21 October 2004 Edition
Drugs and Travellers
TravAct is a Traveller advocacy and education group based in Coolock, Dublin. DAVEY JOYCE is the first Traveller Drugs Prevention and Education Worker employed in Ireland.
In the past, drug issues and drug-related problems tended to be a settled person dilemma. But in recent years, the so-called "drug scene" has found its way into Traveller community. Like many other traditional ethnic groups, elders in the Traveller community have a different view on the effects of alcohol and the dangers of drugs, ie alcohol is fairly harmless, and all drugs will kill you.
I've heard countless times Traveller men stating, "I'm drinking most of my life and it's done me no harm, a hangover can't kill you" and "Heroin stops you eating, gives you Aids and kills you. Its contagious so keep away from junkies."
Some young Travellers now believe, because of their 'education' by TV and associating with some settled people, that drugs are not that bad if used properly. "Drugs don't really do that much harm," they state.
Like the view that the older Travellers have that alcohol is very safe, younger men believe that cocaine, if used in proportion, is harmless, so you could say that they have been miseducated. Cocaine abuse is a growing trend and it must be addressed, but clearer facts are needed in layman's speech. Many Travellers have major literacy problems and find it hard to understand some of these "high brow" words and definitions; some need word of mouth to get the message across.
Affecting the users, but affecting both Travellers and settled people, it's dampening our goal for social inclusion and the barriers that we need to knock down. Drugs are one of those barriers. My role in TravAct is to help parents and children overcome worries and doubts they have to face when confronted with drug issues. We will make sure they don't face it alone.
Some young men and women tend to lighten off alcohol and opt for cocaine as a way of having a good night. Some people might say as the drug scene gets bigger this may cause conflict between settled people and Travellers, ie with conflicts over drug dealers' 'patches', Travellers blaming other Travellers and local settled youths on the supply. Our aim for the future is improved social integration and a serious barrier to this is the spread of drugs in the Traveller community. It has taken us 30 years to reach the stage where we are at now; with the majority of Traveller children attending local standard schools. If Traveller parents think their children are going to be offered drugs in these schools, they won't be allowed go and Traveller education will suffer.
Traveller parents have a fear that their children in secondary schools will be singled out by drug dealers. The belief is that, given the low levels of participation by Travellers in secondary schools, a Traveller child, isolated and eager to fit in, will participate in whatever activity that is 'cool', just to make friends or avoid bullying because they are a Traveller.
Drug dealers sell a form of social inclusion for isolated Travellers in secondary schools. As long as the drugs are bought from the dealers, this gives the Traveller a false sense of belonging and friendship and is definitely not what we mean when we demand 'social inclusion'.
The increase in drug abuse threatens our culture and traditions. Many of the old skills are gone and young Traveller men and women show little interest in retaining them. In a way, the pace of the destruction of Traveller culture and tradition have shot ahead of improvements in the Traveller community. Increased contact with settled people has lead to a chipping away of some of the traditions, while these include attending formal schools, using GPs and developing businesses, it has also led to increases in lone parents, drug abuse and criminality.
In a survey carried out by TravAct's education workers earlier this year, some 52% of young Traveller parents stated that they would be worried about their child fitting into a secondary school. However, one of the biggest surprises with the survey was the result that said that 59% Traveller parents would like their child to be taught drug education in sixth class. We feel that this reflects the realisation from the younger parents that pretending the drug issue is a problem only for settled children is rubbish.
Older Traveller men and women were never offered the opportunity of attending school to learn how to read and write. Even today, despite government policies designed to curb travelling, some Traveller families are not able to give their children a proper education, because they move around from town to town or camps. This causes a problem for workers like myself, as we have to less ways to educate people with around drug issues. Relying on word of mouth or talking is not the best way to teach.
Travellers and settled people need to build trust with one another — the problem of drugs spreading into my community is not a form of equality we want. The challenge for the future is how to avoid making drugs an issue for Travellers not just in terms of health but at the wider problem of the effect on Traveller/Settled relations.