, a Dom woman who has devoted her life to raising her people out of poverty.

When she was six, Amoun did as many Dom children did and still do – she stood by the Lion's Gate with her hand out and her palm turned upward, begging for money to help feed her family.

"Even as a child, I knew there was something bigger for me in this life," says Amoun.

She stopped begging as soon as she could, and started a small business selling postcards. Through this and other enterprises, she managed to put herself through high school and went on to become one of the first women from her community to graduate from university.

But she wasn't content with just doing well herself. She wanted her whole community to do well. So she opened the Domari Community Center, first in her home and now in a few colorful rooms in Jerusalem. It is a place where the Dom gather, celebrate their culture and music, and enjoy preparing traditional Dom delicacies.

Much of the Center's activities focus on education. There are adult literacy classes, since many Dom have never been to school. For children, they have after-school tutoring, English classes, and recreational outings. At the start of each school year, the children are given new school supplies reinforcing the idea that going to school is a special event. Center staff also visit the schools attended by Dom children to answer any questions teachers and other students might have about what it means to be Dom.

Dom women gather in a room full of sewing machines to produce beautiful handicrafts for sale as small income-generating projects. Dom women have a difficult time, so raising their self-confidence and awareness of their rights is an important part of Amoun's work. Young Domari girls often marry before they are 16 years old. Most Domari couples have large families with 6 to 10 children, and they constantly struggle in the lower economic strata of society and live in poverty.

The Domari Community Center is always looking for people who would like to know more about this special community and perhaps lend a hand. In addition to English tutors and help with handicrafts, they could use English speakers who know how to write funding proposals, mission statements and likewise, to put them on a solid organizational footing.

Amoun and the others are eager to share their culture and hospitality with all who are interested. They have produced an excellent cookbook full of traditional Dom recipes, and a fascinating book of oral history of the elders talking about days gone by.

Their website is www.domarisociety.com

 

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Tuesday, 21 September 2021

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