“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.
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]