Meet the Domari people of Jerusalem – the hidden Gypsies you’ve never heard of

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Domari Society in Jerusalem (Photo courtesy)

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.

No one cares about Gypsy statistics, so it seems, but 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.

KNI spoke to Amoun Sleem, the founder of the Domari Society in Jerusalem, a non-profit that helps the impoverished Domari people.

“Our community in the Old City used to be hundreds of families, and now it’s 25-30 families only. Traditionally, we are a peaceful people. We focus on safety and survival, because as soon as there is trouble, we are always the first to struggle.”

Despite the similarities, the Domari are not the same as the Roma Gypsies.

“People think we are the same as the Roma, but we left India 800 years ago, and they left 100 years after us. Their culture is a bit different from ours. We come from the same homeland, but we are different tribes of Gypsies.”

“We are in-between, a hidden society, not many people know or care about us,” Sleem says. “There are all these European missions in Jerusalem, but they don’t really care at all about the Gypsies, because they have the same issue in Europe. They think the government should help us, but we don’t get any attention from the government either. 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 three-doubled.”

One of the organizations seeking to aid Sleem’s vision for the Domari people is the Mercy Fund of Christ Church. KNI spoke to Naamah Smith who works with the CMJ, the parent organization of Christ Church.

“Since the pandemic started, the mercy fund took upon itself to sustain small struggling non-profits in Jerusalem from both the Jewish and the Arab side. We took a percentage of the donations every month and gave to one small non-profit, each time a different one. The Domari society led by Amoun Sleem was one of these. Our mercy fund is small, so we can’t afford to help a lot, but our strength is that because of our historic status we can work with all sides of society, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority. Our cooperation with Amoun strengthened during the corona, and we have been giving them food, coupons, clothes, blankets, and so on. And while we did this, we realized that her needs are huge, and that she is organizing it all almost single-handedly.”

Naamah describes how the high drop-out rates from schools and the following unemployment rate is a threat to the Domari people. “The welfare department of the municipality should be in charge of addressing these issues, but the local clerks who work in the local municipality branches of East Jerusalem are all Arabs – and they refuse to help the Gypsies. Once these clerks even laughed in their faces, saying that they are all lazy, liars, and thieves. It’s true that they have a high unemployment rate, but it’s not laziness, it’s a lack of education.”

“I founded the Domari Society to give help and promote Gypsy culture, and also to say to the world that we still exist here, in the Holy Land. We focus our help on women and children, because they are the ones left behind,” Sleem tells KNI.

The Domari Society runs a community center in Shuafat, an Arab neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. Besides providing food for needy Domari people, they also help children with homework, encouraging them to stay in school, give lessons in Hebrew and Arabic, and educate women in trades like hairdressing, catering and business management.

“Israeli community centers are state-funded, but the Domari Society is not recognized as an official community center,” Smith says. “She has to fund it all from donations. We hear so many sad stories from Amoun. A mother who has fed her children only water and bread for weeks. A family that uses laundry detergent as shampoo. So we really try to help her with the basics. Our goal, however, is that others would help her fund the basics, and we could help her more with thinking forward. How to we lift the Domaris out of poverty? What will the next generation look like? She is working herself to death, and we don’t know who will take over after her. We were able to secure ten laptops for her and we have an Arab volunteer who teaches children computer skills. We want to help the women and children who come to her center to support themselves. They make beautiful handiwork that we could sell online.”

One of the many problems, Smith points out, is that Sleem is a strong, ambitious single woman in her thirties, and in a traditional society where most women marry young, the patriarchs and leaders do not care about supporting her ambitions. One reason their pleads with the authorities fall on deaf ears is that the Israeli authorities only talk to the “mukhtar,” the chief, who is not concerned with women’s issues. So Sleem faces opposition even within her own community.

One would think that a struggling community center that promotes women in a difficult patriarchal society would receive help from international feminist organizations, but Sleem says she was rejected by them as well. “I really thought women’s organizations would listen to me, but they are not interested. I was shocked. I am a single woman, working with promoting women who want to succeed in life, but are trapped in a society where women are refused work, and yet these organizations don’t care. They seem to believe the old stereotype that Gypsies are lazy and don’t want to work.”

Because of the lockdown limitations, the center has now halted most of its normal activities and focus on giving food to people in need. The only other activity still ongoing is the Hebrew classes, although they wish they could do more.

“The organization ‘Hands of Mercy’ sponsors our Hebrew classes, which really enables us to keep going,” Sleem says. “As for the food program, it really makes a difference, even if I can’t include the entire community. I’m doing my best with the funding I get from the organizations who support us.”

“With the corona, the municipality donated many laptops to East Jerusalem, but none of them reached us. We are trying to start a computer teaching class for the young kids. Many have never even seen a laptop. If they can learn how to use zoom and take online classes, they have a much bigger chance of succeeding. We have ten laptops – if we had a hundred we could really make a difference.”

Photo courtesy

Given the right equipment and funding, Sleem believes she could empower more women with business education, even during the lockdown.

“There are 20 women I want to help with this. Catering and hair-dressing. These are very relevant vocations during lockdown. A hairdresser could go from house to house when all the salons are closed. As for cooking – most women already know how to do it, and they do it well. They just need the cooking equipment and the business knowledge, and they can start a Gypsy catering firm. We have a unique cuisine.”

As women within a patriarchal society, as Gypsies within a Palestinian society, and as an Arabic-speaking minority within the Israeli society, the Domari women face poverty and discrimination on all fronts. Amoun Sleem strikes me as a woman who will either put an end to that situation, or die trying.

If you wish to get involved, you can visit The Domari Society’s website or contact the Mercy Fund of Christ Church on their website.

If you wish to purchase original Domari handiwork (see just a few examples below) you can contact Naama Smith at [email protected]