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Na Shledanou, Česká republika! (Goodbye, Czech Republic!)


Beth Wofford | Posted August 18th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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So here it is. My last day in the Czech Republic. As always with traveling (and life in general), it feels like I just got here! But soon enough it will be back to school, abundant with readings and research papers. Luckily for me, I get a whole week to move into a new apartment and settle in before its back to the daily grind!

My time here has been, well, different than I anticipated. I have become kind of a rogue Peace Fellow. Unlike my fellow Peace Fellows, I really did not have a community based organization. As you can see in my previous blogs, I did not do a lot with Dženo, especially since Ivan closed the office in the end of July. Instead, I have been focusing my energies on learning about Roma issues, interviewing activists, and working with the group of women in Mimoň to create an advocacy quilt.

Yesterday was my last visit to Mimoň. It was so wonderful to see the completed panels the women made, many with no experience whatsoever in embroidery. They put a lot of thought and effort into creating pieces which showcase the normalcy of their lives, but still including the underlying current of intense discrimination they are faced with everyday.

Leona created this silhouette of a dancing Roma woman surrounded by the stars of the European Union with the wheel of the Roma incorporated into this circle. She told me that she just wants to be included, and that it is not only a Czech problem, but a European problem.
Leona created this silhouette of a dancing Roma woman surrounded by the stars of the European Union with the wheel of the Roma incorporated into this circle. She told me that she just wants to be included, and that it is not only a Czech problem, but a European problem.

Leona created this silhouette of a dancing Roma woman surrounded by the stars of the European Union with the wheel of the Roma incorporated into this circle. She told me that she just wants to be included, and that it is not only a Czech problem, but a European problem.

Zaneta created this violin to display her love of music and the importance it plays in Roma culture.
Zaneta created this violin to display her love of music and the importance it plays in Roma culture.

Zaneta created this violin to display her love of music and the importance it plays in Roma culture.

Emilie created this scene of traditional Roma life, complete with a horse and caravan. She incorporated elements from nature, because Roma used to live off the land while still nomadic. The campfire in the bottom left corner is representative of the strong oral traditional of storytelling in the Roma community.
Emilie created this scene of traditional Roma life, complete with a horse and caravan. She incorporated elements from nature, because Roma used to live off the land while still nomadic. The campfire in the bottom left corner is representative of the strong oral traditional of storytelling in the Roma community.

Emilie created this scene of traditional Roma life, complete with a horse and caravan. She incorporated elements from nature, because Roma used to live off the land while still nomadic. The campfire in the bottom left corner is representative of the strong oral traditional of storytelling in the Roma community.

I got to say goodbye to all of the women except for Leona, who has been in and out of the doctor’s office with her one year old daughter. The poor thing has been quite sick. However, the other five women who have been working on the quilt were all present for the final presentation of the panels.

 Emilie Z, Renata, and I pose for a final picture with the parting gift of a teddy bear they gave me!
Emilie Z, Renata, and I pose for a final picture with the parting gift of a teddy bear they gave me!

Emilie Z, Renata, and I pose for a final picture with the parting gift of a teddy bear they gave me!

I am finding it hard to find the words to truly express the impact these women have had on me. My experience as a Peace Fellow would have been infinitely less rewarding if I had not found this group of women to work with. Initially we had about fifteen women lined up to work on the quilt, but as time passed, the number dwindled to only six. These six women were the only ones brave enough to take the chance to give up some of their time and try to make a difference.

Their enthusiasm has kept my spirits high, and gives me so much hope for their futures. Emilie, our translator and newlywed, is already talking about expanding the project into Macedonia, where her husband is from. She told me how empowered she felt by being able to tell her story. The women in Macedonia, she told me, have even harder lives, and their empowerment could be even greater.

After an exchanging of gifts for our final visit with each other, it was time to say goodbye to these wonderful ladies. Many hugs, kisses, and thank yous were exchanged and promises to stay in touch were made. When it came time for me to walk down to the bus stop and take the final long trip back to Prague, Renata walked me to the bus station.

She made sure I got on my bus, and waved me off as the bus pulled away. I will truly miss these women, and I am so grateful for this experience to work with the people policy affects on the ground. I hope that one day they can see the fruit of their labors, and I am so excited to see how both similar and different their stories are from the women in France and in Kosovo.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading this summer. I hope to come back and give everyone an update complete with pictures once we complete the quilt in full. Until then, Na shledanou!

2 Responses to “Na Shledanou, Česká republika! (Goodbye, Czech Republic!)”

  1. Beth Wofford says:

    Thanks for reading! I cannot believe I am already at home. I keep waking up to think I will be in Prague and going back to visit Mimon again! Can’t wait for you to see the completed quilt!

  2. pegah says:

    It makes me so sad to read all of your last AP blogs as a few of you head back home. It feels like not too long ago I too had just started at the Advocacy Project and began reading all of your blogs. Now I have to say goodbye to all of the stories and people I’ve read and learned so much about the past few months with you! thank you for sharing your experiences with us beth!

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Hope for the Future


Beth Wofford | Posted August 12th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Earlier this week another fire bombing occurred in the Czech Republic against a Roma family. There still has been no movement on education reform. Far right politician Bátora has condemned the upcoming Prague Gay Pride Parade. The Czech media is continuously distorting news stories which involve Roma individuals.

It often seems as if we are fighting a losing battle. How can one fight against such systematic prejudice and violence? Is there any possible way that things could change? Reading the news reports often leaves me feeling hopeless and useless.

But then I take me weekly trip to Mimoň to work with the women who have so bravely decided to stand against this institutionalized discrimination and I feel enormously better. There were originally 12 women working on this quilt. The number has since diminished to 6. I was initially concerned about this drastic drop. How can we create an effective tool if no one wants to work on it? But Emilie, always knowing how to soothe me, said, “We are the ones that have something to fight for. The other women are scared. We are not.”

Emilie, Emilie, and Renata have been working on the Czech Republic quilt since the very beginning of the project.
Emilie, Emilie, and Renata have been working on the Czech Republic quilt since the very beginning of the project.

Emilie, Emilie, and Renata have been working on the Czech Republic quilt since the very beginning of the project.

They are not scared. So I should not be frightened either. This past week was particularly enlightening for me, in addition to being fraught with emotion as I only have one more trip out to visit with these women who have become my surrogate family after living alone for the majority of my time in the Czech Republic.

Right now I am working on creating really in depth profiles of the women. I really want you to know them, and I want their stories to really have an impact on the Council of Europe. I set up my tripod and double checked my lighting and began asking one of the women, Renata, about her panels she has made.

She spoke of her late husband; of how when he was alive, she did not feel discrimination as harshly as she does now, due to the fact that her husband was non-Roma. She relates her story to the numerous other Roma women who are left to raise their children alone. She then hold up a panel I have not seen yet. It is a simple white background, with flowers blooming on it. (Oh no, this has NOTHING to do with Roma culture or her struggles. What am I going to do?!)

The flower pattern made by Renata for me, so I will always have something to remember her.
The flower pattern made by Renata for me, so I will always have something to remember her.

The flower pattern made by Renata for me, so I will always have something to remember her.

“This is for you,” she says. “Not for the quilt. No one has ever listened to me before. You have given me, given us, hope for the future. I want you to have this, so you can remember me. I will always remember you.”

I am left speechless. Me? Actually helping? Renata gives me a small smile. “Thank you, Beth.”

No, thank you, Renata. Thank you for making me feel as if it is possible to make a difference. It is not all hopeless. Despite the huge barriers these women face, they have hope for the future. They have not given up hope. And I will not give up hope either.

 

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The Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust


Beth Wofford | Posted August 3rd, 2011 | Uncategorized

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The Holocaust.

That simple word is one of the main reasons I chose human rights as a career. It is one of the most obvious and well known cases of genocide. People around the world are still reeling from the Nazi “Final Solution.”

It has long been thought of in public consciousness (at least in the US, of European consciousness I cannot say,) that the Holocaust during WWII was a solely Jewish tragedy. Although Jewish individuals were the priority “problem” to Nazi Germany, many other groups were exterminated due to “racial inferiority” (see here) or based on politics, behavior, or ideological differences. Among the groups deemed necessary for extermination were mentally and physically disabled people, Russians, Poles, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals, and Roma.

Eugenics were a major "scientific" reason to deem populations as racially inferior. This is a Roma woman being analyzed in Germany. Photo Credit: Museum of Romani Culture in Brno
Eugenics were a major "scientific" reason to deem populations as racially inferior. This is a Roma woman being analyzed in Germany. Photo Credit: Museum of Romani Culture in Brno

Eugenics were a major "scientific" reason to deem populations as racially inferior. This is a Roma woman being analyzed in Germany. Photo Credit: Museum of Romani Culture in Brno

This being a Peace Fellowship about the Roma in Europe, this blog will focus mostly on the forgotten holocaust of the Roma. However, everyone, please take a moment to remember the estimated 5 million non Jewish victims and 6 million Jewish victims of one of the most atrocious, systematic crime against humanity the Earth has ever seen.

Belzec Labor Camp in Poland, 1940. Photo Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Belzec Labor Camp in Poland, 1940. Photo Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Belzec Labor Camp in Poland, 1940. Photo Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The fate of the Roma followed in a similar fate to many of those deemed “undesirable” by the Third Reich. They were rounded up and put into internment camps where they would be away from “normal society.” Then work camps became the go to location for slowly killing entire families of Roma. Two of these “work” camps were located in what is now the Czech Republic, but during WWII was known as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. These camps, Lety in Bohemia and Hodonin in Moravia, were some of the most deadly work camps in the Nazi regime. (For perspective – the famous camp Dachau had a death rate of around 12%, whereas the camps at Lety and Hodonin the death rate was 20%). From Lety and Hodonin, large numbers of families were transported to one of the most famous extermination camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau (truly in Birkenau proper) the Nazi regimes created a “Gypsy Family Camp,” where whole families were put together to slowly work themselves to death. However, on August 2, 1944, the SS guards killed 2,898 Roma individuals at Birkenau. Over the course of the war, of the 23,000 Roma individuals who were interred at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 19,000 were killed.

The remembrance of the atrocities that occurred during WWII is well documented in much of the Czech Republic. During my time as a Study Abroad student here, we visited the memorial of the site of what used to be the town of Lidice, a town that was randomly chosen for liquidation after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. We went to Terezin, the camp established as a “model” camp. The Red Cross even visited this camp and deemed it acceptable during the war. These are just two of the ways in which the deaths of Czech Jews and other civilians are memorialized.

Children's Memorail at Lidice. Taken February 2010 by Beth Wofford.
Children's Memorail at Lidice. Taken February 2010 by Beth Wofford.

Children's Memorail at Lidice. Taken February 2010 by Beth Wofford.

However, despite the fact that around 90% of the Czech Roma population was exterminated during the Holocaust, the camps at Lety and Hodonin barely have any memorials. In fact, after the war, a state owned pig farm was established on the site of the former camp. Although a memorial has been established on the site of the former camp, it still borders the pig farm and is seen as a symbol of Czech intolerance and hatred towards the Roma population.

The Pig Farm at Lety u Pisku Roma Concentration Camp. Photo Credit: Czech Radio
The Pig Farm at Lety u Pisku Roma Concentration Camp. Photo Credit: Czech Radio

The Pig Farm at Lety u Pisku Roma Concentration Camp. Photo Credit: Czech Radio

A similar situation is seen at the camp at Hodonin, in which a recreation center was created on the grounds of the former concentration camp. However, in 2011, the government bought the camp with plans to create a memorial and learning center on the site. There is currently a small memorial which has been maintained by the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno.

The deaths of millions of innocent people occurred during the years of the Nazi regime. The remembrance efforts of governments has mostly been focused upon the Jewish victims of this time, but slowly there seems to be some effort to remember the other victims as well.

However, it is alarming and disheartening to see rhetoric which claimed the lives of 90% of the Czech Roma population in use today. An ad was run which claimed they would be the “final solution to the gypsy problem.” I was shocked. I asked many of the Roma individuals I work with and have interviewed about the rise of this extremist rhetoric. How could this propaganda resurface in the present day and age.

“Resurface?” said Petra Gelbart, a Czech-American Roma ethnomusicologist. “It never left.”

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A Visit to the Museum of Romani Culture


Beth Wofford | Posted July 28th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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What a busy few weeks! The quilt is starting to shape up as the women complete their panels and get better every day at embroidery. I have been busy asking them questions and taking lots of pictures and videos, and have created preliminary profiles of the women who have put so much effort into this project! Visit the blog I made to host such information, and read the stories of the women under the post “Meet the Quilters: Mimon, Czech Republic.”

However, another blog on the quilt will happen later, as I want to tell everyone about my visit to the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno!

Located in a historically Roma neighborhood, the Roma Culture Museum in Brno is a small space in which a lot of information is displayed. Past Fellows have visited the museum, including my immediate predecessor, Tereza Bottman, who had the opportunity to meet with the founder, Karel Holomek and his daughter and fellow activist Dr. Jana Horváthová.

Although I did not get to meet with the museum’s founders, I was led around the main exhibition by curator and historian Michal Schuster. Although a non-Roma individual, he was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the museum and its causes.

The museum’s permanent exhibition is a journey through the history of the Roma people throughout Czechoslovakia from the beginning of WWII until present day. Mr. Schuster told me that they are currently working on expanding the exhibit, including the migration of the Roma people from the Indian subcontinent all the way up until the second World War.

The first room we entered was plastered with imagery from the era of WWII, when there was no Czechoslovakia; just the protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia and the country of Slovakia, and ally of Nazi Germany. The room had tiled walls, and was created to resemble a shower in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed during the Holocaust. It brought chills to my spine, after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau last spring, I am all too aware of the reality of what happened to the millions killed during this time.

Eugenic analysis of Roma people by Nazi "scientists"
Eugenic analysis of Roma people by Nazi "scientists"

Eugenic analysis of Roma people by Nazi "scientists". Races were decided by the size of one's nose, how far apart their eyes were, and other arbitrary classfications.

The next room chronicles the history of the Roma in Czechoslovakia after WWII and into the Communist era. The museum details the “assimilation” process enforced by the Communist authorities, in which Roma people were stripped of the nomadic lifestyle, and forced to integrate into “white” society. Many traditions and customs were forgotten as people worked to survive under the new regime, especially after the Soviet invasion after 1968’s Prague Spring.

Photograph of a traditional Roma family outside of their caravan.
Photograph of a traditional Roma family outside of their caravan.

Photograph of a traditional Roma family outside of their caravan. The Communist Regime banned the nomadic lifestyle of Roma and forced assimilation on people of all ethnicities.

But before the invasion, the Roma society was as swept up in the liberal ideals and artistic expansion under Prague Spring as the rest of the population. During this time there was the creation of the Union of Gypsy Roma, the first organization to talk with the regime about rights. They produced magazines, detailed athletic achievements of Roma, and promotes Roma art and music.

They were closed in 1973 after the Soviet Invasion, and from that point on the situation became even more dire for the Roma population. Sterilization reached it’s height during the 1980’s, in which many Roma women were coerced into being sterilized after giving birth to their child. After labor a doctor would offer them money to be sterilized. Not knowing what that would mean and only understanding that they would get more money to support their family, they agreed. Only recently have these violations of human rights been admitted by the Czech and Slovak governments.

Document about sterilization.
Document about sterilization.

This is one of the first documents to mention sterilization as a means of population control. Although Roma are not specifically mentioned in this document, they suffered the most from this practice.

In 1989 there was the famous Velvet Revolution, and during that time there was an uprising of Roma culture and society. The museum details all the new art and music which was produced during this era, and has exhibits which profile musicians and artists, as well as having original artwork by Roma artists on display.

An additional section is reserved for non Roma interpretations of Roma culture – the stereotypes which society has produced and enforced throughout the years. Stereotypes from the opera Carmen to the stereotypical “Gypsy fortune teller,” are presented, all of which seem absurd when sitting among the numerous cultural artifacts housed in the museum.

Roma Culture Museum Display of a stereotypical Roma woman.
Roma Culture Museum Display of a stereotypical Roma woman.

This puppet is designed to represent a "typical" Roma woman - gold jewelry, dark hair, and flowing skirt.

The last room is a collection of news articles from the establishment of the Czech Republic in 1992 until present day. The euphoria present after the fall of Communism is soon wiped out by a wave of far right extremism and neo-Nazism in the mid 90’s. The more recent articles show the slow progress of the Roma movement, but are hopeful reminders of what the future could be like. One of the articles Mr. Schuster pointed out to me was about a Roma man who won a popular singing show (think American Idol – but in the Czech Republic.)

The middle of this room holds a large, rotating wheel, upon which hang three panels. On these panels are news articles which propagate stereotypes and prejudices, labeling Roma as criminals, as people who refuse to assimilate, as lazy, and the numerous other stereotypes which are thrown at the Roma population by the mass media.

Although this was a rather long blog post, I hope it inspires some people to take a look at the museum’s webpage and think about how culture can be used as a tool for inclusion rather than exclusion. Perhaps once people start accepting the beauty of Roma music, art, and many traditions, it will allow the Roma population to stop suffering such extreme discrimination.

3 Responses to “A Visit to the Museum of Romani Culture”

  1. Beth Wofford says:

    Thanks for reading! I hope the rest of the blog is interesting with your knowledge of the country. Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Martha-ann Smith says:

    Very interesting reading. Looking forward to reading your blog related to your journeys. I am your dad’s first cousin. I live in Northwest Georgia, in the county where he grew up. I just found him on Facebook. I just retired from teaching High School.We studied some on this country. Take care, and I pray God’s blessings on your work there. Martha-ann Smith

  3. iain says:

    Really interesting! Great historical overview, and sets up your own work with the Roma women and their quilt – your own contribution to inclusive Roma culture!

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Is Inclusive Education in the Czech Republic Possible?


Beth Wofford | Posted July 21st, 2011 | Uncategorized

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The education of Roma children in the Czech Republic for has been a major issue facing the Roma community for a number of years. One of the first landmark decisions affecting Roma education was the court case D.H. and others versus the Czech Republic in 2007.

The case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights in 2000 by a group of people who had been educated in the Czech city of Ostrava. They had all been put into “special” schools meant for children with mental disabilities. They were put into these schools after a psychological testing and consent of the parents. After being put into these schools the children received substandard education and were much less likely to be able to break into the mainstream school system. Although the parents did “consent” to such a decision, the case brought up evidence about the profiling of Roma children to be put into these schools. (Look at some of the facts presented in the case here.)

In 2006 the case was overturned, with the European Court of Human Rights finding no violation. The group petitioned for an appeal, which was granted. Once the case was reviewed by the Grand Chamber, in 2007 they concluded that there was a human rights violation happening in the Czech Republic. Despite the ruling, little has been done in recent years to stop the discriminatory actions of the education system, and Roma children are still more likely to be put in “special” schools and/or receive substandard education compared to their non-Roma peers.

Roma children in a special school. Source: Amnesty International
Roma children in a special school. Source: Amnesty International

Roma children in a special school. Source: Amnesty International

In attempting to rectify the abuses recognized in the D.H. and others versus the Czech Republic case, the Czech Ministry of Education came forth with “The National Plan for Inclusive Education,” approved in March 2010. The goals of this plan were to increase levels of inclusivity in education, reduce social exclusion of Roma families, and to work towards social cohesion within the Czech Republic. The actions taken before and after the approval of this plan have been feeble – many so called actions are simply proposals to change amendments of the Czech constitution. (Read information about the National Plan for Inclusive Education here.)

A little more than a year after this plan was put into legislation, 50 members of the working group concerning planning and implementation of inclusive education resigned in protest of inaction from Czech Minister of Education Josef Dobeš. These people were from a multitude of organizations including the Czech branch of Amnesty International, Charles University, Roma specific NGO’s, and others. They submitted a letter of resignation to the Prime Minister and Minister of Education, citing their resignation was due to lack of action from the Ministry of Education and to demonstrate their lack of compliance with the government using this “plan” as a scapegoat, hoping that this action will be a push towards actual advances in desegregation. (Read the letter here.)

Education Minister Josef Dobes. Source: Romea.cz
Education Minister Josef Dobes. Source: Romea.cz

Education Minister Josef Dobes. Source: Romea.cz

A new approach towards inclusive education arose earlier this month – “Inclusive Education System in the Czech Republic.” This plan has little to do with action, but more to do with research. Education Minister Dobeš plans on using CZK 45 million (USD 2.6 million) on discovering why disadvantaged children (Roma in particular) often end up in “special” schools. Critics of this plan argue that information regarding this question has been available since 2009 – and the two year study which came to those conclusions cost only CZK 2 million (USD 115,000).  Former Minister of Education Ondřej Liška agrees with these critiques, stating that the Ministry already has all the necessary information regarding inclusive education at its disposal, and that this new plan is another example of the incompetence of Minister Dobeš. (Source)

It is awful to think that despite the advances made by the Roma community in education by winning the case brought up against the European Court of Human Rights, the Czech government is misusing funds and using these inclusive “plans” as rhetorical tools to provide a scapegoat to continue their blatant, systematic discrimination of one of the most innocent groups of any population: the children.

2 Responses to “Is Inclusive Education in the Czech Republic Possible?”

  1. Beth Wofford says:

    Technically, they are not ignoring the ruling, just choosing to take their time in the “planning” stages of integration. Multiple NGO’s and civil society groups have mentioned the lack of attention paid to this issue, but further judicial or legislative action on the European level has yet to be taken. I personally am not knowledgeable enough to answer how this issue should be addressed on the pan-European level, with the intricacies of both responding to European concerns and allowing states sovereignty…

  2. iain says:

    Very interesting. So the Czech authorities are ignoring the European Court’s ruling on DH and marking time on desegregation in schools. Who should be protesting this one, and raising the red flags in Strasbourg and Brussels?

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Fear Mongering and Firebombs: The Extremist Violence Against Roma in the Czech Republic


Beth Wofford | Posted July 16th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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In an event reminiscent of 2009’s attack in which a two year old girl suffered burns to over 80% of her body, a flaming torch was thrown through the window of a flat owned by a Roma family. Early Monday morning in the town of Bychorý, Kolín District, a device resembling a torch was thrown into the living room window of Eva Duchová and Milan Demeter. A friend who was staying the night was luckily awake watching TV and was able to put out the flames before any lasting damage occurred. (Source)

Eva Ducova and Milan Demeter, whose Bychory home was firebombed. Source: Romea.cz
Eva Ducova and Milan Demeter, whose Bychory home was firebombed. Source: Romea.cz

Eva Ducova and Milan Demeter, whose Bychory home was firebombed. Source: Romea.cz

This incident is particularly disturbing as the same day, 11 July, the Interior disbanded their task force fighting extremism, instead choosing to focus on seminars and meetings. The move has been condemned by the Roma group Romea. Romea announced that it would no longer be cooperating with the government after this turn of events, and in turn the Interior Ministry fired back, responding that the need to be impartial in fighting extremism is their main priority. This is despite the evidence of the growing rate of extremist groups in the Czech Republic who often make Roma families their main target.

A horrific example of this is from a similar firebombing case in Vitkov in 2009. Several people were injured from a torch being thrown into a Roma family’s single family home, the most abhorrent of the injuries is that of a two year old girl who suffered burns to 80 percent of her body and has been in and out of the hospital. The perpetrators for the attack received lengthy prison sentences, between 20 and 22 years, and were ordered to pay a hefty fine of 17 million Czech crowns ($961,538) part of which is going to the young victims hospital costs, the other going to the family for damages experienced in the attack. (Source)

Pictured is Natalka before the attack and after receiving months of treatment. Source: CNN
Pictured is Natalka before the attack and after receiving months of treatment. Source: CNN

Pictured is Natalka before the attack and after receiving months of treatment. Source: CNN

The rise of extremism in the Czech Republic is a particularly disturbing trend, the main groups being those on the far right belonging to neo-Nazi organizations. One would typically expect anti-Semitism to be a large issue in these groups, but instead Roma families and individuals have been dealt the hardest blow in terms of violence and defamation from these groups. According to the Ministry of the Interior’s “Strategy for Combating Extremism Report 2009” there were no serious anti-Semitic attacks in 2008.

Violence against Roma is a terrifying trend that Roma individuals have to live with everyday. (Look here for a timeline of extremist violence against the Roma until 2009) The discrimination and lack of job access is only one aspect of their struggle to be seen as equal citizens. Speaking with the women in Mimoň it is evident that they also feel unsafe.

“My son was threatened to be beat up in school because he is Roma,” said one of the women when we asked about the risk of violence.

Extremism is a danger not only to Roma people, but to the security of a society as a whole. When does free speech start becoming hate speech? What can be done to ensure that children are not afraid to go to school in the morning for risk of being beaten up? How can so called “normal” people of the Czech Republic sit and watch while their neighbors are being attacked and nearly killed simply for being of a different ethnic group?

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Quilting for Advocacy: The Beginning


Beth Wofford | Posted July 7th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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The culture of the Roma people has often been used as a tool for exclusion. It is a method that continues to make sure that the Roma people are consistently seen as the “other,” an aberration from mainstream society. An extreme example of this is seen in their traditional practice of having many children. In order to “rectify” this cultural norm, coercive sterilization was used to ensure that Roma families would only have as many children as was considered “normal.”

Roma women are faced with multiple facets of this “othering” process. As women, they are the “other” (a term first used in feminist literature by Simone de Beauvoir). This compounded method of discrimination means that the women of Roma society are often at the bottom in terms of accessing needs that are already poor in Roma communities.

For example, one of the four main tenets of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is Employment. Roma women are even less likely than Roma men to find employment, and as women they are likely to earn less than their male counterparts. (In this study, the employment rate for Roma women is 31%, compared with 62% of non-Roma women in the Czech Republic. Compare this to Roma men, whose employment rate is 63% compared to the non-Roma average of 95%)

When coming to Prague, The Advocacy Project left me with the mission to find a group of Roma women to create a quilt to display not only their struggles as a Roma woman in Czech society, but also to show their culture. To use their traditions, histories, and art as tools of inclusion rather than exclusion. The process of finding a group of women was not easy. It has been a long process of going back and forth. Thinking I found one group and then realizing the setbacks. Phone calls, meetings, blank stares from me as Ivan spoke in rapid Czech while chain smoking. It was all very overwhelming. But, as always, things turned around, and this is where the story of quilting for advocacy in the Czech Republic truly begins…

With the help of the fabulous (yet very tired) Ivan Vesely, I was put in contact with Emilie Horačkova, a Roma woman who has a long history of social activism and craftsmanship. She was from the town of Mimoň, a small community about eighty kilometers outside of Prague. She introduced me to her daughter, Emilie Zigova, who has hence become our unofficial translator, and we organized a meeting to discuss the process of creating the quilt.

47 year old Emilie Horačkova has recruited a number of Roma women from her community to be involved in the quilting project.
47 year old Emilie Horačkova has recruited a number of Roma women from her community to be involved in the quilting project.

47 year old Emilie Horačkova has recruited a number of Roma women from her community to be involved in the quilting project.

31 year old Emilie Zigova is our unofficial translator and has taken over this project as the coordinator. She is also a gorgeous bride to be! Congratulations Emilie!
31 year old Emilie Zigova is our unofficial translator and has taken over this project as the coordinator. She is also a gorgeous bride to be! Congratulations Emilie!

31 year old Emilie Zigova is our unofficial translator and has taken over this project as the coordinator. She is also a gorgeous bride to be! Congratulations Emilie!

Before meeting with the Emilie’s (as I lovingly refer to this amazing mother-daughter duo), the fantastic Kerry McBroom arrived in Prague. A former Peace Fellow who worked in Sri Lanka and the coordinator of the  Roma quilt in Strasbourg, France, she proved to be essential in helping me not only with organizing the quilt, but in maintaining my sanity.

We agreed on meeting the Emilie’s in Mimoň on July 1st. The bus ride took about two hours, and Emilie the elder met us at the bus station and took us back to her flat. There we met her daughter and her grandson, who also speaks wonderful English. We discussed the potentials of the quilt, with Kerry speaking of her experience in France. All in all it was an extremely successful, if rather unremarkable, day.

The next meeting was  this past Tuesday. Kerry came with me again, and once again we took the early bus. (It left at the delicate hour of 6:50am, meaning we had to awake at 5:00am. Not a pretty sight.) This time we came equipped with markers and paper to help the women brainstorm ideas for their panel. The Emilie’s had gotten in contact with eight women, two of which were unable to come to the initial meeting that Tuesday. Despite this small setback, the brainstorming session went incredibly well. Although I’m sure their panels will tell an important story, their lives are what I am truly interested in.

The women we talked to typically come from large families, with anywhere from five to ten siblings growing up. Many did not finish school past the age of fourteen. They married young, and many were having children by the age of 17 or 18. I asked why they didn’t go to school – it was such a foreign concept to me. They told me that the schools they had were awful, “it is not a good place for school here.” Emilie told me. “It is better to find a man and get married.”

I explain the quilting process to a group of women, including from left to right: Emilie Horačkova, Lenka Dirdova, and Renata Dufkova.
I explain the quilting process to a group of women, including from left to right: Emilie Horačkova, Lenka Dirdova, and Renata Dufkova.

I explain the quilting process to a group of women, including from left to right: Emilie Horačkova, Lenka Dirdova, and Renata Dufkova.

Only two of the women attended secondary school – Emilie Horačkova, and her daughter, Emilie Zigova. Emilie Zigova even attended three years of University before dropping out because of the stress of the constant racism she faced as the only Roma student in her class. Emilie is an outlier in this tight knit community, she is 31 years old and is getting married this summer. For people in the US, this would not be a rarity, but in her community 31 is considered quite old to be getting married.

The women told stories which made me marvel at the cruelty of people. When they would go into stores they would overhear managers telling employees, “Watch that gypsy. They like to steal.” If they would pass a mother and her baby, the mother would tell her children, “Don’t let that dirty gypsy touch you.”

Emilie’s grandson reminisces about his time in Canada, “They don’t look at us there. They actually smile. Here they will smile at your face and then talk about you as soon as you turn around.”

These are the stories that I hope will influence change at the European level. Maybe, one day, the smiles these women will see won’t be fake.

3 Responses to “Quilting for Advocacy: The Beginning”

  1. Erica says:

    This is a really great blog Beth! You begin with such heart wrenching reality that discrimination of the Roma is very much flourishing in Europe, yet you finish with such a hopeful message. I think that your help with this quilt, combined with Kerry’s and Samantha’s quilts, will send a powerful message across Europe to end this discrimination. Can’t wait to see the finish product!

  2. Beth Wofford says:

    Hi Chelsea!
    It really does seem a bit like the caste system (granted, I don’t know a lot about that situation either!). As far as I know, there is not strategy in place for any Roma to continue their studies, let alone women in particular. The Decade of Roma Inclusion and other International Organizations have pushed for a scholarship program for talented Roma students, but it has been met with resistance from both “sides”. Many Roma activists want all children to receive scholarships, and therefore deplore the idea of giving them only to talented students, and the general population in the government seems to resist giving scholarships to an individual due to their ethnicity no matter how talented they are. It would be interesting to see what a program specifically targeting women would do to raise levels of Roma education here!
    -Beth

  3. Chelsea says:

    Hi Beth, loved reading this… so interesting. I know a little bit about the Roma people’s situation, but not very much. What you wrote about the way these individuals are treated reminds me of the caste system here in Nepal. It seems like every community/country has a hierarchy that results in exclusion, and puts people at a disadvantage from the day they are born. Is there any kind of program that provides incentive or support for these women to continue their studies? (I am guessing no, but I haven’t read your other blogs, so I might have missed something…)

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The 20th International Steering Committee Meeting: Reactions from a Peace Fellow


Beth Wofford | Posted June 29th, 2011 | Uncategorized

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On 27 and 28 June, 2011 The Decade of Roma Inclusion held the 20th International Steering Committee Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic. This event heralded the end of the Czech Presidency of the Decade and formalized the beginning of the Presidency of the Republic of Macedonia.

Translations were provided in English, Czech, and Romany
Translations were provided in English, Czech, and Romany

Enjoying my first Meeting of International Roma Leaders

It was quite the experience. As a young, inexperienced intern I found myself quickly overwhelmed with the number of people there and their influence: The Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic  (Petr Nečas) and Macedonia (Nikola Gruevski), George Soros of the  Open Society Foundations, government officials from all the Decade countries, representatives from high levels of the European Commission, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe. In addition, representatives of civil society were abundant, and I settled myself in the back of the room to observe the proceedings. (Not by choice – the rest of the seats were taken!)

The first panel discussion was titled “ Synergies between the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 and the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies.” I found this particularly interesting, as Ivan had me completing a comparison of the efforts and what the Czech Republic has (and has not done) to address these recommendations. The recommendations were all good, but I found myself thinking back to the previous blog post about rhetoric. Yes, the recommendations are valid, but what action is going to be taken to address such recommendations?

L-R: Katarina Mathernova, Gabriela Hrabanova, Lenia Samuel, George Soros, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea
L-R: Katarina Mathernova, Gabriela Hrabanova, Lenia Samuel, George Soros, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea

Katarina Mathernova (Senior Advisor, World Bank), Gabriela Hrabanova (Director, Office of Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs, Czech Republic), Lenia Samuel (Deputy-Director, DG Employment Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission), George Soros (Chairman and Founder of the Open Society Foundations), Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea (Director, DG Justice, European Commission)

Cooperation, monitoring, compatibility, policy. Buzz words were abundant throughout this panel. Perhaps it is my inexperience in such international meetings, but I felt let down. Where was the Decade? What had been DONE? What ACTIONS need to still be taken? This feeling was present throughout the presentations of the Czech Republic and its conclusions and the goals of Macedonia.

Then Kalman Mizsei of the Open Society Foundation presented. He spoke of the need to re-address what qualifies as a “strategy.” Not only should these strategies have goals, but they should have action plans included, quantifiable targets, a concrete budget, and a change from “business as usual.” Policies should not just be approved by Roma civil society, but they should be created by Roma Civil Society in a partnership with governments. He spoke of the need for someone to take responsibility – and pointed at the European Commission. That there needs to be a monitoring process and the European Commission should be responsible for giving feedback to governments about what they’re doing and what they need to improve upon.

Kalman Mizsei, Co-Chair Roma Policy Board, Chair Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma
Kalman Mizsei, Co-Chair Roma Policy Board, Chair Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma

Kalman Mizsei presenting at the 20th ISC Meeting of the Decade of Roma Inclusion

Of course I realize that this is more rhetoric, but it was something other than giving each other pats on the back for merely saying that things need to change. It was a criticism of the fact that things haven’t changed despite such rhetoric. Mr. Mizsei’s presentation was followed by numerous examples of good practices which have occurred throughout member countries.

In Macedonia education has been addressed with a scholarship program as part of the Roma Education Fund – Roma children are encouraged to compete with each other to get good grades and thus funding to go to secondary school. Students were present to talk about the effectiveness of the program – it provided an incentive to do well, it was a method of empowerment and independence for the students. Mentors are available for students, and have been seen to be especially effective in being a bridge between parents and students in navigating the educational system.

In Serbia 60 female health mediators have been trained to become a bridge between Roma communities and health institutions. They have been responsible for a significant improvement in health  – more children are getting vaccinated, women are getting pre natal care, and documents have been supplied to families so they can access health care. The health mediators found that there is nothing inherently unhealthy or dirty about the population – the commonly encountered diseases were almost identical to that of the general population. These health mediators were able to not only educate the Roma community, but dispel stereotypes which are often the most damaging aspects of a marginalized society.

Looking at the Czech Republic, I find myself disappointed in the lack of action. The lack of good practices. The fact that children are still routinely put in special schools. The fact that there are no policies for implementation. There are no groups to enforce action. The Czech Republic is still enabling the vicious cycle of discrimination and prejudice which have afflicted the Roma community for thousands of years. This is not to say the other Decade countries are perfect. (On the second day when the Romanian government presented I thought there might be a fight between Romanian Roma civil society and the government representative…but that is neither here nor there.) But as I have fallen in love with the Czech Republic, I find their failings particularly disappointing.

It is time for them to do something about it. The time for planning has ended, the time for action is upon us.

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Mere Rhetoric: The effectiveness of the Decade of Roma Inclusion


Beth Wofford | Posted June 23rd, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Thursday 30 June, 2011 marks the end of the Czech Presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. The presidency will be closed with the 20th International Steering Committee Meeting on 27 and 28 June, in which I will be attending with Dženo.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) is an initiative by European Governments to realize the inequities which have been propagated against the Roma Minority and to address issues through legislation and governmental influence. The project came into effect on 2 February 2005 in Sofia, Bulgaria in which the prime ministers of the original participating countries signed the Declaration of the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

The Czech Presidency began last summer on 1 July, and has continued through this year. The Presidency established a list of Priority Areas, which are in agreement with many of the goals presented in other Roma documents (For example The European Commission’s EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020 and The Strasbourg Declaration on Roma prepared by the Council of Europe). These priority areas are:

  1. Inclusive Education
  2. Well Being and Rights of Children
  3. Roma Women
  4. Implementation of Integration Policies at the Local Level
  5. Media and the Image of the Roma.

These priority areas seem rather simple – the goals set out in each seem relatively easy to achieve. Many of the goals have been set into legislation per governmental decrees. From many angles, it seems as if the Czech Republic is taking many of the right steps to rectify the wrongs against the Roma minority.

However, when one delves deeper into understanding exactly what has happened to these people and how much these governmental decrees will actually influence any social change whatsoever, the rosy gleam of the Decade seems to diminish.

Let me clarify with a small anecdote.

On Tuesday, as a favor to my landlord, I presented at her school about community service. It was a short presentation about how helping other people can actually be fun. (Weird, right?!) One of the braver young women there asked me (in impeccable English) what I was doing here for the summer. I was hesitant to answer, but then I thought, do I really have to fear judgment from a bunch of 16 year olds? “I’m working to advance Roma Women’s Rights,” I answered. They looked at me with puzzlement. “But why?” asked the young woman, clearly not understanding why such a group would need help. Her lack of understanding was reflected in the faces of all the other young people in the room. It was clear that the stereotypes against the Roma run deep in Czech society, reflected even in the (mostly) innocent faces of the teens I talked to.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog. These governmental actions are a step in the right direction, no doubt. But how can social change and inclusion truly occur? How can we make sure that people take advantage of these programs set out for them? The enormity of these problems is reflected everyday when I walk into my office, with Ivan glaring at documents on his desk and shaking his head at the lack of progress over the past 20 years in the Roma movement.

One of the largest issues facing the Roma minority in the Czech Republic is that of education. Two strategic documents have been produced to try to rectify the problem of Roma children not being accepted into mainstream schools. The first, The National Plan for Inclusive Education, was created to allow equal access and opportunities in education for Roma children. The plan was approved in March 2010 with governmental decree No. 206.

Equal access is such a buzzword in all of the documents regarding Roma inclusion, that this action reflects the idea that the Czech Republic really is doing something about education. Reading about the potential of this plan I felt a touch of excitement that change might actually be happening.

Then, of course, this excitement is killed when I read the news that 50 experts from this working group have resigned. Allegations are presented against the Czech Education minister for Public Affairs, Josef Dobeš, accusing him of not taking concrete action to make this plan a reality. They have been quoted as saying, “Under the existing leadership of the Education Ministry, it is becoming more and more obvious that inclusive education will remain mere rhetoric.” (As mentioned in an article in Education International)

Mere rhetoric. What a fitting term for what has been happening here in the Czech Republic. The rhetoric is so promising – but no actions have been taken to ensure that these plans come to fruition. The perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination continues.

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Chronicling History: Understanding the roots of the European Roma


Beth Wofford | Posted June 21st, 2011 | Uncategorized

“The Roma need to know their history. They need to know that they belong here,” says Ivan as we’re talking this week. “My family was here since the fifteenth century.”

This simple statement made me realize how utterly ahead of myself I’ve gotten. Who am I to report on the situation of the Roma when I too barely know their history? I feel my cheeks burning as I realize my hubris over the past week. As I go back to my corner of the office I decide to delve a little deeper into the history of the people I am trying to help. Hopefully this knowledge will make me a better Peace Fellow and a better advocate for the Roma.

Migration to Europe

Initial reports of Roma in Europe are hard to verify, with some of the first official reports surfacing around the fourteenth century. Europeans in the era described groups of travelers with darker skin, a different language, and unwillingness to conform to traditional roles.

It was initially hypothesized that these people came from Egypt – hence the term “gypsies”. However, as time went on and the world slowly became more connected, similarities were seen between the Roma population and the Indian population. Their language, customs, social structure, and even professions were similar to those seen in Indians. Later genetic testing confirmed their Indian background, with 47.3% of Roma men carrying the y chromosome of haplogroup H-M82, which is seen almost exclusively in the Indian subcontinent.[1] (Excuse my love for genetic tracing of migrations, I guess I still have a touch of biological anthropologist lurking in me somewhere….)

Map of the migration of Roma throughout Europe

In the extremely religious time of the Middle Ages, wandering was viewed as a form of penitence. These newcomers were seen with a mix of admiration and suspicion. Admiration in that they took to the word of God to repent for their sins, and suspicion about what they could have done to need such penitence.

Roma in the Czech Republic[2]

Concrete evidence of the Roma in current day Czech Republic is seen in a letter of protection issued by Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King Zikmund on 17 April 1423. This protection was not long standing, as persecution of the population began with the church, claiming that the wandering Roma were not followers of God. Secular persecution followed, with authorities claiming the Roma were Turkish spies.

This persecution reached its height in 1697, when Roma were placed outside the law by imperial decree. They were seen as subhuman, and it was not a crime to murder a Roma individual.

Maria Theresa attempted to end this persecution in the 18th century; however her efforts were counter intuitive by current standards of human rights. She wanted the population to assimilate, and in order to ensure this would happen, she had the Roma placed in permanent settlements, forbade the use of the Romani language, forced them to change their dress, and their children were taken to live with non-Roma families in order to assimilate.

Another attempt to “civilize” the population came with the Law on Wandering Gypsies in 1927, another initiative to have the people settle and give up aspects which were very important to their culture. This law required Roma to apply to stay overnight anywhere in the Czech lands, thus making it difficult to maintain their nomadic lifestyle.

The Roma were often in the lowest social and economic strata of society, left without proper education and opportunities for employment. The stereotypes persisted, but the ascent of Nazism brought forth a type of persecution henceforth unheard of: extermination. (This topic is one which is huge, and will be discussed at length in a later post.)

A few notes

This is an extremely brief summary on the history of the Roma. It would be an injustice to their rich culture to leave the discussion of their history this short, but for the sake of brevity, I summarized. Please look at these additional resources to understand more about the history of the Roma before World War Two:


[1] Kalaydjieva, L.; Morar, B; Chaix, R. and Tang, H. (2005). “A Newly Discovered Founder Population: The Roma/Gypsies”. BioEssays 27 (10): 1084–1094. doi:10.1002/bies.20287. PMID 16163730

[2] Miklusakova, Marta, and Ctibor Necas. “The History of the Roma Minority in the Czech Republic.” Roma in the Czech Republic. Český Rozhlas, 13 June 2000. Web. 21 June 2011. <http://romove.radio.cz/en/article/18913>

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Fellow: Beth Wofford

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