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How young Roma live

10 September 1998

Vojtĕch Lavička

I am a Rom and I work at the New School Foundation, an organisation which undertakes projects for the education of Romani children and youth. I'm not far into my twenties, and therefore I am going to write about the lives of young Roma in the Czech Republic.

Roma of my generation grew up either in the Romani community or in a primarily non-Romani environment. The first group lives in closed communities that can be found in Prague, for example in Smíchov, Karlín and Žižkov. The single advantage to this isolation is the larger space afforded for the cultivation of Romani traditions. In this group, a relatively high percentage of Romani children know the Romani language and know more Romani songs than children in the second group. They can therefore realise their Romani identity better, although, unfortunately, they often also suffer feelings of inferiority, provoked by the treatment of Roma by the surrounding society.

In the second group, the situation is stranger. It is best described by my own example. Our family has lived for twenty years in the Holešovice neighbourhood of Prague, in an area where there aren't many Roma. My family valued highly our relations with the surrounding society. With time, we acquired a number of non-Romani acquaintances, who often came to our place for visits. These, however, were won, above all, at the price that we never made our Romani identity known. Up until the time when I was six, everything was fine from the point of view of my psychological state. At the moment when I started to go to elementary school, however, everything changed.

Children at school called me "stinking Gypsy" and plugged their noses when I was around. Nobody wanted to talk to me. During gym, nobody wanted to stand next to me. My first reaction was to deny my identity. Soon thereafter, I began to assert that I wasn't a Gypsy but Hungarian and other similar things. I always went home in tears, received poor marks, and I wanted to go to a special school [i.e., a school for the mentally disabled], because I knew that Romani children were in the majority there. My family wanted me to study, however, so they kept me in the normal elementary school. After the third class, my parents let me change to another elementary school. I learned my lesson from the last school, and immediately upon entering, I claimed I was a Hungarian. Everything was much better. Everybody treats a Hungarian better than a Gypsy. During that period, I didn't have a chance to build my own identity. My parents did not teach me Romani - they wanted me to know Czech well. Although I started playing violin when I was eight, I barely knew anything about Romani songs, and I played mainly classical.

After elementary school, I started to attend economic middle school. There I never succeeded in convincing anyone that I was a Hungarian. By that point, I didn't want to convince anybody of anything and, with the exception of one person, I had no friends. In class, there was a never-ending cycle of mocking information about me, for example how I demonstrated how I had a beautiful tan in winter. Luckily, in the third class, the old regime collapsed and in December 1989 I suddenly became proud of my Romaniness when I saw crowds of Roma demonstrating on the Letná fields and I heard a Romani representative proclaim from the stage, "The Roma are with you", which was greeted with an outburst of applause. Unfortunately, after the revolution, some of the boys at school shaved their heads and started causing me problems. This is, however, the same old story.

I think that I am a typical example of a child from the second group. Parents, fearing negative attitudes in their surroundings, do not teach their children the Romani language, do not tell them Romani fairy tales and attempt to assimilate them. They cannot possibly succeed entirely of course. People from such families grow up with divided personalities, although they may be very educated. They do not declare themselves to be Roma, but they aren't really gadje either, and they feel this inside. They are people filled with contradictions.

From the previous paragraphs it is evident how complicated it will be to find a method of co-existence between Roma and non-Roma. Between the two communities there is no communication whatsoever. Gadje who might have interest in Roma - and these are a minority - are afraid to establish contact with Roma and fear the unknown. Although, according to estimates, there are between 250 and 300 thousand Roma living in the Czech Republic today, the rest of society does not know anything about this large nationality. The system is flawed in the sense that in school, non-Roma, and unfortunately even Roma, learn nothing about this minority.

Fear, racism and the prejudices of the majority emerge from ignorance and the lack of adequate communication. Non-Roma are bombarded by negative news about Roma from all of the various media, often drawn in the strongest terms. Roma are very skeptical. They do not believe that racism, particularly physical racially-motivated attacks, will be punished in the Czech Republic as it is in other countries. It is a very sad fact that when 250 or 300 Roma get together at a Romani ball, all of them are likely to have had some sort of experience with a skinhead attack: my father was attacked once, my sister was attacked once, my brother was attacked three times and I have also been attacked three times. Nowadays, many people are shocked at the statistics on racially-motivated crime. There are many more attacks, however, because Roma, disappointed at the mild reaction to skinheads, do not report to the police that they have been attacked.

It is naive to think that Roma began to emigrate in droves after seeing a travel programme.1 On the contrary, Roma have been escaping from this country for five years. Where? Not only to Canada and Great Britain, but also to Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France and Australia. The large families of Demeter, Lolo, Rusenko and Taragoš have already fled the Czech Republic. I feel sad as I write these lines, because some of my best friends have left. Where they have gone, nobody harms them just because they were born Roma. Romani musicians emigrated first. Not long ago I learned that 12-year-old Filip Taragoš - who will one day be possibly the best cymbalom player in the world - had recently left with his family.

The media primarily reports that Roma are economic migrants. It is said that social benefits aren't good enough here and they go out into the world in search of better social benefits. This is nonsense. It is the rich Roma who emigrate - the businessmen and the Romani intelligentsia. The reason is above all physical racism. The Czech Republic has the third highest count of skinheads in Europe! A year ago I tried to dissuade Vasil Lolo from emigrating. He is an excellent musician, who wasn't doing badly economically. He said to me, "The fact that skinheads beat me doesn't matter. But I won't let them beat my children." I couldn't find any argument to that. When in many cities gadje inquired whether they could contribute to buying plane tickets for Roma,2 I confess that I too felt I want to pack my bag and get out of the country where I was born, but whose citizens so desperately do not want me to be here.

What should be done about all this? I think that there is now a favourable atmosphere in society for the search for a resolution to these problems. Expressions of solidarity with the victims of racially-motivated attacks (including Romani victims of such attacks) are very important. Unfortunately, participants in current demonstrations against racism are almost exclusively university students. It is important to add to the school curriculum the maximum possible information about Roma. In history lessons, there should be information about the Romani past; in music lessons, the important Romani musicians (there have been more than a few) should be taught; Romani fairy tales should appear in textbooks; in social studies lessons, racial hatred should be discussed with the children. It is a positive development that next year, the Ministry of Education will provide financial support for the employment of Romani assistants as pedagogical workers in elementary schools. With this move, perhaps school will stop being an entirely foreign environment for Romani children.

Dialogue between Roma and non-Roma should begin at all levels - from elementary school to government. As long as we treat others as human beings, we will receive the same treatment from them in many cases. My non-Romani friends, of whom there are many more now than there were in the past, would certainly confirm this for you.

Endnotes:

  1. Panic ensued in late summer 1997 in the Czech Republic and in Canada after a documentary aired on Czech television about Czech Roma in Canada, which seemed to encourage Roma to leave the Czech Republic and claim asylum in Canada. Ed.
  2. Following the news in late summer 1997 that Roma in the Czech Republic - especially from the flood devastated northeast - were fleeing the country, pubs held fund-raising events to help send Roma abroad, while the authorities in several municipalities suggested that they would assist Roma in paying for plane tickets in exchange for the return of rental contracts. Ed.

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