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Gypsies in the Czech Republic

December 26, 2007

Katerina* lives in a two bedroom apartment with her three-week-old daughter, her sister, and her parents. Her mother has cancer. The outside of the apartment building is strewn with waste and there is no grass, but rather mud, for the many small children in the community to play on. The stove in the kitchen provides the home’s only heat. The kitchen opens up to the bedroom in the back where the family sleeps. The room has only one bed and a couple chairs upholstered with a leopard print material. They pay 3000 crowns ($150) a month to live here.

“My dream is to live alone,” she said.

When her baby started to cry she clutched her to her breast and told us that she was three weeks premature. She was tiny, but her mother looked so happy to hold her.

Katerina’s daughter was born in the hospital where many Roma women have been involuntarily sterilized over the past 15 years or so. At least 70 Roma women in the Czech Republic have publicly accused state-run hospitals, like this one, for pressuring them to sign consent forms immediately before giving birth with little to no information.

I met Katerina while visiting a Roma, or gypsy, community in Ostrava, an industrial city in the Czech Republic near the Polish border. There are an estimated 8 million Roma living in Europe who belong to Europe’s most marginalized and ostracized community.

For the past several years, Kumar Vishwanathan, a social worker from southern India, has fought against forced sterilization, dismal unemployment rates and housing conditions for Ostrava’s Roma through his humanitarian organization Vzajemné Souziti, which translates as Life Together.

Four social workers—two Czech women and two Roma women—from Kumar’s organization showed us through Ostrava’s Roma communities. One of the Roma social workers, Pavla, had a 19-year-old daughter who has struggled for several years to find a job. While there are no official records of the unemployment rate among Roma in Ostrava the figure is over 50 percent with some placing estimates upwards of 90 percent.

Pavla said her daughter’s phone interviews for jobs usually went well, but whenever she met her potential employers in person and they saw that she was Roma she was often told that the position had already been filled.

“After awhile she gave up because it was so discouraging,” Pavla said.

While many blame the high unemployment rate among Romas on stereotypical behavior like laziness it is often because of cases like this where they face severe discrimination. It is even worse for those Roma who live in towns like Ostrava that already have high unemployment rates even among non-Romas.

Kumar attended Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow where he met his Czech wife. After the fall of communism he moved to Ostrava with his wife and worked there as a teacher until devastating floods swept through the city in 1997.

After witnessing the destruction he decided to help the Roma families whose homes had been destroyed and bridge the social gap between the Roma and non-Roma communities in Ostrava at the same time.

“There were 27 Roma families and nobody wanted them. Everybody began signing petitions against them. They were considered to be almost evil. I just came to the conclusion that maybe it was necessary for somebody… to be there to ease the tensions and to start working to help the people,” Kumar said in a 2005 Radio Prague interview.

Kumar’s work led to the creation unique neighborhood called the “Coexistence Village” where ten Roma, ten non-Roma and ten mixed families live together peacefully.

Instead of the deteriorating housing projects where we met Katerina and her family, the 30 houses of the coexistence village were newly painted and had well-maintained yards and sidewalks.

While six people lived in the house we visited in the village the space was better suited for a large family with two floors and three separate bedrooms. The family paid 3700 crowns a month to live in the house.

Originally there were many doubts that Romas and ethnic Czechs could get along living in one neighborhood. However, the village has worked out better than many people imagined. “Life is good there. In the three years we’ve been there I’ve never known us to have any conflicts,” said Renata Gaziova, a Roma woman who lives in the village, in a 2005 Radio Prague interview.

On the way to the second home in the neighborhood that Katerina lived in we passed a small garden shed that was in desperate need of repair.

“A family of 10 lives in there,” one of the social workers said.

“However, there is no heat or running water,” she continued, “and the mother is pregnant.”

The structure looked like it could fit no more than two or three people and had no foundation to support its fragile frame.

As we walked down the main street we were forced into the middle of the road while cars zoomed quickly by because there were no sidewalks. The social workers told us that despite trying to have sidewalks put in for five years on this street where many children walk the city paid no heed to their requests.

Six people lived in the second house we visited. It cost them 3600 crowns a month to live there. An older Roma woman named Maria lived there with four of her grown sons and her four-year-old grandson. In the entry hall was an open stove that provided heat for the entire three bedroom apartment. Her four grown sons were in their early to mid-twenties and shook our hands vigorously as we entered their home.

She wore a light blue robe and slippers and spoke to us animatedly about her family and her home. She divorced her husband many years ago, she said, because he was an alcoholic. She said she had “adopted” her grandson because his parents could not take care of him. She considers him hers now. Despite all of her past troubles Maria seemed genuinely happy and was very hospitable to us.

Their family room had a large couch with a tiger print blanket draped across it. On the wall hung an illustrated portrait of a blond woman wearing white go-go boots draped across a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A shiny plastic clock hung above the entryway and a “chandelier” that had fuchsia plastic flowers hanging down from it.

Music constantly played in their home. At first it was mostly Latin music like Shakira and Enrique Iglesias but then one son played some Roma pop music. He told us he was a guitarist but he did not play much anymore because he had no guitar to play and could not afford to buy one.

Her sons never attended high school and went to a special school when they were younger for the mentally handicapped even though neither of them had any mental disabilities.

Maria’s small grandson sat in a big arm chair and stared us with wide-eyed wonderment and curiosity as we spoke with his grandmother and uncles.

“He is smart enough to go to basic school, he is very bright,” Maria said.

The Czech government has long been accused of wrongly placing Roma children in remedial schools for the mentally disabled. The Roma Rights Centre said in an article last month in The Guardian that Roma children in the Ostrava region were 27 times more likely to be placed in special schools than non-Roma children. The children who attend these special schools were more than 50 percent Roma.

However, in November 2007 Roma activists won a victory in court in the case of 18 Roma children from Ostrava who were forced into these special schools. It is now unlawful for Roma children to be forced to attend substandard schools according to the European Roma Rights Centre. This development shows hope for the Roma community.

Kumar’s organization helped set up a community center within the Roma settlement that we visited. Walking up the stairs to the center the voices and laughter of many children could be heard. The place was decorated like any school in the United States would look like—drawings the children had created hung on the walls next to paper cutouts of Disney characters. Toys were strewn across the floor along with crayons and colored pencils.

About 10 children aged six to 15 sat around the table coloring. The older ones helped the youngest ones pick out colors and spoke quietly with them. They all seemed happy, if not a bit shy at first because of our sudden intrusion.

The director of the center was happy to tell us that most of these children go to regular schools with ethnic Czech children. However, it wasn’t because the government deemed them capable of attending the basic school but mostly because it was the closest school to their homes.

When the children finished drawing they approached us individually and handed us their colored pictures. These children showed me that the Romas have a great feeling of hope and happiness despite being the subjects of severe discrimination and living in such a severe state of poverty.

Even though the community in which Katerina and Maria’s families lived in would be considered substandard, they seemed to be okay with it. While the exteriors of their apartments were filthy and decrepit the interiors were immaculate and very well kept up and they lived like any other family would. Despite being subjected to injustice and stereotypes each Roma I met was cheerful, hospitable, and most importantly— full of hope.

Most of the activists who rally for Roma rights, like Kumar, are not Roma. Even though there are several Roma activists, most of the people who are outraged about the way Romas are treated are not Roma. Perhaps this is why little change has been made within the Roma community in Europe.

However, Kumar’s co-existence village provides a hopeful image of a Europe where Roma families can live among other Europeans and not be discriminated against for social prejudices that have been forced upon them.

The basic significance is that Czechs and Roma can build together something not just of great beauty, but also great value. I think it’s just a proof that Czechs and Roma can live together,” Kumar said.


* All names have been changed except for those of Kumar Vishwanathan and Renata Gaziova.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2009 12:19 am

    Hi Lyndsey,

    I discovered you in The Brooklyn Rail. Perhaps you can suggest a suitable venue in Bay Ridge for me to show a group of Egyptian and Moroccan photographs. My wife and I moved here less than a year ago and we like living in this community. I thought that with such a large Arab population here they would find such a show very interesting . Any suggestions will be appreciated. I am attempting to contact the Arab-American Assoc.

    Thanks,

    Larry Siegel

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