I’m currently back home from my study abroad experience in Prague, in the Czech Republic. During my four months there, I got the opportunity to travel to Ostrava, a city close to the border of Poland. All I knew before I went was that it was an industrial hub that had seen its glory days decades ago (an American comparison would be Detroit), and that we would get to speak to the Roma people there.
The Roma people were historically nomadic, but are currently scattered all across Europe. You may know them as “gypsies,” which is actually a derogatory term. The Roma originated in India, but have had a recorded presence in Europe since the 13th century. They are also among the most disadvantaged minority groups in Europe, and openly discriminated against. Even some of the RAs (resident assistants) on this trip experienced disbelief and disdain when they told their families and friends that they would be visiting the Roma in Ostrava. According to a survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), 80% of Roma in the EU are at risk of poverty. In addition, many Roma women throughout Europe were forcibly sterilized.
In fact, in Slovakia, and many other European countries, Roma children are segregated from their non-Roma classmates, and according to Amnesty International, “are also routinely being assessed as having ‘mild mental disabilities’ and sent to special schools where the quality of education is inferior.”
I heard the same thing during my time in Ostrava. We visited a local NGO called Life Together that advocates for the Roma and works with the the community in Ostrava, and met its director, an Indian man by the name of Kumar Viswanathan. He told us a little bit about the situation of the Roma people in Ostrava. According to Mr. Viswanathan, a huge problem is that the Roma don’t have a written history, which feeds into their sense of identity, unity, and belonging (or lack thereof). He also told us about the fact that Roma children are systematically put into schools for the mentally disabled, which significantly limits their education and consequently, their opportunities later in life. This only perpetuates a cycle of discrimination and poverty, which we saw first-hand in Ostrava.
We were able to visit two Roma neighborhoods. One was a “nice” neighborhood, integrating ten Czech families and ten Roma families (it still wasn’t amazing, though it was exponentially better than what we saw after). Our guide took us into her home in this neighborhood, a cozy townhouse that housed around 8 people, but seemed fit for only 4. Nearby was a community center for Roma children, where me and the other girls in our group attempted traditional dances (which was ultimately quite embarrassing).
We then travelled to a Roma slum in Ostrava. The conditions were poor; many houses were shoddy and did not have running water, and we met residents who were getting evicted for simply speaking about the poor conditions to the media. When we spoke with these women, a mother and a daughter with several small children, they told us about their corrupt landlord. According to them, they had paid their bill, but he still did not give them running water and claimed they did not have their original documents. Legal avenues are hard to traverse, as these entrepreneurs/landlords go largely unregulated. When these women went to the press, the conditions only worsened, and they were set to be evicted a few days after we would leave Ostrava. They were not able to find government housing, as having Roma neighbors is undesirable, but thanks to Life Together, they were able to secure an apartment.
As we spoke to these women, a few more members of the community came up to us. With our professor serving as our translator, we were able to hear about how desolate life had become. Their landlords were corrupt, the government was not willing to help, and these people had very few others to reach out to outside of their community simply because they were Roma. As we were ending our conversation, one woman said something that one the RAs on our trip translated only as we left the neighborhood. “What can you all actually do for us? You’re all abroad, you aren’t going to be here!”
That stuck with me. What could I do about the desolation of a whole people an ocean away when America has its fair share of problems, and I have very few resources at my disposal? My solution: writing, however minuscule it may be. Seeing these conditions and hearing about them first-hand made everything I had read or seen in documentaries real. So by sharing this glimpse into the life of an ethnic group that is openly and systematically discriminated against all over the world (even in America, believe it or not), I’m hoping to bring awareness to a huge issue.
In short, the Roma people need help. Please visit the websites of these organizations to see how you can contribute:
Life Together: http://vzajemnesouziti.cz/cs_CZ/
European Roma Rights Center: http://www.errc.org/
Roma Support Group: http://romasupportgroup.org.uk/
ERGO Network: http://www.ergonetwork.org/ergo-network/