Roma Open Up About the Daily Grind of Prejudice

Residents of Ostrava say their reputation as “lazy” is unfounded

By Kieran Kesner

Take a three-hour train ride from Prague to the furthest eastern stretch of the country and you’ll find there is a city whose steel and coal infrastructure, now shadows of what they were before 1989, recall its communist past.

Fifteen minutes south of the border with Poland, Ostrava is home to just over 300,000 inhabitants. Roughly 15 percent are Roma, or gypsies, who can trace their migratory roots to India some 500 years ago. Today Roma are spread across central and eastern Europe.

Most Roma in Ostrava live on the outskirts of the city, in ghettos and social housing projects. The prejudice against the Roma people within the Czech Republic lies not only in the prominent Neo-Nazi or far right-wing nationalist parties; these negative sentiments can permeate the everyday liberal, well-educated Czech community. The Roma are seen as outside of Czech society, incapable of holding a job, roaming from place to place.  They are viewed as a separate and less productive community.

Prague Wandering Summer 2013 Issue Number 3 Roma

Building bridges between the gap of communication between Roma and the Czechs is no small task.
Photo by Kieran Kesner

The Czech Republic has been cited my international human rights organizations for their lack of progress after the publication of the Race Equality Directive issued by the European Union.  In April 2013, Amnesty International issued a brief in conjunction with the European Roma Rights Centre and the Open Society Justice Initiative concerning the Czech Republic’s discrimination in education against Roma students.  This was in addition to other broader censures concerning European discrimination against Roma. The document focuses on “the continuing discrimination against Romani children in the Czech Republic’s education system which violates the country’s obligations under the Directive.”

Building bridges between the gap of communication between the Roma and the Czechs is no small task. Prejudice against Roma is widespread throughout Europe, including countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Romania, France, the UK and many more.  A human rights officer at the US Embassy in Prague, Sonnet Frisbie, offers these thoughts on the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic. “From an American perspective, we can see a very similar pattern to that which we experienced during the civil rights movement. What we have yet to see with the Roma is someone to take a stand and unite the Roma people, to collectivize their voice.”

The Czech Republic has been cited my international human rights organizations for their lack of progress after the publication of the Race Equality Directive issued by the European Union.

One of the most common misconceptions of the Roma is the characterization of the community as nomadic.  Kumar Vishwanathan, a humanitarian and founder of the Roma advocacy group Life Together, said the Roma only move around because they are forced out of their homes by circumstances beyond their control.

According to Vishwanathan, “During communism, the ideal place to live was the panelak,” vast pre-fabricated apartment blocs that dot the former Eastern bloc and are similar in appearance to what Americans might call urban projects.

Prague Wandering Summer 2013 Issue Number 3 Roma

Rooms were filled with different generations.
Photo by Kieran Kesner

“The Roma lived in the city center, in secluded apartments that were least desirable during communism,” he explained. “After the fall of the regime in 1989, white Czechs moved from the panelak desiring their own secluded space convenient to the center of town where new stores would be opening.”  The centrally located apartments became too expensive for the Roma and town councils typically pushed them to live in the least desirable panelaks, according to Vishwanathan. These panelaks were taken over by developers who often overcharged the Roma and did not maintain their buildings. He noted.

I visited with one of the social workers at Life Together, Mallika, a Roma woman who brought me to one of the aforementioned ghettos. As we rode the 15 minutes outside the center of Ostrava by tram, the visible poverty of residents became increasingly significant. The number of white Czechs riding the tram became fewer the further we got from the city center.  Exiting the tram to the outskirts of Ostrava, the contrast to downtown is apparent.  The men we passed had mismatched shoes; soot covered clothes and stained beards. I passed a woman rolling a 50lb bag of potatoes in a child’s stroller. We stopped in front of a building that was grey and seemingly lifeless. We walked in through the front door, kicked down to leave a gaping entrance.  Tires and broken swings lay in the front yard, peaking through the top of the snow that was still six inches deep despite it being April. Three flights of stairs up, Mallika knocked on the door and a woman cautiously opened the door.

The room was filled with four generations of a family. The air was warm and moist.  The smell of cigarette smoke was suffocating. The rooms were lit only by the dim natural sunlight righting its way in through the windows; the floor was dirty and beaten beneath our feet. Amongst the dozen or so family members in the room there was a quiet young man, perhaps 22, who sat in the corner of the room keeping to himself. He was wearing construction workers clothes, brightly colored overalls.  His employment provided a counterpoint to the stereotype of the unemployed Roma.

Each Roma home we visited in the area was strikingly similar to the first.  Yet, in the home of Renata, a Roma woman who had invited me to stay with her during my visit to Ostrava, an alternative community is being fostered.

Renata lives in an unusual village, built in the early 2000s as a social project with the goal of building a community where Roma and non Roma Czechs would live together. “Renata comes by almost everyday, we eat, watch TV, talk about our children. She is one of my good friends”, said Renata’s neighbor, a white Czech man with an unusually long white ponytail that stretched the length of his back.

Prague Wandering Summer 2013 Issue Number 3 Roma

Even in the poorest homes, they wanted to offer what they could.
Photo by Kieran Kesner

While most conversations are spoken in Czech, or the Roma’s own language Jarek is a Roma man who against all odds has become a policemen in the Czech Police force. He was educated in and speaks English. Growing up in a ghetto outside Prague, he managed to make his way through all levels of the Czech educational system, teach himself English, and become a policeman. When speaking of another major stereotype about the Roma community —that Roma steal— Jarek explains that the majority of Roma who steal do so because they have no choice, no other means to feed and provide for their families.  He notes, “Many of the Roma want to work, but cant find legal work. If you wake up at 4:30am on any given week day you will find Roma waiting outside, waiting to be picked up by contractors for construction working jobs. The people hiring the Roma, choose not to legally to avoid paying for benefits and fair wages, and would rather hire them illegally on a day-to-day basis”.   In this way, the problems facing the Roma have sources in institutional and systemized responses of the non Roma Czech community.

Jarek feels education is the defining factor in the future of his people. “I’m worried for my son. Everyday he tells me that he doesn’t want to go to school, but I make him. I want him to be successful in his life, I don’t want him to suffer with the same stereotypes I had to overcome, this begins in his education”. According to Czech law, if an individual attends a “special school”, they are prohibited from studying at higher levels of education. These special schools are in place primarily for developmentally disabled, mentally handicapped, and severely learning disabled students; however, Roma have been known to be the majority of students in these schools. “Thankfully, I am aware that these schools exist, students are encouraged by their teachers to switch to these special schools because they are falling behind in class and the teachers would rather refer them elsewhere then teach to them directly, but many parents don’t know what it means to allow their kid to transfer to these other schools, a decision which permanently limits someone for the rest of their life”, said Jarek.

Visitors to the Roma areas of Ostrava are warned about visiting these communities, cautioned of the thievery, the danger of these people. Welcomed warmly into the homes and each individual, not a single person asked for anything. Not a cigarette, not spare change. On the contrary, even in the poorest homes they wanted to offer what they could.

Kieran Kesner is in the NYU Class of 2013, majoring in Photography. His hometown is Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Categories: Culture, Summer 2013 Issue Number 3

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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