The Dom Community is made up of the descendants of gypsies who came to the region from India in the 7th century. An estimated 7,200 Domary are spread throughout Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.1 Most are Muslim, although some have adopted Christianity.2 Many of the Dom live in the Old City, not far from the Lion's Gate, and smaller groups are dispersed throughout ‘Anata, the Shu’fat Refugee Camp, and Ras al-Amud.3
The Gypsy communities migrated from India in the 7th century in two migration waves: the Dom (a word which means ‘man’), who migrated first to Iran and are now scattered across the Middle East; and the Roma, who migrated to Eastern Europe and are referred to as the gypsies of Eastern Europe.4 Several oral myths and narratives revolve around those migration waves and the reasons gypsies left their ancestral land in India. What is certain, however, is that the Dom have been living in Jerusalem for over four centuries. Over that time, they have gradually adapted their lifestyle and lost some of their unique customs, such as their dress code and typical professions, as they assimilated into Palestinian society. Today, they struggle to survive amidst the Israeli occupation. They initially worked as smiths, horse dealers, musicians and dancers. In recent decades, however, an increasing number of the in the service industry. They have also adopted a sedentary lifestyle and most of them have converted to Islam and perfected the Palestinian dialect.5
In 1939, the Dom were accused of hiding Palestinian resistance fighters and weapons in their shacks which led British colonists to expel the community from the area around Nablus Road. They settled instead in Bab Hutta and Burj al-Laqlaq in the Old City next to the Lion's Gate, now dubbed the ‘Gypsy Quarter.'6
The Dom in Palestine, as is the case with gypsy communities elsewhere, tried to protect themselves by distancing themselves from politics, but that did not prevent them from sharing the fate of displacement, restrictions and oppression that Palestinians have faced under the Israeli occupation. Some of them fled to the West Bank and Jordan during the 1948 Nakba, but it was in 1967 when most of Jerusalem's Dom community was displaced. During the war, they took shelter in the St Anne church before fleeing again to Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The sense of belonging the Dom had developed in Jerusalem manifested itself in the attempts of many of them to return to Jerusalem after the war. However, those who tried to return from Jordan to Palestine were turned back by the Israeli army, akin to what had happened to Palestinian refugees who attempted to return after the Nakba.7
It is hard to determine precisely the size of the Dom population in Palestine since some of them avoid identifying as such. However, there is an estimated 7,200 Dom currently living in Palestine, with the vast majority residing in the Gaza Strip.8 Of the 200 families that called Jerusalem home in 1967, there are only 70 remaining. Not only are they struggling to make ends meet, they are also stuck between a rock and a hard place: the Israeli occupation and discrimination within the Palestinian community.9
The Dom community in Jerusalem is divided into 3 main families: Salem, Nimer and Baarani.10 Most of the community lives in the Old City and is concentrated in Bab Huta; the rest can be found in Ras al-Almud, ‘Anata, and Shu’fat Refugee Camp. The community suffers from fragmentation, a difficult economic situation, and exclusion from both the occupation authorities and Palestinian society.
In 1999, Amoun Saleem established the Domary Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem; however, by 2000 the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation during the Second Intifada, coupled with the construction of the Annexation Wall, affected the Dom community dramatically. The Wall and the severe Israeli restrictions separate Jerusalem's Dom from the Dom in the West Bank. In 2005, the Domary Society of Gypsies opened a centre in Shu’fat which aims at empowering women and children socially and economically.
The adult population remains largely illiterate because most children drop out of school as a result of discrimination from teachers and other students. Such issues and a desire to affect change moved Amoun Sleem to establish the centre to advance and empower the Gypsy community. Working at the grassroots level, the centre seeks to serve the social, cultural, and educational needs of the surrounding Dom community. The centre’s projects aim to preserve its unique cultural heritage by providing economic empowerment, child development, and women's support.
Education and employment
According to 2007 estimates, it is believed that close to 60% of the Dom in Jerusalem have not finished elementary school.11 Nearly 40% of adults are illiterate, and unemployment among the Dom community is high.
Freedom of movement restrictions
Following the construction of the Annexation Wall, it became increasingly difficult for the Dom in the West Bank to enter Jerusalem, causing further divide among the Dom community and limiting their options for employment.
The Dom face a “double discrimination.” Not only do the occupation authorities violate their rights as part of the whole Palestinian society, but most Palestinians do as well, often referring to the Dom as ‘Nawar’ or ‘Ghajar,’ a pejorative meaning “people who do not conform to society’s norms and morals."12 Although there is an effort to integrate with the Palestinian community, they suffer from extreme social marginalisation which adds to their hardship. Additionally, assimilating to Palestinian society has come with a cost. The Domari language is on the verge of extinction as most Dom youth speak Arabic fluently and have lost interest in learning their native language which is only spoken and not written. In Jerusalem only a few hundred speakers remain, mostly over the age of 60.13