Towards Improving the Situation of Marginalised Roma in One Czech City

07 May 2002

Kumar Vishwanathan1

Marcela G. needs help. She is pushing a pram with a child who has a feverish frail body and haunting wide-open eyes. The state benefits are still a week away and, as a single mother, Marcela G. is in deep trouble. She cannot afford, for about 6 Czech crowns (around 1/6 of one euro), a disposable diaper – and hence, cannot take the child to a doctor. The doctor, she fears, would complain to her social workers. The social workers, she is afraid, would take away her child. Marcela receives some assistance from Life Together, a non-governmental organisation in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava, to cover the cost of diapers, nourishing food for a week and medicines. (In the Czech Republic, patients have to cover part of the costs of some medicines. Poor patients come under often extreme pressure to discontinue treatments.) In two days, Marcela is back. The child is looking better. But Marcela is without money. When she started cooking, her homeless sister's hungry children were at her doorstep. She is now desperately looking for a job.

Like Marcela, many of Ostrava's estimated 20,000 Roma feel desperate and powerless. For Roma, access to appropriate social, health and financial services, employment and housing remain severely limited. At the local level, implementation of government programmes to address the exclusion of Roma, or the impoverished in general, is slow and ineffective. Institutions such as courts, the labour office, welfare agencies and the police are still learning to overcome passivity, indifference, limitations and incompetence. In many cases, they are openly hostile to Roma. Roma in the Czech Republic remain socially, economically and politically excluded.

Constraints on Access to Public Services

There a number of serious constraints precluding Roma from having real access, in practice, to the full range of goods and services available to the Czech public. A non-exhaustive list of factors follows:

  1. Inappropriate services:
    • Many services are highly institutionalised in the Czech Republic;
    • Many existing services do not meet the needs of individuals;
    • Easily accessible community-based services are almost non-existent;
    • Most services originated, and continue to develop, without Romani participation.
  2. Passivity of local institutions:
    • Municipalities hardly ever take up the cause of Roma with enthusiasm. Where they exist at all, efforts are half-hearted and do not seek Romani participation;
    • There is a widespread prejudice among municipal workers that Roma are solely responsible for their own problems. Poor Roma are widely perceived as problematic people rather than as people with problems. The preferred strategy of many municipalities is to attempt to isolate Roma geographically, where they are beyond the reach of most services.
    • Roma are underrepresented in state and municipal institutions. As a result, there is little or no trust between Roma and these institutions. Under-representation of Roma also has a negative impact on the development of relevant and quality social services;
    • A culture of inter-departmental rivalry between municipal organs, as well as poor administration, prevent Roma from having timely access to state services;
    • Grass-root projects involving municipal institutions, Romani professionals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are only in nascent stages;
    • Dialogue and professional interaction between Roma and ethnic Czechs, as well as exchange of experience and good practice, is practically non-existent in the field of social work.
  3. Constraints in training and methodology:
    • Where social programs are concerned, the civil sector is in its infancy. The capacity of Romani/pro-Romani NGOs to support and train one another is limited;
    • Appropriate methodology in social work to complement the wealth of life experience of Roma has yet to be developed;
    • Methodology for developing community capacity for action and empowerment is only now being developed;
    • Social work at an individual level, such as hands-on case-work, is not widely practised because of a lack of training and resources

Grassroots Action

Prívoz, a predominantly Romani neighbourhood in Ostrava, Czech Republic, September 1998. The building in the photograph was damaged by catastrophic flooding in 1997.
Photo: ERRC

A number of grassroots actions have sprung up to fight the serious social exclusion of Roma. These try to assist Roma in improving their day-to-day living conditions. With Romani participation, they develop, decide on and deliver a range of interrelated services such as social, educational and legal counselling, financial and humanitarian aid, as well as mediation with local authorities. One such initiative is a project called Life Together (Vzájemné soužití), based in the Czech city of Ostrava. I have been involved in this project from the beginning.

I have outlined below a combination of approaches taken by Life Together. They may be grouped under four categories: participation, empowerment, training and dialogue.

  1. Participation

The participation of individuals and the activation of communities is enhanced through direct discussion with the people concerned, contact work, small group meetings and large community meetings.

  • Interviews with individuals: These generally take place in the streets or in Romani households. The local community worker – either a Romani person or an ethnic Czech who is well accepted by the community – maps the needs of individuals to identify common problems. The life experience of Romani community workers who live within the community is a crucial input. This information is analysed during weekly staff meetings, where Roma from marginalised communities and ethnic Czechs each make up around 50 percent of the staff;
  • Contact work and group meetings: Specific group meetings are organised at all three community centres run by the NGO. Such groups may be based on age, gender or the commonality of very specific problems. For example, at the Liščina community centre, Romani mothers have regular meetings of the "Kitchen Club". Here they not only have a chance to exchange skills and good practises, they also participate in the running of the centre and suggest ways to improve it.2 Following the lead of the Liščina community centre, our two other community centres – in the Ostrava neighbourhoods Zarubek and Hrušov – created similar clubs. The equipment has been supplied by British Know How Fund, Prague. The Kitchen Clubs, we hope, will not only help to promote activism and empower the mothers, but also will help keep the attendance of pre-school children steady, – and contribute to improving their school integration. Another specific group is a group of very involved Romani men from the Zarubek neighbourhood. Weekly meetings are held at the community centre on an initiative called "Zarubek 2002", which aims at improving the quality of life in this extremely isolated ghetto. Here the men from eight dilapidated houses have joined with community workers to draft a trilateral agreement between the inhabitants, Life Together and the Housing Department of Silesian Ostrava.3 The men have offered voluntarily to plaster and paint the walls and corridors. The municipality has committed itself to supplying materials and to switching on the corridor lights (the lights have not been switched on for the last seven years!) and Life Together will help by working with local Romani adolescents whom the community holds responsible for having caused material damage to the buildings. Among other activities, Life Together will attempt to enlist them into joining in the repair work. This project expands on an earlier project, the "Model House Project", carried out in Spring 2000, in which the municipality was satisfied with the repairs to one of the houses. The needs for such projects are determined through consultation with local Roma during group meetings;
  • Whole community meetings: These meetings perhaps best illustrate our community work with marginalised Roma. They take place, on average, once a month and react to the current needs of the community. The aims are to:
    • mobilise the community;
    • identify common concerns and prioritise problems;
    • identify, through democratic and transparent means, personalities from within the community who have the trust of the community;
    • determine approaches to solving priority problems;
    • define responsibilities and competencies between people and participating institutions;
    • strengthen communication between family groups, as well as cohesion within the community;
    • address conflicts between adjoining Czech and Romani neighbourhoods;
    • ensure the equal participation of men and women;
    • cultivate in children a culture of democratic participation;
    • involve community members in the activities of the community centres;
    • evaluate the services provided by the community centres.

Whole community meetings are generally carried out in public spaces – for example a yard or in front of the only shop in a given neighbourhood, etc. Community workers, after an introductory talk, ask the assembled Roma about their personal concerns, the state of their community, etc. These concerns are written down with thick markers on big wrapping paper pasted onto walls. One or two coloured, self-sticking paper tags are then distributed to the persons assembled – one colour for the adults, another for the children, who are welcome as participants in the process. This activity, in which each person tags one or two needs, helps identify major common concerns and prioritise needs. The next task is to define the steps required to meet these needs. Once again, a similar brainstorming process is repeated, and actors and responsibilities are identified.

One specific aspect of the work in Ostrava is the creation of "Community Councils". These are informal local bodies created through local community elections. They consist of volunteers who share the concerns of the community, are willing to take on responsibilities and have the trust of the community. The elections are held with two separate candidate lists – one for men and another for women – thereby guaranteeing equal representation. Children may also take part in the elections. Children of poor Roma in Ostrava are brought up to provide for their families from a very early age. They often share responsibilities with adults. It is normal in most Romani communities to listen to the voices of the children. Often the presence of children is a precondition for Romani mothers to be involved in meetings.

Three Community Councils have been founded in Romani neighbourhoods in Ostrava. Through the Community Councils, the internal resources of the communities are developed. Responsibility shifts to the community level. The community also can influence the quality of services offered at the community centres through the Community Councils. Additionally, the Community Councils are partners for negotiations with municipal authorities. Roundtable discussions are held in which both sides negotiate to divide responsibilities over tasks.

  1. Empowerment

Sometimes, whole community gatherings may move to engage in social action. For example, at a community gathering in the flood-affected district of Hrušov,4 more than 120 Roma signed a 10-point petition in June 2000. They demanded better living conditions from the municipality of Silesian Ostrava. In June 2001, they decided to hold a peaceful demonstration in front of city hall, as well as to approach the Ombudsman's office and the media. The municipality was subsequently threatened with fines by the building inspector and the hygienic inspector. It was given 24 hours to relocate nine most seriously affected families living in extremely dangerous conditions in Northern Hrušov. The families were moved within a week – after four years of waiting. Their former flats were demolished in September 2001. Twenty families were subsequently relocated before the onset of winter 2001. Around a 100 families still continue to live in inadequate conditions in Southern Hrušov, an area which, according to a 1997 study by the Ostrava municipality, is unfit for human habitation.

A house in the Hrušov neighbourhood, Ostrava, Czech Republic, damaged by catastrophic flooding in 1997. Despite a 1997 study by the Ostrava municipality declaring the district "unfit for human habitation", over 100 Romani families still live in the area.
Photo: ERRC

Life Together is a platform for Romani empowerment. The community centres offer services identified as needed by the marginalised Romani communities. These services are delivered with Romani participation. These services employ Roma from the communities. Some of the services provided by Life Together are:

Pre-school preparation: Pre-school preparation is aimed at preparing Romani children from socially and economically marginalised families to meet the narrowly selective and flawed admissions criteria of Czech basic schooling.5 In our program, children are taught motor skills, Czech vocabulary and other skills necessary to succeed in the rarefied testing environment. The children's own culturally-specific set of social skills is complemented, not replaced, with the set of social skills demanded by the schools. The presence of the school within the community, along with the presence of a Romani mother, proper training and supervision of a Czech teacher and input from both the Romani neighbourhood and the Czech majority, carry the potential to produce a truly stimulating, multicultural experience for the child. The pre-school centres are also an opportunity for parents to be involved: They are provided a space in which to discuss their expectations, perceptions of education, health issues, and other needs of the child. Parents also have the option to be involved in activities such as cooking lunch for the children and accompanying the children during visits to puppet theatres, the zoo, etc. Parents can also define other personal needs that may be met by arranging individual social or legal counselling.

  • Tuition of Romani pupils: Czech volunteers, especially university students, carry out tuition of Romani children already in the school system. The aims of this program are to help pupils achieve better results at school, or to assist them in preparing for entrance exams for further education. The lessons take place in the presence of parents. This fosters contact between Czech students and Romani families. By also visiting schools, the volunteers act as an intermediary between school and family. The fundamental idea is that lessons are designed and carried out on an individual basis, and that they take place with the involvement of Romani parents.
  • Community/group work with Romani children and youth: The community centres offer a range of opportunities for teenagers, including cultural, athletic and other activities. There are singing and dance clubs for the group. Over the years, children have also learnt to run clubs by themselves. At the Liščina centre, the children run an embroidery and puppet-making club. The children are also challenged to take part in the running of the community centres. At the Hrušov centre, there is a Children's Parliament along the lines of the Community Council. The Children's Perliament has a say in writing projects and fulfilling the conditions of grants the centre has been awarded, and is informed about all financial aspects of the centre. The Children's Parliament has been continuously involved in defining the needs of the centre. The Parliament also has a say in accepting new personnel and it regularly holds meetings with the staff. One of the founders of this Children's Parliament is 12-year-old Svetlana Kroštenová, who is also now a member of the jury of the Sweden-based Children's Human Rights Award. Life Together activists also organise popular gym and indoor sports, such as table tennis for teenagers, and arrange major summer and winter sporting events. Activities such as biking, hiking and rafting are planned for summer 2002. Participants can also learn skills in various areas, such as psychology, conflict resolution, working with younger children, communication skills, health and sexual education. There will also be workshops on issues such as the dangers of drugs and solvent abuse. Since many of the boys have problems with the police, and there are often allegations of abuse by the police, a police trainer will be invited to the camp to educate the Romani youth and to hear the Romani perspective. One of the older Romani volunteers at the Zarubek centre is an expert woods craftsman. He has put together a team of boys, and they have come up with the idea of repairing a destroyed flat in the neighbourhood and converting it into a wood-working centre.
  • Offering small, interest-free loans: A widespread problem among poor and unemployed Roma is a lack of access to financial services such as loans. Banks do not lend to Roma, almost as a rule. Municipal authorities, though required by the Law on Social Services to provide interest-free loans, in practice, do not provide such loans. When faced with financial crisis, Roma are frequently forced to borrow from unscrupulous money-lenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates – often as high as 100 percent per week. This destroys the lives of families. Money-lenders frequently use violence to make families repay the loans. Another problem is that of the exorbitant fines imposed on poor families when they are late in paying for services. These fines are levied by municipal authorities, private housing companies and gas and electricity firms. Recently, I came across a family that paid over 150,000 Czech crowns (approximately 4,920 euros) in fines to a housing corporation, while the actual amount due was about 50,000 Czech crowns (approximately 1,640 euros). They paid the whole 200,000 Czech crowns (approximately 6,560 euros) on time, over two years, because they feared being evicted from their flat. In the end, just a few days before Christmas 2001, they were evicted anyway. The local press covered the event extensively, causing them great humiliation. It is important to raise public awareness of these problems and to campaign for amnesties of fines imposed on the poorest of the poor by state institutions. It may also be important to press for outlawing the common practice of deducting fines from meagre state social support.
  • With Life Together's Emergency Social Fund, borrowers do not have to pledge anything, but they do have to apply in groups of three. Groups that keep commitments may successively obtain bigger loans that could eventually finance business plans and assist in the undertaking of small businesses. The Emergency Social Fund was initiated in September 2001, with support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Prague office. Evaluations will take place in July 2002. Twenty-seven families had, as of March 2002, made use of this fund. Although the pay-back rate is thus far very low, I think that the project is worthwhile. Some adjustments to initial expectations will have to be made. The problem of poverty and debt-trap of whole communities of Roma must be addressed in the short-term.
  • Humanitarian assistance: This is an essential component of our work. Often individuals and families in extremely dire circumstances contact us for food, shelter and aid after spending days out in the open and in railway stations. Life Together is one of the few organisations in Ostrava that works in this field. We have formed partnerships with the Catholic relief organisations Caritas and Good Shepherd Sisters.
  • Counselling and legal advice for marginalised Roma: In addition to the services described above, Life Together also provides a range of counselling services aimed at the Romani public. These services include:
    • Free social and legal counselling offered at the counselling centre, located in the central office of Life Together. The activities of the counselling centre focus on social problems, housing, human rights, family and interpersonal relationships. Most of the people who seek counselling are people who have been evicted from their flats, the homeless, victims of violence or crime, people with big debts who are in the grips of money-lenders, etc. I am shocked at how Roma are being systematically evicted from parts of towns that are coming up for development. I am convinced that developers and housing corporations often take advantage of Roma to make them voluntarily sign approvals of their own eviction. The time is right to challenge legally some wrongful evictions;
    • Accompanying clients during negotiations with authorities and other service-providers;
    • Co-operation and negotiation with institutions in the interests of the clients. These are directed at correcting systemic shortcomings in the provision of services and remedying mutual misunderstandings;
    • Finally, the counselling centre organises training seminars for staff and members of the community to raise awareness of civil and political rights – and develop competence to exercise these rights in everyday life.
  1. Training

Community participation in the determination and delivery of services is cemented by creating employment opportunities in the communities. Remarkable transformations of self-confidence take place within individuals, groups and whole marginalised communities, once the long-term unemployed are back at work, earning salaries for themselves and their families. Individual training support for persons working after long periods of being unemployed is vital at this stage, and Life Together tries to meet this need.

The need to train Life Together staff is also increasing. From an initial series of volunteer efforts in 1997, Life Together now employs 14 full time Romani community workers (and 11 ethnic Czechs – mostly university graduates). Additionally, three of the six senior managers are Romani. The three community centers at Liščina, Zárubek and Hrušov are now fully managed by members of the local Romani community.

Training curriculum for Romani staff members should emphasise and expand upon the wealth of life experience of individual Roma. Romani and ethnic Czech employees of Life Together are currently working – together with Ostrava University, as well as members of the Dutch NGO Spolu International – on the development of appropriate methodologies. Attempts are also underway to prepare curriculum, material, methodologies and assessment procedures to bring university programs in areas such as social work more in line with the needs of Romani community development. Spolu International is also involved in issues such as team building, needs assessment and addressing problems such as "burn out", i.e., where, for example, team members lose their capacity to work effectively due to exhaustion, repeated frustrating experiences at the workplace, and other, similar, occupational hazards in community-based action. Since the activities of Life Together continue to rely on voluntary support from Romani community members and university students, we are also considering gradually extending these services to volunteers as well.

  1. Dialogue

Dialogue and professional interaction between Roma and ethnic Czechs – exchange of experience and good practices – is non-existent in the field of social work in the Czech Republic. State employees – who are predominantly ethnic Czechs – have not had the opportunity to be trained by Roma on Romani perspectives. Hence, state employees often have a high-handed approach to – and negative perspectives about – their Romani clients. The Czech government's so-called "Bratinka Report" – the "Report about the Situation of The Romani Community in the Czech Republic" states that: "42 percent of social workers consider special programs directed at the Roma community as unjustifiably discriminatory in favour of the Roma. To solve the problems of the Roma, they favour standard approaches. They believe in the registration of Roma and their dispersal. 38 percent of social workers believe that the problems between the Roma and the Czechs are caused by the negative characteristics of the Roma. The same percentage thinks that pro-Roma programs are ineffective and a waste of resources."6 Life Together is part of an initiative that is trying to change such views. In spring 2002, the staff of Life Together will begin training 80 state employees as part of a joint Dutch Union of Municipalities – Czech Union of Towns and Municipalities program. In addition, a second training workshop will bring 40 social workers and 40 school teachers to the three community centres for two days, so they can acquire first-hand knowledge on how marginalised Roma live, listen to Romani perspectives on their own problems and discuss the methodology in the community centres. The objectives of these two days have been defined by Roma themselves. Once-marginalised Roma will, in their role as trainers, initiate the exchange of good practices.

A parallel year-long project will involve three social workers from the municipalities and three teachers. They will spend one afternoon per week with mothers of Romani pre-school children at the community centres. We expect that the final outcome of these two projects will be a set of recommendations for improving the quality of services available to marginalised Roma. We hope that this form of professional dialogue between ethnic Czech and Romani professionals will help improve the general quality of services available to marginalised Roma in Ostrava.


Social work – involving the creation of appropriate and accessible services within marginalised communities; empowerment, employment and professional training of community members; dialogue and exchange of good practices with state and local institutions; and ongoing development of methodology – is a crucial component in the fight against the silent and lonely slide of Roma into extreme poverty and exclusion.


  1. Kumar Vishwanathan is a teacher and a social worker presently working for the non-governmental organisation Life Together. In 1998, he received the Charter 77 award for efforts towards Czech-Roma understanding. He can be contacted on
  2. The Kitchen Club itself was a suggestion of a local mother who is employed at the centre. The equipment was supplied by Open Society Fund, Prague. The Kitchen Club is a powerful platform for discussing issues arising at the adjoining pre-school. Mothers of pre-school children have lately begun to take an active interest in the centre. Every week, one mother, by turn, is responsible for preparing the menu for the week and cooking lunch for the children. The mothers have also elected one person among themselves entrusted with collecting the weekly fees for covering 50 percent of the cost of provisions. The other 50 percent is covered by an EU funded ACCESS program.
  3. The city of Ostrava is divided into districts, each of which has its own administration.
  4. The city of Ostrava was devastated by severe floods in the summer of 1997. Anti-Romani sentiment broke out during the catastrophe, to some extent fuelled by statements by local officials. For more information on the episode, see Sobotka, Eva, Life under the Bridge: Ghettoising Roma in Lower Hrušov, Ostrava, Czech Republic in Roma Rights 2/2000.
  5. For information on issues pertaining to Roma in Czech schools, see the ERRC Country Report A Special Remedy: Roma and Schools for the Mentally Handicapped in the Czech Republic, June 1999.
  6. "Report about the Situation of the Romani Community in the Czech Republic", adopted as Czech government Resolution 686 of October 29, 1997, available on:



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