A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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That vital ingredient called trust.

Christina Hooson | Posted August 28th, 2009 | Europe

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Socially excluded locality – the PC term for ghetto and racial segregation at its most visible. Writing reports for Dzeno I am continually confronted with the phrase: three words assigned the insurmountable task of capturing the essence of the 330 or so residential enclaves inhabited by much of the Czech Republic’s Roma where access to formal employment, education and adequate housing is limited. The label is useful in the world of the written, but what about the world of Roma reality? Returning once more to my experiences in Ostrava last week (albeit a mere snapshot) may help bridge that gap between the two realms:

Wind in my hair, we turn off the main road and enter another universe. Dust sprays as a lone car crosses our path, the tattooed arm of its toothless driver waving from the open window. The vehicle disappears over the horizon, its body glistening in the warm glow of the afternoon sun. We drive on. Type the phrase “Roma ghetto” into Google’s image search and you are inundated with pictures of dilapidated housing and mounds of rubbish, yet what now lay before us contradicted even the most popular hits. Amongst a cluster of large, elegant red houses dating back to the late 1920s children played, teenagers chilled, tapping their feet to gypsy beats and an elderly couple sat in the shade of a beautiful willow tree. Each wrinkle, dimple and blemish on the faces of those who watched as we parked had a story all of its own. Extreme poverty could momentarily be forgotten with the wealth of colours, aromas, sounds and of life itself. The car came to a halt, seatbelts were unclasped.  Kumar’s words “you cannot fight for rights wearing a mask” still ringing in my ears, I started unzipping my camera case…then stopped. Why? Let me explain…

Kumar Vishwanathan had taken me along to a community meeting in one of Ostrava’s ‘excluded localities’. A crisis meeting had been called after a family had been threatened with eviction from the social housing in which they had been residing for some time. A local NGO working in conjunction with the local municipality plans to renovate the family’s home but has made no guarantee that the same family will be allowed to return following the reconstruction. With the NGO under contract for only 2 years, local Roma are rightly concerned that the venture is just privatization in disguise. Roma left homeless after the decision of corrupt officials to sell off properties to friends and family has become an all too regular occurrence in the area. The meeting had been summoned to discuss how best to counter the impending eviction. 

As soon as I opened my car door it was blatant that something was wrong. Met by anxious looking Roma we learnt that our arrival had coincided with a rare and unexpected visit from the municipality’s mayor and the NGO involved in the prospective renovation. They pointed to a window across the street; we were being filmed. A camera lens had never struck me as particularly threatening, but the angst that glistened in the local’s eyes made me realise just how intruding it can be. Kumar turned to me: “You see now the importance of trust Christina?” My camera slipped to the bottom of my bag. “Trust is something that has to be built” he continued “it provides the foundation upon which we work”. What we had just witnessed demonstrated that without that vital ingredient, even the best intentions can be counterproductive. Filming without first asking and gaining the community’s trust was not only intimidating but had hindered the chance for constructive dialogue.

Once the mayor and NGO had left, the community meeting began outside the house that was to be renovated. Kumar, innovative as always, had stuck a large piece of paper to a rusting garage door and encouraged inhabitants of all ages to elect spokespersons and to discuss ideas for further action. Yet the upset caused by the unexpected visitors had left the Roma agitated and it all ended prematurely after it was agreed when they would next get together. The agonizing wait for the family facing eviction continues.   

I myself left from Ostrava without a single photograph. What I did gain – a greater understanding of the complex dynamics of advocating for Roma rights, was undoubtedly far more valuable. Without an open channel of communication between stakeholders (Roma, NGOs and governmental bodies) based on trust, the chances of overcoming the limited access to formal employment, education and adequate housing of those living in ‘socially excluded localities’ are next to none.

Staircase reflections: The invisible sore thumb.

Christina Hooson | Posted August 2nd, 2009 | Europe

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1 step 2 step 3 step 4…tired baby screams, a mother sighs…17, 18, 19…smell of simmering onions diffuses up the stairwell…45, 46…lovers part with a kiss…79, 80, 81…blaring TV laughter fills the airwaves…93, 94…key turns in lock; home sweet home. I’m still weighing up the pros and cons of living on the 6th floor, but the one thing mounting those steps does guarantee (aside from a racing pulse) is time for reflection.

I spent last weekend with the organization Romodrom as they prepared for their summer camp for socially deprived Roma children. I am at present stirring the cauldron of adjectives and won’t start serving until I get a mix that accurately captures the generosity, music, campfire stories, laughter, good food and beautiful countryside to which I was treated. Instead, I turn to staircase contemplations and one particular niggle that dominates my climb to flat no. 24, namely that I am advocating for the rights of an invisible minority.

As I have become more familiar with the city and its inhabitants, I am struck by the lack of awareness about the situation of the Roma. Unlike the unavoidable swarms of tourists, Roma – living mainly in one particular city district, Žižkov – remain out of sight, out of mind for the majority of Prague’s population. The picture is similar elsewhere in the country. Aside from allowing prejudices to fester, geographical concentration ensures that statistics which stick out like a sore thumb on paper (up to 56% of Roma of working age are neither employed nor actively looking for a job) remain in reality unseen by most. The incessant application of the label ‘different‘ is accompanied by little firsthand experience and an element of apathy; the d word used as an explanation for the Roma’s difficulties which ‘just are’.

A media campaign by Dutch photographer Juul Hondius in 1998 aimed at stimulating public debate on racial violence and discrimination in the Czech Republic against Roma. Provocative posters covered city walls fighting what was described as a preference to ignore by making Roma visible on the streets of Prague.

Every day romanies face racism. This is not the solution. So please think and stop racism. Photo Credit: Juul Hondius.
Every day romanies face racism. This is not the solution. So please think and stop racism. Photo Credit: Juul Hondius.

A follow-up project photographed the posters sometime later in order to document positive/negative response to the campaign. I’ll leave you to interpret the results for yourselves but for me, they are a vivid illustration of how the pervasiveness of the Roma plight is intertwined with society’s inherently short attention span.

Tolerance?...or apathy? Photo Credit: Juul Hondius.
Tolerance?...or apathy? Photo Credit: Juul Hondius.

Fellow: Christina Hooson

Dzeno Association in Czech Republic


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