When he arrived for the meeting in Rome, the Grand Chancellor spoke about the order’s diplomatic work.
“Then all of a sudden, he said: ‘What would you do better?’ And I thought about the Roma, because these people are the biggest minority in Europe with 12 million people. They are segregated. Nobody likes them. They live in terrible conditions in settlements without running water and electricity,” he recalled.
Salm suggested that the order could combine its diplomatic and social missions if it extended its outreach to the Roma people -- commonly known as Gypsies -- because their plight was also a political issue.
“The Grand Chancellor said: ‘That's what we are really looking for.’ And two weeks later, I was appointed Ambassador for the Roma People at Large,” he said.
Salm quickly realized that he had accepted a staggeringly difficult challenge. Ever since the Roma arrived in Europe from northern India around the ninth century, they have suffered from hardship and persecution. Locals named them “Gypsies,” mistakenly believing that they came from Egypt.
Today, despite their nomadic reputation, Roma are overwhelmingly sedentary. More than 70% of Roma households live in poverty and just one in four Roma children graduate from high school.
Despite these daunting facts, Salm set to work with an energy that impressed members of the order. Building on the organisation’s previous work with Roma communities, he developed initiatives in Albania, Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
As a roving ambassador, he was able to link the projects together, drawing on his experience of building up the market for baby food in Eastern Europe.
Salm (pictured above) explained that a fully equipped center offers seven services: washing facilities, health checks, a kindergarten and playground, tutoring for children, counseling for mothers, apprenticeships, and a music school or other cultural endeavor.
One of the biggest obstacles to improving the wellbeing of the Roma is that parents take their children out of school in order to work. Salm believes that the Order of Malta has found a way of overcoming this problem that could serve as a model across Europe.
“Our donors ask: ‘How do you measure the success of your work?’ And it’s always the same: the children have more self-esteem, are clean and friendly -- because that’s what we teach them every day -- and, finally, much better in school.”
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Salm cites a school run by the order in Romania.
“This school was within the last rank of all the schools in this district. And after four or five years, it went better and better. And now, seven years later, this school is in the upper third, far above the average. No kid in the last two years failed the class,” he said.
“And in our center, we could really come to the point where no kid misses the school. Of course, because they want to come to us.”
On Aug. 29, Salm will open the order’s 19th center for Roma people, in Croatia.
“The hardest part is to convince the mayors of the area that this work is necessary,” he said, because they believe that offering any help to the Roma encourages them to settle permanently.
But it is possible to win local officials over. The ambassador cited the example of a settlement in Romania, where the order has opened a riding school, giving children the opportunity to learn skills such as equestrian vaulting, or gymnastics on horseback.