Follow-up report on the Domari People – the Hidden Gypsies of Jerusalem

Domari Society in Jerusalem (Photo courtesy)

One and a half years ago we interviewed Amoun Sleem about her work among the Domari people of Jerusalem, which is supported by the Mercy Fund of Christ Church.

Many of the problems she brought up were directly tied to the pandemic, so we decided to follow up with her, asking how things have gone since.

To refresh our memories, the Domari people are the gypsies of the Middle East. They are related to the Roma gypsies of Europe, but a different tribe. They have their origins in the same area of India, but they migrated a century before the Roma. From a survey made in 2005, there are 2,000 Gypsies in the Jerusalem area, another few thousands in the West Bank and around 20,000 in the Gaza strip. Many of the Jerusalem Gypsies have relatives in Jordan, since many fled there in 1967. Jordan today has a Domari community of approximately 45,000 people. Altogether, there are around two million Domari Gypsies scattered throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

They are a minority within a minority within a minority. Because of purely historic reasons, they are a part of the Palestinian society, but at the bottom of the social ladder. Many Domari call themselves Muslims, but most are not observant, while some have adopted Christianity. However, they don’t divide themselves according to religion.

Israel doesn’t recognize them as a separate ethnic group, but labels them “Arab,” while the Palestinians despise them and call them “Nawar,” which is a derogatory term. Many of them are stateless and have no rights. They are rejected when they ask for help from international relief organs who provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians, possibly because they cooperate with Israelis and because the Palestinians reject them.

Historically, the Gypsies share many similarities with the Jews, having been through long migrations around the world without losing their original identity and customs. Yet, most Jews in Israel are not even aware that there are gypsies in Jerusalem. Around a century ago, they abandoned their nomad lifestyle and moved inside the Old City, where most still live, in the area close to the Lion Gate. Some families live in surrounding villages like Abu-Dis, Isawiyah, Ras el-Amud, Wadi Joz, Anata and even in the Palestinian refugee camp Shuafat.

The Israeli authorities see them as Palestinians, but the Palestinians shun them. They have never been part of the conflict, but found themselves in the middle of it. Their traditional language is endangered, has no alphabet, and is spoken almost exclusively by the older generation. They have a traditional society where women seldom have rights, the drop-out rate from schools is high, and the unemployment was over 80% even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Amoun Sleem tries to change all this with her “Domari Society” organization, founded in 1999. In our last interview, she said, “The Gypsy society is one of the poorest in the Old City, even before corona. School dropout rates, unemployment, drug issues, these were all concerns – and with corona these troubles have tripled.”

So, what has happened since then?

“The light is slowly coming on again and families & children are slowly coming back to the center,” Sleem told KNI. “Many, many people were affected by the pandemic and it will take time for them to recover and return. Domari Society also needs time to recover and get back to normal after the pandemic. We are 60% back to pre-pandemic levels. We are searching for new organizations to partner with and seeking additional volunteers. Some women are seeking new jobs; however, the job market is very limited without job training, education and additional language skill. The women are asking for new things; new courses, more education, additional food, and new things to learn, which will help them and their families.”

Last time you said there were 20 women you wanted to help with starting catering and hair dressing businesses. Are there updates on that?

“We have new courses after COVID for manicure & makeup, eyebrows, etc. We are planning some cooking courses but lack to funds and resources at this time.”

Last time you said most of the Domari children have never seen a laptop, and your center received 10 to teach how to use zoom and online classes, but you wished you had more laptops. Is this still the situation, or has it changed?

“We are always searching for more computers and technology for the children. Families with computers are grateful and the computers have helped. We are searching for people to teach how to use the computers. Additionally, we need education software so the children can study English, Hebrew, Arabic, mathematics, etc.”

The after-school activities were halted during the pandemic. Are they back now, and what are you offering?

“Yes, some with special needs and several for activities during the summer. Adult Hebrew, Arabic, English, Mathematics.”

Sleem grew up in Jerusalem, selling postcards to tourists as a child. She was only 16 when she founded the Domari Society. Her book, “A Gypsy Dreaming in Jerusalem,” was recently reprinted. One online review said about it, “This is a unique account of the life of a Gypsy woman in the Old City of Jersualem. It testifies to the truly admirable culture of the Gypsies in their hospitality, generosity and love of peace. This is a must read for anyone who wants to know more about Gypsy culture through the honest narrative of Amoun Sleem’s life. I can’t recommend it enough!”

The new version can currently only be purchased by directly contacting the Domari society. If you find it online, it’s the old version.

When we asked her about the book, she revealed she is currently writing a new book.

“It will be a combination of Gypsy history, family, culture, hardships and where we are headed as a people living in Jerusalem. We are in need of one or two people to help with writing, composing and editing,” she told KNI.

The Domari women are facing poverty and discrimination on all fronts. They are women within a patriarchal society, gypsies within a Palestinian society, and an Arabic-speaking minority within the Israeli society. Pray for Sleem and the Domari Society, that they will help many Domaris to break out of the cycle of poverty through education, achievement, and self-empowerment while maintaining a cultural pride in their heritage.