Tetiana Storozhko is one of the MEET UP! Young Experts. In her academic and political work, she focuses on the Roma history and culture in Ukraine. She is the co-founder of the Ukrainian Roma organization called ARCA. In August 2023, she founded a new organization called Tenet – Center for Social Transformations. She currently lives in Lviv.

Why did you decide to study the history and culture of the Roma in Ukraine?

It all started when I was in school. We had a program for extracurricular projects. My supervisor at that time gave me a newspaper article about Roma communities living in Ukraine. She asked me if I would like to do a research project and it sounded like a very interesting and exciting opportunity. It was something I wanted to explore, so I started doing a lot of research into the Roma community, which is located in Sumy, a city in the northeastern region of Ukraine. The thing is, when you want to look for information about the culture and history of the Roma, you mostly have to rely on folk tales and stories. There aren’t a lot of recordings or texts out there, which can be used as historical sources or as documentary evidence. So, if you want to learn about the Roma community, you have to do some field research. Back then, I was too shy to speak with strangers, so I had to ask my mother to help me interview people who lived next door to us. Bit by bit we gathered a lot of information, and I wrote my first paper on the history and culture of the Roma community living in my hometown: their background, their lifestyles and their daily routines. I did this research back in 2006 or 2007, which was very difficult given the lack of information available. Luckily, I contacted a Russian researcher, Nikolay Bessonov, who worked on that topic for many years. I was so intrigued and inspired by his work and learned a lot from him about field research in Roma communities. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago but I am so thankful for his support and guidance. When I was in college, I really missed this kind of support and guidance from my teachers. So, I participated in non-formal educational programs outside the regular academic system. For example, in 2014, I participated in the Roma Genocide Remembrance Day in Kraków. In 2015, I went to Strasbourg and took part in a seminar organized by the Youth Department of the Council of Europe. This was an important turning point for me because I learned a lot about the lessons of World War II and how to preserve methods of remembrance. It was the first time I had met Mr. Jonathan Mack, an officer at the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. They organize amazing international encounters for Roma and Non-Roma to learn about the history of the Roma genocide Porajmos, how to resist antigypsyism nowadays, how we remember the past and how we should keep this memory alive. Jonathan Mack became a role model for me because he was still very young and a well-spoken educator. I started to work more intensively with the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma as a facilitator. At first, I was scared and insecure about my English skills, but they empowered me and taught me how to be a good educator.

What kind of challenges do you face doing youth work in Ukraine?

I spent a long time looking for like-minded people. I met new people who were engaged in civil society movements, people who were not inspired by their college studies and struggled to do research on Roma culture in Ukraine. In 2018, we founded ARCA (Youth Organization for the Advocacy of Roma Culture). We experienced a lot of mistrust from people in the academic world, including from foundations and activists. They had no trust in our abilities. In particular, we received a lot of criticism from long-standing organizations dominant in the field, implying that we were naive and unprofessional young people. They wanted us to work within their organizations and follow their path instead of starting from scratch. In that case, we were revolutionary. We wanted to work with young people for young people. We were eager to create new educational tools and to change training courses for young people to inform them about Roma history. We also specialized in Roma empowerment and youth movements on both a national and international level. This five-year time period showed us that we could make it a reality, which ultimately changed the entire field. Before that, young people had limited access to resources on Roma history and it was difficult to pass the knowledge on to future generations. Young people need a long-term support system to maintain their curiosity. It took some time to get adequate scholarships and financial support to fulfill our ideas and expectations. We’ve also received grants from the EVZ Foundation and the MEET UP! program, which really helped us strengthen the organizational structure of ARCA. We organized a lot of workshops, events, and training programs. We were indeed the trailblazers forging a new approach. It was a rough patch but it was worth it.

What are your future plans?

Youth work and non-formal education are my top priorities. I have a very clear vision of how to support young experts and encourage them. I find it very important because I had neither a mentor nor big opportunities myself. I had a lot to overcome to get to where I am right now. Besides that, I want to dig further into my research on Roma history, culture and heritage. In Ukraine, we lack professional researchers in this field. There are only a few people doing research on this topic and some even stopped due to various reasons. So, my goal is to work as a historian to bring diverse Roma perspectives into the Ukrainian context. When the Russian full-scale war on Ukraine broke out, I made the decision to stay inside the country. Right now, I am in the process of setting up a new organization called Tenet – Center for Social Transformations which focuses on Roma history and youth in Ukraine. The next steps would be finalizing my vision, expanding my network and building a media-savvy website. I know it will not be easy to establish a new institution but today I am more experienced, I have more knowledge and I know how to overcome obstacles. I have a very good feeling about this and cannot wait to share my ideas.

The interview was conducted by Antonia Skiba