Fighting Her Way To Equality

Life as a Romani University Student in the Former Eastern Bloc

By Alex Braverman

Photo courtesy of Dileepan Ramanan via Flickr

One of Charles University’s few Roma students says people sometimes underestimate her intelligence. Photo courtesy of Dileepan Ramanan via Flickr.

Her Facebook name is Jarka Nikam Nepatriace, which means Jarka who Belongs Nowhere. “But that’s not my real name,” she says with a laugh. Her full name is Jarmila Solcova. She is 21. She is a student at Charles University, and she is Romani.

At university, Solcova studies social work. “I chose it because my life sucks, so I want to help others,” she explained to the translator, straddling a chair in a hallway of the Theological Faculty at the Charles University and bouncing her legs.

Her voice is hoarse – she has a cold, and she is wearing a plain black tracksuit. Nevertheless she is strikingly beautiful, with huge dark eyes, smooth skin, and shiny black hair pushed back by big black sunglasses.

Until her move to Prague seven years ago, Solcova lived in different children’s homes around the Czech Republic, a transitory lifestyle that is the reason behind her Facebook name. Both of her parents are Roma, originally from Slovakia, but she did not meet her mother until she was eighteen; “she’s married to some German guy,” Solcova said wryly. She did not mention her father.

Because she grew up in state institutions, Solcova was not sent to a special school like a large percentage of Roma children in the Czech Republic, a national issue that recently caused the European Commission to announce infringement proceedings against the country for breaching European Union anti-discrimination legislation.

The special schools are geared towards children with learning disabilities. However, many Roma children are sent to these schools; The European Roma Rights Commission together with the Roma Education Fund found in 2011 that in 73% of surveyed special schools, 50% or more of the student population was Roma.

“In primary school, because of my personality, I wouldn’t allow people to discriminate against me.”

In 2007, the Council on Human Rights convicted the Czech Republic for discrimination in education, which resulted in the rebranding of special schools as “elementary practical schools.” “But in practice, they run according to the educations programs for children with mental disabilities,” said Magdalena Karvayova, a Romani fellow at the Roma Initiatives Office.

While there is a dearth of research on Roma at university, many studies attribute the low numbers of university attendance to these hindered educational beginnings. “It’s usually the case of successful Roma children, that they were at a children’s home, on a mainstream track, with someone making them do their homework,” said Yasar Abu Ghosh, a professor of Anthropology at Charles University.

According to Abu Ghosh, Roma children who are raised in children’s homes are often isolated from tight-knit Roma communities, an experience that Solcova shared. “White people don’t accept me because of my skin color, but Roma don’t accept me because I act like a white person,” she said.

“When I was eight, at school a group of white kids would beat me up because they thought I was part of the Roma group, but my caretakers were white. One morning, I was walking to school and was beat up by the Roma kids,” said Solcova. “That was a heavy moment. That was life-changing,” she added with a wry smile.

The university environment is “fine,” Solcova said. She paused and bounced her legs. “Well, there was one time last year,” she started slowly. “After exams, everyone stands outside the classroom and talks about how it went. These girls were standing there and seemed tense, so I asked what was wrong, and they told me I only passed because I am Roma and live at a children’s home.”

Solcova only knows three other Roma students at Charles University, but she doesn’t see them often; her friends and boyfriend are white. Her main exposure to Roma culture came last summer, when she was selected to sing with a group of Roma musicians. “It was good to talk with them,” she said. “We’re connected by something we inherited, a taste and talent for music. But I think differently than them,” she said, emphasizing her academic goals and wider worldview.

Singing is Solcova’s main hobby. “I sing any kind of music, Czech, pop, a lot of Karel Gott,” she said excitedly, naming a ballad-crooner popular with older Czechs. When asked about her favorite singer, she immediately replied “Celine Dion!”

Solcova blends her talent for singing and interest in social work at an internship with an NGO called Proxima Sociale that puts on musical programs for children. She also teaches dance.

Despite her experience with Proxima Sociale, Solcova has experienced difficulties with the job market. At a practice career training at her current home, “the trainer was talking to me as if I was stupid,” she said. Then she laughed. “So I said, ‘talk to me normally, because if one of us has a lower IQ it’s you,’ and then I walked away!”

“I don’t want to judge all of Czech society because of some dumb people.”

More recently, she applied for a job at a movie theatre, who showed interest in hiring her until they asked her to send in her picture, after which they replied that they had chosen a different candidate. “Czech society is always complaining about Roma people being lazy or not working,” Solcova said. “But when a person tries, they still won’t let them.”

While Solcova admits that it is difficult to deal with these incidents, she doesn’t let it upset her. “I know I won’t change the perception of people who judge me based on what my skin looks like,” she said. “Sometimes I think, does it make sense what I’m doing when eighty percent of people will still be judging me?” She paused.

“But even in those low moments I want to keep going and show the people who judge me that they’re wrong. I’m very stubborn.”

This stubbornness defines Solcova’s personal credo. “In primary school, because of my personality, I wouldn’t allow people to discriminate against me in either way,” she said. “If a teacher thought ‘oh, poor girl, she’s Roma, she’s in a children’s home, I’ll make it easier,’ my response was ‘no, I’m a student just like any other.’”

Her advice to other Roma children follows this attitude. “Getting an education is a struggle, but it’s such a nice feeling to win over people being judgmental and have the last word. It’s a fight. But it’s worth it.”

The percentage of Roma who have succeeded in the fight to get a university education has increased. “During the past 10 years their number has definitely grown by 50%,” Martina Horvathova, project coordinator with the non-profit organization Slovo 21, told Romea. She estimated that there are 80 to 100 Roma university students in the Czech Republic today, out of a total population of between 250,000 and 300,000.

Like many researchers and activists, Solcova attributes this lack to the special schools, which she calls “disgusting.” “It’s like, by bringing all Roma to special schools, you can crush them all at once,” she said, sarcastically adding, “I worry for the day that we’ll all be sent away to a special ‘Roma-land’!”

Solcova attributed her own university attendance to encouragement from the director of her current children’s home. “He said that university was something I could do,” she recounted. “I thought I would get by with life experience, but I realized it’s good to get those three letters before your name,” she said, citing the titles awarded for a university degree in the Czech Republic.

She admitted that she has considered leaving the Czech Republic because of the way Roma are treated. “But I don’t want to do the same thing to people that they are doing to me,” she explained, adding, “I don’t want to judge all of Czech society because of some dumb people. My friends are here; the people I love are here. I don’t want to think about escaping it.”

(Jarmila Solcova declined to be photographed for this article.)

Alexandra Braverman is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is Iowa City, Iowa.

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Categories: Fall 2014 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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