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Posts tagged Roma rights

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.

Speaking Truth to Power: A Conversation with Karel Holomek, a Vital Voice in the Roma Rights Movement

Tereza Bottman | Posted August 30th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Earlier this month, following the Roma Holocaust commemoration ceremony at the site of the former “Gypsy” concentration camp near the town of Hodonín u Kunštátu, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Karel Holomek, one of the most esteemed Czech Romani community leaders.

He shared with me his concern about the recent political developments and their impact on his future cooperation with the Czech government as a human rights activist.

“I will speak about politics now, because politics for me is a fundamental thing. Everything stems from there,” said Mr. Holomek, sharing a table with me in the breezy, contemporary, urban, yet relaxed setting of the cafe at the Museum of Romani Culture, an institution he co-founded nearly twenty years ago in the Czech city of Brno.

Mr. Holomek is the son of the first Czech Romani university graduate and the father of the historian and Museum of Romani Culture director Dr. Jana Horváthová. He is a celebrated international human rights advocate, chairman of the Society of Roma in Moravia and current Ambassador of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015, an initiative that brings together the governments of twelve European countries and NGOs “to accelerate progress toward improving the welfare of Roma.“

[Ing. Karel Holomek, photo by Chad Evans Wyatt]

“I reject the attitude politicians display toward the people who challenge them,” Holomek continued, “in the vein of ‘don’t meddle in our dealings; we are now discussing culture, we are discussing language, we are discussing literature.’ Politics doesn’t belong in these types of conversations, they say. But, unfortunately, it does belong there, and in a very significant way.”

“My big topic at this time is this,” said Holomek. “The government, after the (May Parliamentary) elections came out with its new policy outline. The administration announced, to the satisfaction of everyone with common sense, that it is an administration whose priority is a balanced budget.”

“We accept that,” Mr. Holomek elaborated. “But I always add that government savings measures do not have to mean going broke.”

Holomek went on to criticize Prime MInister Petr Nečas’ choices of staff: “The new administration took the next step of making changes in staffing. It nominated the ministers. Pavel Drobil, who was named the Minister of Environment, is a man who is dedicated to the industrial lobby. He does not even hide that fact. He says such nonsense as ‘nature is there for the people, not people for nature,’ which is a completely primitive slogan, almost as if meant for simpletons. The Minister of Environment is only proof of what the government plans to do regarding the environment. They don’t have to play the charade that they will work for the people.”

“The second concern I have is the new advisor on human rights to the Prime Minister,” Holomek went on. “I consider Roman Joch to be on the borderline of acceptability. I would go as far as to say, and many would agree with me, that, opinion-wise, he is a neo-Nazi. His opinions include: the constitution is the only force needed to protect human rights; everyone is equal in the court of law; the courts should decide.”

Holomek asserted that Czech courts are often incapable of carrying out just judgements, because they are corrupt, a sentiment I have heard echoed from many activists, even a long-time human rights lawyer in this country.

Regarding the lack of legitimacy of Czech courts, Holomek said: “In reality, we have a judicial mafia here. Some people do not realize this, but most of the nation understands that the highest posts are occupied by a judicial mafia.”

“All the people the Prime Minister has selected come from the Václav Klaus administration,” observed Holomek. “And that epoch had a very negative effect on the cultivation of the society, morale, but even in economics. Nečas is probably, with these staffing choices, making deals or amends with Klaus’s political party. That is his problem. But there is no reason we should tolerate this.”

Holomek was referring to the years, specifically the early to mid-90s, following the Velvet Revolution when the regime shifted practically over night from a centrally-planned socialist economy to “free-market” capitalism. The Czech government relatively quickly privatized the majority of state-run business, selling disproportionately large amounts of assets to foreign-owned entities. This transition resulted in significant job losses (in the Czech Republic namely in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors) and wage depression. What followed was a societal reorientation towards rampant consumerism and the general weakening of social safety nets.

“My dilemma is now with this,” confided Holomek. “On July 1, the Czech government took over the presidency of the Decade for Roma Inclusion. I was there in a meeting with still the previous Prime Minister and I was selected to be, so to speak, the face of the Decade. They even call me the Ambassador.”

Holomek’s reaction was mixed. He said that he would be happy to represent the Decade if it had the power to bring about concrete change: “It makes me smile, because it is a highly honorable, but unfortunate function and, of course, without a crown. If I were an ambassador who could do something, who could be the person who receives and allocates the funds dedicated to the initiative, it would be a whole different thing.”

“There are two problems here,” Holomek explained. “The decade is a completely ‘sterile’ project, which has so far taken only the form of international conferences. These are completely insignificant events, during which twenty, thirty or forty like-minded people get together and complain about how things are not working and how something should be done, and during which not a single government official ever participates, let alone to say: I acknowledge you and what should we do about it on our part?”

“When I accepted my role as Ambassador,” explained Holomek, “I said we have to do something concrete. There needs to be a shift forward. I don’t think I will continue being the face of the initiative, if no development happens. I went to the administration and proposed some measures to be taken (toward Romani integration), but I was told immediately by the Office of the Government that there is no money for those efforts.”

Holomek said that the combination of a having a person in office with whom it is impossible to cooperate, and the prospect of no expected progress in sight, makes it so that he cannot possibly continue being the face of the Decade: “I would accept it all and continue to risk and move forward if there were at least someone in the administration who would be supportive.”

“With my years of experience,” Holomek contended, “I am a trusted person and I am willing to do anything (to improve the situation for the Roma), but not with these people in the government.”

“Now I just have to wait and see whether the PM will grant me a meeting with him,” Holomek concluded, “so I can tell him eye-to-eye, bluntly as is my style, how I see the situation and how angry he has made me.”

Karel Holomek is one of the signatories of ProAlt, a grassroots initiative opposing the new Czech government’s priorities. I, too, have signed the initiative, which I hope will constitute a vital force that keeps in check the new conservative administration who, so far, seems deaf to the concerns of human rights and minority advocates.

American Neocon-Christian Right Ideology Makes Inroads into Czech Politics with PM’s Advisor Choice

Tereza Bottman | Posted August 18th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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He opposes affirmative action because it unfairly privileges those from “special” groups over others, and because, as he says, there is no need to rehash things for which we, alive today, are not responsible. He claims there is no systemic discrimination, and thus no need for corrective measures improving the lives of the marginalized, including the Roma, in the Czech Republic, even though scores of international studies have shown otherwise. He is not happy anti-discrimination legislation was instituted in this country, because it essentially “dictates how people in their private spheres should conduct themselves.” He deems homosexuality abnormal, likening gay people to pedophlies, zoophiles and necrophiles. He defends the use of torture, including waterboarding, and is not opposed to the installment of a right-wing, authoritarian regime if Western civilization and liberty are under threat.

Meet Roman Joch, director of the conservative think-tank Civic Institute (Občanský institut), and new advisor selected by Prime Minister Nečas for the area of human rights and foreign relations.

What Joch’s post as an advisor to the Prime Minister means is that, come September when he is slated to start, the American Neoconservative-Christian Right alliance, through its long-cultivated mouthpiece in the Czech Republic, will have a direct say in the formation of both, foreign and domestic policy.

This is not a new phenomenon, as other CI personalities have been in advisory positions in the government before. It is nonetheless an alarming turn of events for those concerned with the dire human rights situation of the marginalized groups, especially the Roma who face systemic discrimination in nearly every sector, including housing, labor, and education.

This information is taken from Joch’s 2007 bio for his fellowship at the California-based Claremont Institute, a conservative think-tank whose mission is “to restore the principles of the American founding fathers to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life,” and to establish a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life, and maintains a strong national defense:

Joch lectures and writes on political philosophy, international relations, and national security issues in Czech and Slovak newspapers, magazines and electronic media. From 1994-1998, he was International Secretary of the Civic Democratic Alliance, a conservative political party in the Czech Republic. Joch was a member of the student movement during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, an international visitor to the Republican National Convention in 1996, and a delegate to the First International Conservative Congress in 1997.

He is the author of two books, Why Iraq? Causes and Consequences of the Conflict and The Revolt Against the Revolution of the Twentieth Century, an intellectual biography of American conservative. He holds an M.D. from Charles University in Prague.

Evidently, Joch and his Civic Institute team have taken it upon themselves to, in concert with their ideological allies from abroad, cultivate contemporary Western society, to save it from ignorance, poor taste and vulgarity.

He is a cultural warrior, fighting to bring back traditional family values and “objective“ morality rooted in Christian values. At the same time, his mission is to ensure the Czech Republic aligns itself completely with pro-US interests in the region. After all, his institute and publishing house are being bankrolled largely by American neo-conservative and Christian Right foundations such as Earhart Foundation a William H. Donner Foundation in conjunction with right-wing Czech industrialists. The American defense contractor Lockheed Martin even financed the Civic Institute, where Joch is director, during the time the US was negotiating a sale of F16 fighter jets to the Czech Republic.

The CI Advisory Board boasts such personalities as neoconservative Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, who served as general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Reagan Administration. Also on the Board is Michael Novak of the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute, whose scholars were considered to be some of the leading architects of George W. Bush administration’s public policy.

According to the European Conservative:

The roots of the CI can be traced back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the dissidents met in their homes to discuss politics, philosophy, economics, theology, culture and international relations. After the fall of Communism, they decided to found an institute to carry on those discussions. (…)

The founders of the CI intended it to be an institution dedicated to the advocacy and vindication of the moral conditions and philosophical foundations necessary for a free society. (…)

Its first publication was a Czech translation of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. (…)

The CI began cooperating and networking with many other pro-family and pro-life institutions around the world, publishing studies and policy papers. (…)

After 11 September 2001, the CI preserved its pro-family orientation, though in less explicitly religious terms and added international relations, foreign affairs, security issues, Islamic terrorism and existential threats to the West to its portfolio of issues.

The CI has published studies and organized dozens of conferences and seminars around issues like U.S. foreign policy, the role of America in the world, the war against Islamic terrorism, missile defense, Islam in Europe and demographic challenges in the West.

Joch and his colleagues have clearly set up a mini training laboratory from which they send out ordained warriors to spread their gospel-flavored cocktail of traditional Christian values and right-wing pro-American political agenda.

The European Conservative continues:

CI fellows serve as commentators in Czech media, contributing op-eds to newspapers and magazines or speaking out on political issues on radio and television.

CI fellows serve as advisors to several Czech statesmen. The director of CI (was) a member of the Academic Council of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as advisor to the former Czech deputy prime minister for European affairs. (…)

Many alumni of CI events have gone on to careers in media as columnists; in politics as aspiring politicians or staffers to senior politicians; or in academia as assistant professors or professors.

(CI members) enjoy their position as a ‘happy warrior,’ pushing the public and intellectual discourse – and the whole society – as far to the right as is reasonably possible. Born out of the resistance to Communist totalitarianism and having opposed socialism and moral relativism, the CI now fights against the ideologies of multiculturalism, radical feminism and political correctness. They fight for Western traditions and values and, above all, for ordered liberty.

Approximately a hundred protesters gathered this morning in front of the Office of the Government in Prague to protest the appointment of Joch on the Prime Minister’s advisory team. The appointment has been criticized by leading Czech scholars and human rights activists, including Students Against Racism and the newly formed government opposition initiative, ProAlt.

“We are here to say we reject Mr. Joch, whose concept of human rights is, according to us gathered here, unfortunate,“ said one of the protesters.

During the demonstration, a contest was held for the most ridiculous quote by Joch. The winner was this quote, endorsing the possibility of installing “a right-wing authoritative regime,“ if “Western civilization were threatened with destruction caused by the political and intellectual impotence of the Left,“ or “by the inner disintegration, or abandonment of civilized values and virtues in favor of the freely flourishing venting of lust and passion.“

The intent and the connection between CI’s activities and those of their American counterparts are clear. It is up to the Prime Minister to decide whether he wants to continue to endorse this type of anti-democratic, bigoted, hegemonistic agenda despite the protests from human rights advocates and minority leaders.


A petition against Joch’s appointment as advisor to the Prime Minister has been initiated and can be found here.

Also, to read about how neoconservatives secretly forged an alliance with the Christian Right during the Bush presidency, go to this 2007 interview with investigative journalist Craig Unger by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.

When You Write About Us: A Dispatch from a Village on the Margins

Tereza Bottman | Posted August 13th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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“Me, me! Now it’s my turn!” the local kids clamor to try my cell phone camera, taking pictures of each other, of me, of their fingers in front of the lens.

“What’s your name? Do you have kids? Is he your husband?” they ask, surrounding me and gesturing toward the man with whom I arrived here.

[children who greeted us upon our arrival in Letanovce]

It’s drizzling. The muddy ground throughout the village doesn’t bother me. I have traveled more than ten hours to this place from Prague by bus and car, prepared, wearing my reliable pair of enclosed leather shoes. Meanwhile, the mud splatters all over my colleague’s feet in sandals, reaching up between his toes. He mutters, admonishing himself for dressing as if this were his first time here.

“To understand the Roma in the Czech Republic, you have to visit a Romani settlement in Slovakia,” my fellowship colleague told me when he invited me along on his annual pilgrimage to the settlement of Letanovce to visit a family he befriended ten years ago when he began working in the arena of Roma rights.

Many, if not the majority, of Romani families who live in the Czech Republic now, migrated there from rural Slovakia sometime between World War II and the present day.

According to Czech Radio’s article on the history of the Roma minority, after the war, during which more than 90 percent of Czech Roma were killed by the Nazis, “Roma from settlements in Eastern Slovakia started to migrate to the evacuated Czech frontier regions and were dispersed as a light work force throughout the industrial areas of Bohemia and Moravia,” the two regions that make up the Czech Republic.

A 1958 law, the Czech Radio article continues, mandated migrating peoples to settle down permanently “where they were assigned as a work force, without regard to the separation of families. In 1965, another law was passed concerning the procedure of dispersing the gypsy population, through which Roma from eastern Slovakian Romani villages had to move to Bohemia to work.”

The migration to the Czech Republic continues today, tied to people’s search for work, better living conditions, and reunification with families.

[Letanovce panorama]

There are between 700 and 800 socially isolated Romani settlements in Slovakia, which, together with the Czech Republic, made up Czechoslovakia until the peaceful split in 1993. These settlements tend to have disproportionately high unemployment rates of 90 to 100%, and lack basic services such as running water, sewers, electricity, gas or garbage collection. Letanovce, where I am visiting, fits this profile to a tee.

The approximately 700 local residents live in one-room log cabins, burn wood for heat, carry their water in buckets from a well at the bottom of the hill, and use a latrine or the adjacent tall green weeds as bathrooms.

We are invited in to the larger-than-the-local-norm two-room cabin of the family with whom we will be staying. They did not expect us. We had no way of contacting them, although several residents do have cell phones, some even with internet service. The challenge, I learn, is charging electronic items, as there is no electricity in this community. A few residents have small, six-inch televisions, which run on car batteries charged for a fee in town.

We bring in our gifts: food, second-hand clothes, toys and some odd household items like wash basins and dishes. We sit and crack open the pear brandy we had brought, toasting with shot glasses. Then it is quiet.

I feel awkward, my privilege so blatant here, wondering how to bridge the chasm between my life experience and that of the locals’.

The family slowly begins to unravel old stories from my colleague’s past visits, updating us on the changes in the community.

[Magda's family and neighbors. We stayed at her sister's and mother's house.]

Many families migrated to the UK for work, then after two or three years returned back, because even there, work was hard to come by.

“After two years in England I honestly did not want to come back,” one of the women whose house we are in tells me. True, her husband worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week at a sausage factory for very little pay, but it was work. And they had electricity and plumbing. But the bills kept coming and the work slowly dried up due to the recession.

Before it gets dark, we decide to take a walk around the village.

The residents come out into the rain to take a look at us. We greet everyone, the children forming our entourage.

I ask the children what they do for fun. Some shrug their shoulders, others say they play with toys or go swimming in the nearby river. Some try out the English they learned while living abroad: “Do you speak English?” and “How are you?”

Although Slovak and Czech are mutually intelligible, with some children there is a bit of a language barrier. The children all speak Romani at home, some of the younger ones don’t even understand Slovak when they first start school, our host tells me. That is why bilingual Romani educational assistants are key to helping the students transition and be successful in school. However, these children have no such assistants where they go to school.

Our host worked as a teacher’s assistant for several months, but got paid very little, and still of her own initiative did extra work outside her working hours. For instance, she gathered the children in the village and personally walked them to school 3 kilometers from the settlement. Unfortunately, her contract was never signed, and, in the end, her social benefits were cut because she’d had an income, no matter how inadequate to sustain the family.

“I would be so happy working as a classroom assistant. That work speaks to me,” she said. “But when I have approached the school, which currently does not have any Roma working there, they have always told me they do not have any positions open.”

“The walk to town is about a half-hour and most mothers do not have money for the bus or for lunch. We don’t have fridges here, so it is hard for us to give our kids snacks early in the morning because over night, the food would spoil,” she says, describing the barriers that parents here face when it comes to their children’s education.

Most Romani children in the community attend a “practical,” formerly special education school. Placement of Romani children, whether special needs or not, in such schools is common practice across Europe. Romani children, based on a psychological evaluation, are many more times likely to be placed in “practical schools” than white children and are overrepresented in such institutions, sometimes comprising the entire population of such schools. The results are segregation, lower-quality education and less opportunity for success in further schooling or employment.

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that this pattern of segregation violated nondiscrimination protections in the European Convention on Human Rights. However, Roma continue to be assigned to these schools in disproportionate numbers.

“What subjects do you like in school?” I ask. The children shout over each other with excitement: “Reading! Writing! Math! Social Studies!”

As we chat while walking outside, I hear growling and yapping. Out of the corner of my eye I see a small dog charging at me, and before I know it, I feel it sinking its needly claws and teeth into the back of my thigh, ripping a large hole in my pants. The dog retreats as fast as it came.

I’m bleeding, but no one seems concerned. Only my travel partner from my fellowship organization Dženo half-jokes: “Hope the dog wasn’t rabid.”

The girls tell me the dog bites them too sometimes. Later that night, I sneakily dip my fingers into my shot glass and spread some pear brandy we are drinking onto the bite wound to disinfect it.

“I am ashamed,” our host confesses, half-whispering, when she shows me where I will be sleeping. It is the family bed, big enough for four or five people. I tell her she has nothing to be ashamed of, but her sentiment deepens the discomfort I already feel about invading the family’s privacy.

The bedroom is beautifully decorated with flowers, tapestries and chachkis lining the shelves. I will be sharing the big bed with the children, the parents unfold a mattress and place it on the floor where they will sleep.

In 2003, construction on a new apartment complex, financed by the town, state and European Union, began several kilometers from the current location of the settlement. The idea was moving the families to another location and leveling the place which many consider an eyesore in such a picturesque area favored by tourists. Families with permanent residency would be able to apply to relocate to the new apartment complex even more distant from the center of the town. No worries, the apartment complex would also have a school and a store on location.

The protests from the neighboring majority community that this project unleashed ranged from petitions to threats to the mayor that if he proceeds with the plan, an anonymous, angry local would poison the pristine rivers in the area with mercury. A skull was even found on the construction site with a letter threatening the mayor would be murdered for going through with this plan.

As of today, new buildings have not yet been completed. When they are ready, the problem is that many of those in the settlement will not qualify to move in, because they lack permanent residency status in Letanovce. Also, the new living conditions will require paying for rent, electricity and water bills, a practice many families are not used to and for which they have very limited means, considering their prohibitively high unemployment rate.

When the village wakes up the next day, we are all more comfortable with each other. I play and joke with the children, who teach me card games and sing, accompanied by a boy on a drum set in the wood shed.

We take a walk in Slovakian Paradise, a mountainous, forested nature reserve nearby. The kids go swimming there. They pick wild raspberries along the way for me.

“Do you ever fish in this river?” I ask the nine-year-old girl who has become my constant companion.

“No, we are rich,” she replies. “We have been to England. We buy smoked fish at the store.”

When we return, a dozen men from the settlement have their bags packed and are headed for the train. They found work all the way in Prague, ten hours away. Ten days in a row they will work construction, not knowing whether they will get paid. Temporary workers like these men, employed under the table so as not to lose their social benefits, are easy targets for companies that profit from their cheap labor. If the boss doesn’t pay them, the laborers have almost no leverage to demand their salary.

“We get visitors once in a while, from Brussels and such places. Whoever comes, always needs to write something about us, it seems,” says the host as we gather in her kitchen.

My colleague and I freeze up for a bit. We, too, are those visitors the woman had just described. Here one day, gone the next, and what remains are perhaps a few toys or items of clothing and an article about this community, floating about somewhere in ether.

“When you write about us,” our host tells me softly, “say that we want help. We don’t want to live like this anymore.” So I pass on her words, thankful for the locals’ generosity and richer for all that they had taught me, so essential for the work still ahead.

[a picture the kids took during one of our cell phone photo sessions]

After a tragedy, a community finds strength in unity

Tereza Bottman | Posted August 9th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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It’s dusk. An unknown car pulls in to the neighborhood and slowly approaches our small group talking on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood of modest wooden family homes and neatly kept picket-fenced yards. The atmosphere tenses.

“Why are they coming here?” one of the local men asks under his breath, his eyes never leaving the car coming toward us.

Suddenly I remember a reality I had forgotten while drinking tea and visiting with the locals in one of the resident family’s backyards. We are in Bedřiška, a “socially excluded community” in northeastern Czech Republic, where last year a molotov cocktail, thrown by neo-Nazis out of a car into an open bedroom window, almost killed a two-year-old Romani girl in her sleep.

The racially motivated attack left three of the house inhabitants injured and caused the little girl severe burns on 80 percent of her body. The attackers are currently on trial for attempted murder.

The car stops not more than five feet from us, the lights stay on, the engine idles for some time, clearly putting some in the group on alert.

“They must be lost,” guesses one of the men.

Soon, a woman no one seems to know opens the car door and hurries past us without a greeting into a house a few doors down. The car drives away. Sense of relief.

The evening sky has a pleasant, summer glow, the birds chirp. A small dog accompanies us, playing with a toy. A group of teens walking toward us greets community activist Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, whom I am accompanying on his trip to Bedřiška today, with smiles.

They linger and exchange a few words about how they have been doing. Vishwanathan asks the youth if they would like a soccer field in their neighborhood, pointing at a large, lush green space on the other side of the road that could potentially be used for a field. The boys reply enthusiastically.

Vishwanathan asks the girls if they would play soccer, or what they prefer to do in their free time. The girls are much more shy than the boys and don’t provide any answers readily. But in less than a year’s time, the neighborhood should have a community center, for which they have pressed the city, completed.

The plans for the center are multifold. It would house afterschool activities for children, tutoring sessions, a meeting and performance space, and more.

[community activists in Bedřiška]

As we continue our way down the street, the locals tell of a recent case when someone in the neighborhood got hurt and the police were phoned, however the phone call from “that notorious location” was dismissed as a prank call and help was not dispatched until multiple calls were placed. The ambulance did arrive on the scene, but was very delayed.

My mind is still buzzing from the neighborhood association meeting I had just attended in Bedřiška. The group had been meeting for some time to advocate for the needs of the community’s residents, but because they were not taken seriously by city hall, they decided to form an official association in May. Since then, their influence has grown, one of the members had told me.

“Now that we are official, they can’t just brush us aside. They have to listen to us,” he said.

“Bedřiška is an example of how a community can come together following a tragedy,” Vishwanathan observed. “What happened could have taken on a negative path toward destruction, or gone in a positive direction toward cooperation.”

Clearly, the latter is the case.

“We talk things through here,” explains one of the association’s leaders. “If there is a dispute among the neighbors, we try to sit down, talk and resolve it.”

“Not everyone is on board yet. But we’re working on it,” she adds.

Deescalating conflict through mediation is a key strategy the association uses to build unity and prevent dangerous situations. The efforts are made all the more urgent, considering the wounds of racist violence in this community are still fresh.

Last March, another arson attack on a Romani family’s home occurred. This time, the perpetrator was a white neighbor from across the street.

As we make our way down the road, we cross paths with a family leaving their home. “Four months ago a molotov cocktail was thrown inside this family’s house,” Vishwanathan relates. “Their teenage daughter put out the fire and saved her relatives’ lives.”

“How is your daughter sleeping these days? Is she able to sleep?” Vishwanathan asks the mother.

The mother looks down and timidly shakes her head from side to side. The truth is clear. The family is still experiencing trauma, months after the incident.

“If the fire had spread, it could have burned a big part of the neighborhood down,” says one of the local leaders. “People realized that what affects one family, affects us all. So we started working together.”

In addition to mediating conflicts and advocating for space, funding, staff and supplies for tutoring and afterschool children’s activities, the association organizes weekly clean-ups of the neighborhood. The group plans community-wide events such as movie screenings, games for children and performances that bring the neighborhood together.

The association also acts as a link between the residents and city hall when rental agreements or other legal documents and proceedings must be attended to. Sometimes archives have to be searched, letters written, errors exposed and fair treatment demanded.

In one case, for example, the association helped when a resident, who had paid all his back rent in full, was later unexpectedly alerted that he had an exorbitant outstanding debt to the city with no clear explanation of why these charges had been incurred.

The locals with whom I spent my evening also shared a story about taking a stand against a local drug dealer who ran a methamphetamine (or pervitin in Czech) lab in the neighborhood. As a result of their actions, the police arrested the drug dealer, making the neighborhood safer for the kids.

The community has a vision of creating a historical display explicating and simultaneously commemorating the neighborhood’s history, closely tied to the region’s steel mill industry. Bedřiška’s wooden homes were built in the 1950s for the steel mill workers who had moved to the area for work.

Today, the unemployment rate among the Roma in the region is high, veering between 90 and 100 percent. One of the association’s goals is to push for ways to employ the neighborhood’s residents, for instance as construction workers or street cleaners, and while we were visiting Bedřiška, an arrangement was made to begin the process with an organization which Vishwanathan recommended.

“I started activism because I have children and grandchildren here, and I want everyone here to have a good future,” a white woman, who is one of the leaders in the neighborhood tells me. “I like the Roma. We are different culturally, but as long as we can accept our differences and talk with each other openly, we get along.”

Fighting for fair treatment and opportunity, however, does not come without a price, she says.

“I have lost old friends of twenty-five to thirty years over this,” the activist tells me, describing how explosive associating across racial lines in the Czech Republic can be.

“When they said things like, ‘You are betraying the white race,’” she continues, “that had to be the end of our friendship.”

By the time our visit wraps up, it is late and the sun has long gone down. I am full of impressions. Images of resigned, dark-skinned “ghetto” inhabitants in graffiti-covered, bleak city landscapes of half-dilapidated buildings flash through my mind. Mainstream media are the modern-day myth-makers. Over selectively crafted, cliched, mass-produced myths, I prefer true stories, told by the people in the real world and in their own words.

For Romani families in poverty, threat of forced removal of children by the state looms large

Tereza Bottman | Posted August 7th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Members of nineteen families facing eviction file in to a small conference room. The multigenerational group listens intently as LifeTogether director Sri Kumar Vishwanathan describes the situation: his organization, in partnership with several private firms, was, at the last minute, able to secure eighteen apartments on the outskirts of town for families who have defaulted on rent, and are thus being forced to move out of a building in one of the city’s “socially excluded Romani locations.” The apartments offered to those present contain only bare walls, no appliances and insufficient facilities–a sink, but no shower or tub.

[Sri Kumar Vishwanathan, head of LifeTogether, meets with families facing eviction]

This particular community’s unemployment rate stands at a shocking 100 percent, a phenomenon that is common in many of the poor Czech Romani enclaves. In order to survive, families often rely on money lenders who use unethical practices, charging exorbitant amounts of interest, thus forcing families into vicious cycles of poverty which are difficult to break.

As a result of their dire economic situation and deeply entrenched systemic discrimination, several families at the meeting have already had some of their children taken away by the state and at least four others are in danger of having their children placed into state care.

“The mothers were ashamed to say their children are under the threat of being removed from the family,” Vishwanathan, who founded LifeTogether in the northeastern Czech town of Ostrava thirteen years ago, related to me in private after the meeting. “They feel they have failed. But it’s not their fault.”

“Czech Republic is number one in Europe,” he continues, “in terms of having the highest rate of forced removal of children from Romani families and placed in state-run institutions.”

Indeed, Human Rights Watch has found that the Czech Republic has the highest number of infants under the age of three forced into institutional care of all EU countries.

Vishwanathan’s organization works to help prevent such practices, which have been criticized by the European Roma Rights Center and Amnesty International, among other human rights watchdogs. LifeTogether provides many services for the Romani community, including legal aid, counseling as well as help for children who run away from state foster care institutions.

[Sri Kumar Vishwanathan]

To truly remediate the situation, however, a systemic overhaul is long overdue. In its Survey on Children in Alternative Care, Eurochild, a network of organizations and individuals working across Europe to improve the quality of life of children, outlines seven steps by which European governments could prevent forced removal of children from families in poverty. Eurochild states:

EU member states should invest more in moving away from a child care system based on large institutions and move towards the provision of a range of integrated, family-based and community-based services.

Another Eurochild recommendation suggests that “the involvement of children, young people and their families is crucial, both in the decision- making processes affecting them directly and in the development of alternative care policies and services. They should therefore be empowered to participate in all stages of the care process and the EU should encourage the development of peer led groups of children, young people and parents with experience of care.”

The European Roma Rights Center identifies the role of the social worker as key in addressing systemic discrimination, as social workers are those who determine whether a family is “definitively incapable of caring for a child.” This decision is often driven by preconceived conceptions and a social worker’s view of the Romani community. The Bratinka Report, a study discussed in the ERRC document, found this to be the case:

This report found that 38% of social workers felt that the main obstacle to better relationships were the “unsavoury characteristics of the Roma”, that the Romani minority should attempt to adapt to the majority, that affirmative action programmes for the Roma were a waste of money and their influence negligible, and that it would be good to strike hard at Romany criminality and disregard for generally accepted norms. Forty-two percent of social workers felt that pro-active programmes for the Roma were an unfair privilege for one group of citizens. The ramifications of these perceptions may indeed correlate with the disproportionate representation of Roma children in institutions and necessarily question whether Romani families are given a just assessment of their rightful capacity to raise their own children.

Because social workers’ prejudices can ultimately lead to the break-up of a family, it is crucial that, as the organization Eurochild asserts, “all professionals working with and for children, including those in the education, health care, child protection and social work sectors, need high quality on-going training and supervision.”

Furthermore, Eurochild advocates that risks of social exclusion associated with poverty must be reduced:

The fight against child poverty must remain a key political priority of the EU. Social inequality denies children equal access to services and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. A strong political framework is required at EU level to ensure all member states put in place the necessary structural reforms to ensure all families have access to a minimum income and adequate services.

This year happens to be the EU Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, and in that regard, the Czech Republic has far to go. Considering the critical situation of the Romani population living in poverty, it is an abomination that the newly elected Czech government plans to cut social spending rather than invest in uplifting marginalized communities so they can live fearless, dignified lives.

“That’s very big of you. You are noble people,” Vishwanathan responds to one mother’s offer to forgo her chance to move into the apartment offered by LifeTogether before the meeting with the families concludes. The mother wants to give a preference to a family in danger of having its children removed by the state. She says, “There are nineteen families and eighteen apartments. Of course I will give a family that needs it more a chance first. We, who have kids, know how it is.”

Fortunately, following the eviction from an already long-neglected building for the poor, she and her children will be able to stay at her aunt’s for now.

Honoring Pain and Loss, Urging Vigilance and Change on International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day

Tereza Bottman | Posted August 4th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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On August 2nd, representatives and friends of the Romani and Sinti communities from Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic gathered at Auschwitz to commemorate the International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The ceremony took place at the site of the so-called Zigeunerlager, or “Gypsy” Camp, where more than 23,000 Roma were imprisoned. The date marked the 66th anniversary of the liquidation of the “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz II-Birkenau on the night of August 2, 1944 when the Nazis killed 2,897 men, women, and children in the gas chambers. International Roma Holocaust (or, in Romani, Porajamos) Remembrance Day has been observed since 1994.

[Family at the International Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at Auschwitz, photo by Tereza Bottman]

“I was a child when I visited this place for the first time,” recalled Roman Kwiatkowski, Chairman of the Association of the Roma in Poland in his speech to the audience, which, aside from activists and Romani as well as majority community members, included religious figures and government officials.

“I came here with my mother,” continued Kwiatkowski, “and I can still remember two things: the crumbling monument and my mother sobbing uncontrollably. I understood very little back then, I could not comprehend the symbolism of this place and the magnitude of the tragedy and suffering connected with it. However, I subconsciously felt how important it was, and concluding from its condition, how forgotten it must have been. A sense of mission was born in me then. From the beginning of my activity as a grown-up man and an activist for the Romani community, my aim has been to refill this place with proper meaning and importance.”

The Monument of Roma and Sinti at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was built in 1973 and renovated in 1994. The plaque on the granite obelisk reads:

“Memorial place of Roma of the concentration camp in Auschwitz – Birkenau. Thousands of men, women and children imprisoned, tortured victims of German Fascism, died in this concentration camp in Birkenau – cruelly tormented, murdered and gassed. Funded by the Roma Association in Germany 1973 Rose O. Bamberger”

[Monument of Roma and Sinti at Auschwitz-Birkenau, photo credit Czech Radio]

The exact number of Roma who perished in the Holocaust is unknown, but historians estimate it to be between half- and 1.5 million people. More than 90% of Czech Roma died at the hand of the Nazis. Over 62% of Romani prisoners at Auschwitz came from Germany and Austria, 22% were brought from the Czech Republic, and the rest came from Poland.

To this day, Romani activists have been struggling to attain recognition and redress for the crimes committed by the Nazis against their community during WWII.

“Unfortunately our organization has come to understand that the Roma are not honored equally to other victims of the Nazi era in compensation efforts,” said Čeněk Růžička, Chairman of the Committee for Compensation of Romani Holocaust in the Czech Republic. “It seems unbelievable that up to the present moment, compensations have not been completed, and, in contrast to the redress process regarding the property claims of Jews, compensations for Romani properties have not yet been started.”

Růžička’s organization is committed to continuing to advocate for Romani Holocaust victims. He says: “We will continue to ask for compensation of Romani assets and for the Roma to be present as equal partners in the dealings. The victims who remain alive have selected us to represent their rightful interests, and we want nothing more than to right this injustice.”

The community representatives and Polish government officials who spoke at the event urged everyone present to remain vigilant and to continue to support the plight of the Roma who, as Gejza Adam of the Slovak Roma Coalition Party said, “have been striving to become equal members” of societies across Europe.

“Despite the fact that sixty years have passed since the tragedy,” Adam said, “Romani communities in Europe have been suffering from the same negligence as always.”

[Auschwitz Gate, photo by Tereza Bottman]

Poverty, alarming environmental and social conditions, as well as low social status are just some of the issues the Roma face, Adam said, taking a moment to criticize the current situation: “Financial aid distributed by the European resources that is aimed at helping the Roma improve their social status hardly ever gets to its addressees, meaning the Romani people themselves.”

Drawing parallels between the importance of remembering the victims and the relevance of those memories today was a theme throughout the ceremony.

“Sixty-five years ago the Nazi ideology was conquered,” said Růžička. “But, unfortunately, not its ideas. They appear again and again. So let us be watchful and uncompromising so that we do not lose control over them.”

“It is our duty not only to inform and to spread the knowledge of these places and about the unimaginable crime committed on the Romani nation, a nation that was so categorically sentenced to death because of its race and ethnicity,” said Kwiatkowski. “It would be tragic to belittle and forget the fact that Roma and Sinti were exterminated. We cannot allow such a situation to arise, because it is only one step from the consent for the repetition of the brutal practices that marked the history of Europe and the whole world in such a painful manner.”

["Haunted" -- Auschwitz-Birkenau, photo by Tereza Bottman]

Adam concluded his speech with these powerful words:

“I am truly sorry to dare raise your awareness (about the problems today) at this particular place, but I hope the ashes and unmarked graves of the Holocaust victims can become the sacred ground from which human hope, tolerance and moral courage will rise in order to help us–Romani people–become valid members of societies that value human rights and equality above all.”

[flowers to honor the victims, photo by Tereza Bottman]


A slide show of the August 2, 2010 ceremony can be seen here.

Those who understand Romani or Slovak can watch a short documentary by the Romani Press Agency about the Romani Holocaust here.

[Romani boys at the commemoration, photo by Tereza Bottman]

More photos from the ceremony:

Matters of the Heart: A conversation with Romani radio personality Iveta Demeterová

Tereza Bottman | Posted July 23rd, 2010 | Uncategorized

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“It was when I started here in 2002 that my big love affair with this work began,” says Iveta Demeterová, Director of Programming at Radio Rota, the first Romani internet station in the Czech Republic, founded and operated by the Dženo Association.

“None of us at the station took the work as a mere job; we considered it our life’s mission and our passion,” recalls Demeterová. “For us, it was a matter of the heart. None of us ever looked at the clock; we worked until we were happy with what we produced.”

[Iveta Demeterová, photo by Tereza Bottman]

During Radio Rota’s heyday between 2002 and 2006, the station attracted tens of thousands of listeners from the Czech Republic and around the world each month. Radio Rota aired news, public affairs programming, talk shows, and cultural programs in three languages: Czech, English and Romani. The radio presented organizations to which the community could turn for help.

The hope is that if enough funding is raised, the station will soon resume broadcasting, this time in digital satellite format, reaching listeners in more languages, across as much as three quarters of Europe.

“The station served as a a link, connecting Roma who before the year 2000 immigrated to Canada, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand,” explains Demeterová. “We provided a way for them to communicate together, obtain information from us, and, in return, pass on information to us about how they were doing abroad; how they were faring in areas of housing, education, work; how they were perceived there and whether they had problems based on the color of their skin.”

The audience also included the majority population.

“Our motto was: ‘Radio about and for, but not only for the Roma,’” says Demeterová, who, as of September, will also be the new Director of Romani programming on Czech Radio, a publicly funded station with a weekly listenership of nearly 3 million.

“I was most thrilled by the fact that there was such great cooperation between the station and its listeners,” beams Demeterová. “The telephone rang off the hook. We received so many emails, it was a challenge to respond to all of them.“

One of the regular programs was a show called Voicemail. “The messages that people sent to each other through us were incredible,“ remembers Demeterová. “People called in to confess their love for each other, to make birthday wishes, to express regrets that they cannot be there to celebrate their grandparents‘ anniversaries.“

Radio Rota even brought people together; not only couples, but friends or relatives who had not been able to find each other for years.

“I did not live my own life doing this work,“ Demeterová confesses. “I lived the lives of the others; the listeners, because I was their fan. I provided advice and contacts for organizations that could help them.“

During the time of campaigns, politicians were regularly invited to the Radio Rota studio to be interviewed and to discuss their platforms. Informally, many of them expressed their support for the station, but in the end, their words were mostly empty promises, says Demeterová.

“Funding was always an issue,” she explains. “The station was built for money from abroad. We asked the Ministry of Culture for funding, and we received it twice. We were glad we received the support, even though it was less than the amount we had requested.“

“We had to prioritize,“ says Demeterová. “There were times when we were only able to pay the bills and the contractors, still we continued working. We weren’t thinking about ourselves; we were thinking about the listeners who were waiting for the services the station provides.“

The importance of independent, minority-run media such as Radio Rota cannot be overstated. Demeterová says the station played a unique role in Czech society in that it emphasized a positive image of the Romani community.

“If the majority population truly wants to have a multicultural society and to be a lawful member of the European Union,“ Demeterová asserts, “if they want tolerance to preside over this land, one way to achieve this is [for the majority and the Roma] to continue getting to know each other. Radio Rota could be a vehicle to open the way for that process.“

Several years later, fans are still writing in, wondering what is happening with the radio station.

“People are still waiting for something to happen, hoping that the radio will continue,” says Demeterová.

The station provided not only information and entertainment, but also a sense of community as well as pride.

“When the radio was created, the community felt part of the experience,” Demeterová explains. “The people felt that they belonged there: ‘We, too, have our own radio station now.’”

“When the listeners wrote in, they did not call it ‘your radio;’” she concludes.“They called it ‘our radio.’ We gave them something to feel proud of.”

The new Czech government must make human rights a priority

Tereza Bottman | Posted June 29th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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The Czech government is currently undergoing a major transition. In the May 28-29 parliamentary elections, left-wing Social Democrats narrowly won, but center-right parties captured more votes overall. Of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Parliament, 118 new candidates were replaced.

One of the pressing concerns for many activists in the Roma community is that the post of the Minister of Human Rights will cease to exist under the new administration, because it was established by the outgoing coalition. A number of Czech human rights organizations have joined together to lobby for the preservation of the role. The human rights leaders argue that the funds spent on the position are minimal and that if eliminated, the result would be “the weakening of the broad agenda for protection of human rights.”

Currently the post closest to that of Minister of Human Rights is carried out by the Human Rights Commissioner, Michael Kocáb, who was assigned this role by the Prime Minster after resigning from the post of Minister of Human Rights and Minorities under pressure last March. Even in this capacity, the commissioner serves an essential, government-level function in advocating for the marginalized communities in the Czech Republic. The Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Communities, in existence since 2008, for instance, is a governmental agency in charge of coordinating integration activities in socially excluded regions, in cooperation with the commission on Human Rights and Minorities and under the leadership of the Office of Government.

Regarding the recent elections, the most significant development was that the voters, for the first time outright rejected the country’s two largest parties, which formed every government since the early 1990s, in favor of smaller parties. The campaign was the longest in Czech history, launched in the fall. The campaign was expensive as well, costing over 20 million dollars, with the top two parties spending nearly ninety percent of the total budget.

Of the 5,050 candidates running, only one was Roma. Lucie Horváthová ran on the Green Party ticket. The Greens did not make the minimum 5 percent margin of votes to qualify for a Parliamentary seat, however.

The three conservative parties which received the most votes have formed a right-wing coalition. These parties are: The Civic Democrats, TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV). The newly elected lower house of the Parliament convened for its first session last week. The internim Prime Minister resigned and a new, conservative Prime Minister, Petr Nečas, was just named by President Václav Klaus yesterday.

The new government coalition stresses reducing the state budget deficit as one of its primary goals. However, the measures and concrete steps which will emerge from the current coalition talks must not sideline the human rights agenda. The battle for eliminating poverty and structural barriers to equitable education, health care, employment and affordable housing, must continue with the government taking a strong stance of support. The marginalized communities need a government-level representative to continue lobbying for their cause.

Resilience in the Face of Segregation: Slovak Roma Settlements

Tereza Bottman | Posted June 6th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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About four hundred miles east of Prague, in the neighboring country of Slovakia, which separated peacefully from the Czech Republic not so long ago, lie the two communities profiled in the documentary “In a Cage” by the Roma Press Agency.

According to the Czech press agency Mlada Fronta, Slovakia has more than 800 Romani settlements, set apart from the majority community. The count is approximately 700, according to the Slovak daily Sme.sk.

[Chmiňanské Jakubovany, Eastern Slovakia. Photo credit: Lukáš Houdek]

These settlements usually have very high unemployment rates (some even close to 100%) and lack basic services such as running water, sewers, electricity, gas or garbage collection.

The settlements featured in the 2006 documentary “In a Cage” are the village of Rankovce, near the city of Kosice, and the community of Podskalka.

[Chmiňanské Jakubovany, Eastern Slovakia. Photo credit: Lukáš Houdek]

What impressed me was that despite the isolation, lack of opportunities and the deep poverty which the residents experience, they have found ways to preserve their dignity, to establish self-governance and daily routines, and to focus on hope for the future, especially when it comes to education for the young generation.

The documentary’s director-producer is Kristína Magdolenová, a human rights journalist and editor-in-chief at the Roma Press Agency. Her aim is to open doors and to break down barriers of prejudice between the majority population and the Roma, but to also sound an alarm about the dire situation of the Roma living in segregation. Magdolenová says:

“Our aim was to open the door to the world of the Roma. To show them such as the majority doesn’t know them, through their daily problems, joys and cares. To show their real face without prejudice, without fear from their otherness, without misgivings. To show that Slovak society plays with the Roma community, always pushes them further to the edge in this overly hazardous game. A game with human potential, a game which can also be turned against themselves. The film wants to point out that we’re nearing the midnight hour and that we need to stop playing this hazardous game.”

The Czech Republic, where I will be on assignment for my fellowship, also has serious issues with housing segregation in its approximately three hundred “excluded locations,” as Czech ghettos are also termed. But more about that in another post.

The excellent short documentary “In a Cage” about isolated Roma communities can be seen here: In a Cage.

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Caitlin Williams
Courtney Radsch