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Toronto Parkdale Roma: The neighbours may relate to their plight, but tensions prevail

On a sweltering afternoon this summer, couples played tennis on the windswept Lakeshore courts in Parkdale. Next to them on the easterly court, about 25 men had assembled to kick a soccer ball back and forth over the mesh net. A bit warily, the tennis players went about their business. Unfazed, the men whooped it up in their flashy distressed jeans and Adidas sneakers.

The culturally contrasting scene is one of many that have played out across Parkdale since nearly 4,000 Roma (according to an estimate by local MPP Cheri DiNovo) have settled in the neighbourhood in the past two years.

Fleeing racially motivated fire-bombings and gun violence in Hungary, the Roma are taking advantage of legislation passed in 2008 that lifted Canada's visa restrictions for Hungarians, and they have flooded into Parkdale, one of the last cheap rental pockets in downtown Toronto.

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Many have settled along Jameson Avenue, dubbed "the landing strip" by locals. The area, anchored by rows of rundown apartment buildings, houses a sizable Tibetan cohort - some 1,700, arriving since the late 1990s - along with smaller influxes of West Indians, Hispanics, Filipinos, Sikhs and Tamils since the 1980s.

Parkdale has long been the city's first stop for newcomers, but the Roma pose some unique challenges to the neighbourhood's normally inclusive spirit.

"I've had people say things to me like, 'You know you can't hang your laundry out around them because they'll steal it.' Or, 'You know that there's a king of the gypsies and they all give money to him and he lives in splendour," says Ms. DiNovo. "Literally, everyone I mention [the Roma influx]to, I'll hear a story. And if it's not their story, it's a friend-of-a-friend's story. This is how racism works."

Calling the reaction "unsettling" and wanting to head off tensions, Ms. DiNovo decided to throw a welcoming party for the Roma last month. Staged in the parking lot of the Parkdale library at Queen and Cowan streets, it was a portrait of inclusion: As Baro Dununba, an African music ensemble, filled the lot with drumbeats, a dance troupe of Roma girls bopped along with hot dogs in hand, some teetering in oversized high heels. Early into the festivities, a disheveled man tore into the lot pushing a shopping cart. He pulled out a cane and danced next to the girls.

"We know that Roma have experienced racism and persecution," Ms. DiNovo said, addressing the small, colourful crowd. "That's not the case here."

More than introducing Parkdale to the Roma, the event served to demystify the new arrivals - among other things, a leaflet titled "Myths and Facts about Roma" was made available to the crowd.

"With this community, I'm very aware that it's necessary - more aware than I have been in the past about other communities," Ms. DiNovo said.

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refugee claim is pending.

Back in Hungary, Mr. Banya, 31, was the sole Roma employee in a diaper factory - he's pale-skinned and kept his roots quiet. "I'm a little bit lucky because I'm white," he said. But there would be a downside to Mr. Banya's employment, as he witnessed his colleagues air out their hatred for his people.

"They say, 'Hitler did a very good job but made only fault: He is dead and did not finish, because we have many Roma.'"

At school in Budapest, his daughter Klaudia, now 13, was punched and told to "Go home."

Mr. Banya said the worsening atmosphere compelled the family to immigrate to Canada, where his parents and brothers were already settled, having arrived before Canada slapped a visa restriction on Hungarians in 2001.

Today, the four live off a $2,500 monthly cheque from the Ontario Disability Support Program - Mr. Banya has been disgnosed with Myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness and fatigue. The rent for their Tyndall Avenue apartment is $1,000; Mr. Banya and his wife are learning English, and he sings and plays guitar with Ungro Rom, a gypsy folk group.

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Klaudia and her brother Aron, 4, attend Alexander Muir/Gladstone Avenue Public School, where Klaudia is the only Roma student in her Grade 8 class. Her father chose the school because other schools in Parkdale have been inundated with Roma students. Mr. Banya thinks that could hinder his children's ability to learn English.

elementary school's largest ethnic group - 132 Tibetans students - was outnumbered, seemingly overnight.

Principal David Finkelstein said teachers were "caught off guard because nobody foresaw that this population was going to come in." He acknowledged the growing pains: "Because [the Roma]came all together, they created very homogeneous groups. ... The teachers were having difficulty cracking into the cliques the students created because they're all speaking Hungarian."

A handful of Roma parents grew politically suspicious of the few Hungarian translators provided by the school. Lines were also drawn in the playground: There were now "Hungarian kids" and "English kids." (Paradoxically the English group consisted also entirely of new immigrants, too.) The school's solution was to mix the children's teams up at recess so they didn't play against one another. Mr. Finkelstein says integration remains "a work in progress" since the language barrier effectively cut off the Roma from other students last year.

(His other concern is that "they may not be able to stay for long because a lot of them are here under refugee claims.")

Many of the children have sizable gaps in their education, in part because of the segregation they faced in Hungary. Human rights groups say gypsies there are routinely assigned to schools for the mentally challenged. No surprise, then, that some Roma parents are wary of school administrators here: now, when their children complain about school, some parents simply let them stay home.

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"These kids are so out of it. They don't understand what the school system or the teachers want from them," says Paul St. Clair, executive director of the Roma Community Centre, which co-ordinates with Culture Link, a service that connects newcomers with Canadians who speak their language to help them find doctors, schools, work and government programs.

Mr. St. Clair says it typically takes a year for Roma parents to realize that education is the only way their children will advance in the city. Culture Link is currently organizing an event to get Tibetan, Caribbean and Roma students to mingle after "community animosity" developed between the three groups, with some kids "bullying the newcomer."

Mr. St. Clair is also helping calm tensions beyond school halls. The Roma, he said, "are a little more flamboyant, they make a little more noise in their apartments because they like to party. ...I had calls from neighbours who had been upset because these people played music late at night and she didn't know how to tell them not to, so we tried to facilitate some understanding."

Despite the cultural slippages, the Roma are palpably thankful to be here.

"Here we have freedom. In Hungary, we always have a little bit of stress on the street, on the job," said Mr. Banya.

He recalled a scene outside a Tim Horton's, the day a police cruiser pulled up. His brother-in-law began fumbling for his ID, a habit leftover from Hungary, where Roma are routinely subjected to random checks.

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Mr. Banya marveled, "The police officers got out of the car and said, 'Hi.'"

His family faces deportation, but he's hopeful: "We have many new Canadian friends, and we want it that way."

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