Breaking the Roma Ceiling

Michal Mizigar fought a long battle against prejudice and a psychologist’s cruel diagnosis to become one of the few Roma, or gypsies, to attend university in the Czech Republic.

By Chelsea Getz

Michal Mizigar at Charles University, faculty of arts.

Like so many Roma, Michal Mizigar said he was told by a psychologist that he should attend a vocational school where the best he could have hoped for after graduation was a job as an assistant cook.  Today he studies at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts.
Photo by Jason Hang

On a chilly October Sunday afternoon, university student Michal Mizigar joined one hundred of his fellow Roma–or gypsies as they are called in the U.S.—as they congregate on the embankment of the Vtlava River. Some drew stares from Prague passerby with their long skirts reminiscent of gypsy dancers, others with their brightly colored T-shirts bearing the message ‘Be Young, Be Roma’.

Held across 14 European cities, the Prague version of a “Roma Pride” march is an attempt at restoring the dignity of Roma youth despite frequent flare ups of anti-Roma sentiment in the country and beyond. The crowd was composed almost entirely of young Roma like Mizigar, who combat the stigma of being part of a minority known for their poor education and social ills such as unemployment, drug addiction and debt. Stories of successful Roma, like Mizigar, are rarely, if ever, told in the media, which instead features continuous tales of tension between the Roma minority–dark skinned and thought to have originally come to Europe centuries ago – and their light-skinned ethnic Czech counterparts. Roma comprise roughly two percent of the Czech population of ten million.

Mizigar is one of a handful of Roma in the country to have gained admission to the country’s highly selective and academically rigorous public universities—Charles University in Prague. Though only 22, Mizigar boasts a number of personal triumphs: he has lived in the United States as part of a leadership training program and worked for multiple non-government organizations, including MIRET — a civic organization for Roma issues that works with Roma youth. On his weekends, Mizigar visits rural Czech towns to translate Romani, the native Roma tongue, to English for Austrian documentary filmmakers who hope to record the lives of young Roma who live in the marginalized outskirts of society.

Mizigar and other participants have attended the pride march to combat the widespread Czech belief that Roma take advantage of the country’s welfare system and are responsible for spikes in criminality. “We have lived a long time with each other,” Mizigar said about the Europe-wide clashes between the Roma minority and their non-Roma neighbors, “but they don’t know anything about us, they don’t know about our culture.”

Mizigar grew up in Pisek, situated about 65 miles south of Prague, a town that was not immune to the tensions between the Roma and non-Roma communities. “Now it is very dangerous. In my city, it isn’t okay. Roma people cannot enter a bar, restaurant or hotels,” he said, intimating that Roma who take such risks will be attacked.

When Mizigar was younger, his father worked in construction, laying cobblestones in Pisek’s streets, while his mother worked at a factory. Mizigar said that the stereotype that frustrates him the most is the perception that Roma are unemployed, choosing to live off the welfare state. “I’m angry, because if people would wake up at four or five in the morning, they would see how many Roma go to work,” Mizigar said. “They do very hard jobs that nobody wants to do.” Both of his parents eventually decided to leave their jobs to care for his younger sister, who was born with autism.

Growing up, Mizigar had a strong desire to explore Christianity, but he recalled coldness towards Roma in some of Pisek’s churches, where he said members believed Roma would steal from the church. He admitted, “Roma don’t want to go to church because people were staring at them. The people don’t want to shake hands with them.”

But Mizigar refused to let this hinder him, going to mass until he forged relationships with the non-Roma members, eventually becoming accepted in a church community. “If you have a good experience with someone, it is essential,” Mizigar recalled. “If they were in contact with Roma, things could be better, but if you live in your own life and world, there are prejudices that give you a fear to communicate, to look at the other person.”

“’I wanted to go to high school,’ he recalled, ‘It was hard for me. The psychologist told me I could learn to be an assistant cook. I had to be lesser. I was very unhappy, and everything in me fell down.’”

Buoyed by Mizigar’s determination and optimistic outlook on the future of Roma, it was difficult to believe that he almost didn’t go to high school. But Mizigar said that many Czech high schools had concerns about accepting a Roma student, especially one who had trouble hearing. As a young child, Mizigar suffered from a brain inflammation, and now wears a barely-noticeable hearing aid in his right ear.

According to Mizigar, a psychologist who acted as an adviser to students considering admission to Czech high schools—which are extremely demanding and require entrance examinations—told him to set his sights lower and attend a special school for students with disabilities. Taking the counselor’s advice would have left him with limited career options and no access to higher education. These “special” schools are frequently filled with Roma children deemed academically inferior to their ethnically Czech counterparts, a practice the Czech government is trying to eradicate.

michal2

Mizigar wants Roma to be proud of their cultural identiy.
Photo by Jason Hang

Research conducted by Gabal Associates, a research organization for Roma issues headed by Czech sociologist Ivan Gabal, revealed that nearly a third of Roma students attend “special” schools outside the mainstream system. Intended to facilitate children with mental handicaps, these institutions have a disproportionate number of Roma students in attendance. In comparison, 92 percent of non-Roma children attend mainstream schools.

Mizigar, however, was upset at how easily he was placed into this “special” category. “I wanted to go to high school,” he recalled, “It was hard for me. The psychologist told me I could learn to be an assistant cook.  I had to be lesser.  I was very unhappy, and everything in me fell down.”

“I think that what holds for Roma is a more general problem of the Czech education system. It is too sensitive to social origins, the social background of students,” Gabal, who has pushed for the Ministry of Education to level the educational playing field for Roma students in their early academic life, said.

Mizigar said that he too would have ended up at a special school were it not for the influence of his mentor, Petr Hladik. Hladik directed Nadeje, or “Hope,” a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping Roma children in Mizigar’s hometown.

“He was willing to do the work,” Hladik said about Mizigar, seated in an upstairs room at the Brother’s Church in Pisek after a Sunday morning service. Every day for about two hours, Hladik tutored Mizigar in language and math to help him pass the entrance examination of the Business Academy of Pisek, where he was the first Roma student to attend.

After gaining admission, Mizigar faced the daunting task of integrating into a school comprised entirely of non-Roma students. He recalled the experience of being invited to a bar by some of his non-Roma classmates, “They invited their non-Roma friends and whispered, ‘That’s him, this unique gypsy’. They were surprised, and they did stupid things like this.”

Mizigar strongly objects to the idea that he is the exception to the Roma rule, insisting that more Roma students would attend university if afforded the same opportunities. But he said he is grateful to his non-Roma classmates for making him think about how to change the problems Roma students face. “I understand why some of our children don’t want to go to high school,” he admitted. “You have to break the rule, the barrier between Roma and non-Roma. You have to behave differently at school, because their culture is other than what you have at home.”

Mizigar said that his parents still struggle with his decision to leave Pisek to attend Charles University in Prague, where he currently is majoring in Roma Issues. “My mother is afraid that something will happen,” he said. “She isn’t happy when I have to go. For Roma, it is very hard to get used to when the child isn’t at home.” But Mizigar said that for his parents, what is most important is that he will have more opportunities in life because of his education.

Mizigar hopes that in the future, others will see the triumphs of Roma students like him, and that his experiences will encourage young Roma to take pride in their identity. “I want to be an advocate for the Roma people,” he said. “I am proud I am Roma. There are a lot of people who are shy they are Roma, and this is such a crazy thing.”

Chelsea Getz is in the NYU Class of 2014.  Her hometown is Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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Categories: News, Spring 2013 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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One Comment on “Breaking the Roma Ceiling”

  1. Mark Johnston
    March 26, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    The Czech Republic is a society where racism against Roma is not only socially acceptable but socially expected – if you think I am exaggerating you should check all the surveys which clearly show that 80 or 90 per cent of white Czechs have racist opinions against Roma. I have taught here for nearly 11 years and I have to say that EVERY SINGLE student I have or have ever had who has made a clear comment on this issue has made a racist statement. I am still waiting for the first clear anti-racist comment. And what is more scary is that amongst high school students (which means 15 – 19 year olds here) the second most popular political party is the neo-nazi DSSS. The majority of schools make no effort to fight against this because the education system is still basically a communist-style system which teaches children to remember and repeat, not to think for themselves. Thus the nazi attrocities against Czechs are highlighted in text-books and yet the concentration camps run by Czech police where hundreds of Roma men, women, children and babies died are either totally omitted or mentioned only as a statistical footnote….and the information that the guards and commandants were ethnic Czechs not Germans is NEVER included. I know. I teach in Czech schools. If there is anyone out there who remotely cares about Human Rights or Justice get onto the Romea.cz website and look for yourselves. A huge crime was committed in Europe against the Jewish nation. partly as a result of feelings of guilt and sympathy other nations allowed/helped Israel to be born. A huge crime was committed against the Rome here, and the Roma got nothing, not even an apology; nothing except more persecution and victimisation.

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