Saved by Gypsies

BY ARIEL WU

The first time I ever hung out in Pound 401 was by accident. I came one day in January intending to ask a simple question and run. But something about the place — home of the Law School’s Human Rights Program — drew me in. Okay, I admit it, the free cookies and sodas they offered as part of their “summer funding application Q&A social hour” were also attractive.

More interesting than the free food, though, were the students at HRP. China, India, Rwanda, Brazil, Afghanistan — these are just a few of the countries that host human rights organizations where these students wanted to work over the summer. Most of them had also lived in other countries — and they were not all LL.M.s.

Nantucket Nectar in hand, I made my rounds at the social hour. By chance, I met a fellow J.D. who had lived, as I had, in Hungary. We laughed together about her crazy train adventure from Budapest to Pécs (a city in Southwest Hungary) that involved an unfortunate detour through Yugoslavia. It was the kind of moment only truly appreciated if you have experienced the bewilderment of riding a Hungarian train to the wrong destination.

I met another 1L who shared my interest in Hungarian gypsies. She explained that she was so curious about gypsies that her mom once told her she must have been a gypsy in a past life. We weaseled one of the HRP advisors into listing off some books on Roma (gypsy) rights for our pleasure reading, and then we vowed to read them together over the course of the semester.

This past semester, I struggled to make sense of my law school classes in the context of my own interests and experiences. Going to office hours only intensified my disenchantment. Rather than helping me apply course materials to my life, my professors reinforced the separation between the academic and the personal.

I missed Hungary more day by day. As my classmates participated intently in classroom discussions, I daydreamed about my travels the previous year. I rarely talked about Hungary with other students. I felt as if I was the only one in the entire school who cared about it. It was a lonely feeling.

Now, by accident, I had found a place where students of similar sentiment came together. I was pleased to be an insider again — an insider in a group of outsiders.

The second time I hung out in Pound 401 was by choice, for a focus group on human rights in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Over pizza and pop, we learned about the two projects the student leader had organized. The Helsinki Federation requested our help with research and writing for Moscow prison violation cases. Also, in collaboration with the Negotiation Project, we were to simulate and organize a real negotiation among the relevant parties in the Chechnya conflict.

The HRP directors had anticipated that students would create projects of their own in their countries of choice. Last semester, The RECORD reported on a group of students that formed a group to tackle human rights issues in Latin America. Turnout was so successful that the directors recognized the need to expand beyond Latin America according to student interest.

When I mentioned my interest in Hungary, one director already had case research lined up for me. The European Roma Rights Commission in Budapest had requested students to work on cases of Roma discrimination in schools across Europe. The most exciting part of this fated exchange was that five other students at the meeting were just as enthusiastic about this work as I was (including my friend the former gypsy).

Our Roma rights group has met only two times, but we are already finding much in common. Together we are reading Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing, which details her experiences with gypsies in Central Europe. Last Saturday, we watched Gadjo Dilo (“Crazy Stranger”), about a young Frenchman’s heart-wrenching encounter with an oppressed Romanian gypsy village. Many of us have lived in Central or Eastern Europe before, or plan to this summer, or share a love for the region’s music. Strangely, three of us are among the 20-odd people who also signed up for the yoga class offered at Harvard Law.

It is extremely satisfying to be working with a small group of people committed to a single issue. As much as I am an advocate for diversity, I now understand the value of surrounding myself with like-minded individuals, especially in the often cold environment at our law school. This semester promises to be much better than the last.

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