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"I Came to the United States"

10 April 1997

The following is the affidavit of S N., a 36-year-old Hungarian Rom from the former Czechoslovakia, submitted as part of his effort to receive asylum in the United States, where he has been living since late 1989. In February 1997, the US asylum board decided that Mr. S. N. had a well founded fear of persecution should he be forced to return to Slovakia and it granted him asylum. Violence against Roma in Slovakia and the absence of viable means to claim redress through the Slovak judicial system is the subject of the ERRC report „Time of the Skinheads: Denial and Exclusion of Roma in Slovakia". Mr. S. N. is currently a senior waiter at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Chicago.

My name is S.N. and I am a native of Slovakia, but I am ethnic Hungarian and a Gypsy. Hungarians and Gypsies are discriminated against, harassed and persecuted in Slovakia. While I lived in Slovakia, I was discriminated against, harassed and persecuted on account of my Hungarian Gypsy ethnicity.

My grandparents on my father's side of the family were born in what is currently Hungary. My paternal grandfather and my father were both Gypsy musicians. My grandfather was a Gypsy violinist who would play for weddings, funerals and at holiday events in the neighbouring villages. He had three children, including my father. I remember my grandfather playing in a wine cellar restaurant where Hungarian-Gypsy folk lovers would come for a night out.

My father was born in the town of Kukučinov, which is now part of Slovakia. When he was born, it was part of Czechoslovakia however.

My maternal grandparents were also born in present-day Hungary and they later moved to Bratislava, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed. My grandmother was a beautician who worked primarily for the aristocracy. She spoke perfect German and Hungarian.

The hatred between Hungarians and Slovaks arose back in the 19th century. Back then, the Slovak language was not recognised and Slovaks were not recognised as an independent community. After World War I, Czechoslovakia took over the territory now called Slovakia and many of the Slovak citizens were resentful of the way they had been treated under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since that empire no longer existed, they took out their hate on ordinary Hungarians like my parents and grandparents who remained in the area. Today, Hungarians mostly live in towns and villages along the Danube river in the southeast part of Slovakia. They speak only Hungarian. The Hungarians who live in Bratislava are bilingual, but because of our accent, it is easy to spot who is a Hungarian or a Hungarian Gypsy.

I have one sibling, a sister. When we were growing up, we spoke Hungarian or German in our household. We did not start learning Slovak until we went to school. Because of this, we had problems with the other kids. They would often laugh at us or pick fights as we gathered for recess and spoke with other kids in Hungarian. We were also especially picked on because we were Gypsies.

My mother frequently had to come to school to clear things up, but the school authorities would not listen to her and treated her with disrespect. They did not want to listen to a Hungarian Gypsy. Things were so bad that my sister and I had to change schools five times during an eight-year period.

In 1977, my father deserted our family and went to Germany. I have not heard from him or anything about him since then. After that, my mother had a terrible time, both because she was a Hungarian and because she had been married to a Hungarian Gypsy who had fled the country.

I graduated from high school in 1979 and was interested in pursuing studies in electronics or automobile design. I had excellent grades in physics and maths and at the time I was able to speak five languages fluently – Hungarian, German, Slovak, Czech and Russian. I was, however, not admitted to the local technical school I applied to. My father was a Gypsy, and he had illegally left the country. At that time, you could be killed trying to leave the country illegally, and in many cases, like mine, the family left behind by an escaped person was harassed and persecuted.

I managed to get into the School for Hotel and Restaurant Management in Bratislava, and I graduated in 1983. After that I began working at the Hungarian restaurant in Bratislava, and I worked there for a few months until I was drafted into the army.

I served in the army in 1983-1985. During my first year of service, I was stationed in Olomouc, which is currently part of the Czech Republic. I worked as a cook in a division which was repairing the Czechoslovak rail system. Other soldiers often gave me a hard time because I was a Gypsy, especially when I spoke Hungarian with other soldiers.

Two weeks after I was drafted, I was called on the telephone and asked to report to an office. This was the first time I was to be interrogated. Two officers were waiting for me in the office. They were not wearing uniforms, and I could tell by their suits that they were members of the secret police. I remember that one of the officers had a moustache. Both were well-built.

The officers motioned for me to sit down in a chair and began questioning me. The questions focused mainly on my father. They wanted to know where he was and whether I or anyone else had contact with him. They also questioned me on whether I planned to leak information to the West. I told them that I had no contact with him at all and that I did not intend to do anything to jeopardise the Czechoslovak military. The secret police officers carried guns and during the interrogations they would often scream at me. These interrogations were terrifying because I knew that the officers could hurt me or kill me at any time – there would be no consequences for killing a Hungarian Gypsy.

Our whole division was transferred to Prague about a year after I was drafted – we were finished repairing the railroads in Olomouc. Around that time, in the summer of 1984, a cousin of mine defected. He had been on tour with the Czechoslovak orchestra in Spain. I had known that he was going to defect- we were quite close and spoke all the time. His father lived in the United States and my cousin wanted to go and join him.

After my cousin defected, I was again called in for interrogation by the secret police. This time my interrogation was very intense, and they did not believe me when I told them that I had not known about his defection. Finally, however, they let me go.

After I was released from the army in 1985, I got a job at the Korzo Café in Bratislava. I was supporting my mother, who was having big problems keeping a job, and I had bad relations with my co-workers and the customers. During this time – the late 1980s – I was constantly harassed by the local police. About twice a week I was stopped by the police on my way home from work. Because of the way I looked, they suspected I was a Gypsy and they would always thoroughly check my papers. Usually once the officers found out where I worked, however, they would let me go.

In May 1989, the Health Department closed down the restaurant I was working in. Because I was unemployed and could be a target for the policemen who enjoyed beating Gypsies, I kept a low profile and never went out on the street at night.

In fall 1989, demonstrations broke out throughout the country against the Czechoslovak Communist government. In Bratislava, demonstrations took place in front of a monument honouring the Soviet army. One evening, I went downtown at about 8:00 in the evening to see what was going on. There were thousands of people there, protesting against Communism. I joined them. At the head of the protests there were many famous actors, singers and comedians, such as Milan Kňäžko, who later became a member of the government. However, about two hours after I arrived, the police started shooting tear gas into the crowd. As we started to disperse, two policemen grabbed me and pushed me into the back of a police car.

I was taken to the police station. Many demonstrators like myself had been arrested and we all waited in the lobby area of the police station. While we were there, the police asked each of us for biographical information. The police took us, one-by-one, into a back room. I waited for about 45 minutes with the others in that lobby before I was taken to a very small, dark room where two officers were waiting. They told me to sit down and started questioning me.

The officer first asked me whether I was involved in any of the new political groups which had recently been formed. I told him no. They told me that if I was lying they would imprison me. The officers then commented on my being a Hungarian and a Gypsy. They wanted to know how I had got involved with the demonstrations and asked me many questions about what kind of contact I had with my father. All the time they were questioning me, one of the officers was pacing behind me and tapping me on the back with his night-stick.

A few days after the interrogation, I decided to leave Czechoslovakia. I applied for a tourist visa at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, and I prepared to leave for the United States. On December 19, 1989, I came to the United States and soon after that I requested asylum. Since coming to the United States, I have been freed from the stigma of being a Hungarian Gypsy and the fear that anyone could do what they wanted to me without worrying about of retribution by the government. I have been working steadily since I arrived, first as a chef, and now as a waiter at the Ritz Canton Hotel.

P. S. The ERRC is wondering whether the numerous Romani victims of far more severe human rights abuses in today's Slovakia may also qualify for political asylum in the U.S.A.

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