Kevin Basek, a volunteer from Lehigh University: Roma people face systematic exclusion
During the first half of July, two students from Lehigh University in the USA, Kevin Basek and Alyssa Wedge, came to the offices of o.p.s. ROMEA having decided to spend their summer doing more than getting tan, taking trips and going to one party after another, as most of their peers probably will, and instead dedicating their time off from school to working for a nonprofit organization as volunteers. The opportunity for their international volunteering is made possible by the Inclusion o.p.s. organization, which focuses on supporting the inclusion and integration of minorities in the Czech Republic in collaboration with Christine Novak, a professor of clinical psychology, the UN Information Center in Prague, and the American Center Prague.
We have taken advantage of this opportunity to ask our volunteers about their backgrounds, experiences, and the reasons they have flown halfway around the world to the Czech Republic to help in the area of Romani integration in particular.
The same questions we asked Alyssa, were answered by Kevin, too.
Where do you and your family come from?
I am a born and bread New Jersey native. I grew up in a rural town with my two older brothers and my mom. My mom is Italian and my dad is Czech which played into my decision to come to the Czech Republic.
What is your field of studies and why did you choose the Lehigh University?
As an undergraduate I studied mathematics as well as economics and computer science. In August I will begin a one-year program to get my Master’s Degree in Economics. I chose Lehigh because my mom and I just had a good feeling about it. The school was close to home and had a good reputation for academics so it was an easy decision.
Did you choose this field out of interest, or was it more of a pragmatic decision? What are your career opportunities in the U.S. after graduation?
I started out studying only mathematics because I was always strong in the field and I enjoyed the concepts behind it. When I got to University, however, I found that the studies were not fulfilling so I engaged in economics and computer science in order to move towards a career I would enjoy more. After I graduate, I intend on going into the banking and business industries as a corporate economist or economic forecaster. These jobs combine my interest in economics with my ability to work with numbers.
What was your biggest “culture shock” after arrival to Czech republic?
The biggest culture shock for me is the informal nature of the law. In the Czech Republic, and all of Europe, the police are reactive and only come around when needed. In America there is a much greater police presence and it creates a different attitude toward law enforcement. I prefer the European approach.
As a foreign visitor, you can see the life in our country from a distance and aptly report about it, even though cursorily. What do you - as American - find incredible and what incomprehensible?
For Americans of my age, the ability to smoke cigarettes in public is incredible. In America cigarettes are generally not allowed to be smoked inside of buildings and it has been that way for many years now. Another thing I find interesting is the way the public transport works. It takes a lot of trust to allow people to walk on the metro/tram without checking the tickets every time. The average American would try to cheat the system rather often; therefore they check tickets each time.
What preceded your way to Czech republic?
Was it your voluntary interest, or compulsory obligation to pass an internship for study purposes? And why actually the Czech Republic? I came to the Czech Republic for this internship because I have done work in economic development. At Lehigh I worked for an organization that gives loans to minorities so that they can start local businesses. The organization works as a bank for those people who cannot get formal banking services due to their lack of income or past financial troubles. I chose the Czech Republic because my uncle is an immigrant of the country and my family has ties to the country. Learning about Czech culture and history is interesting because it helps me understand why my uncle left at the time he did.
What experience have you gained in the Czech Republic?
So far I have had the opportunity to visit both Terezin and Nymburk which allowed me to become more than just a tourist. The international vibe of Prague can hide a lot of the experiences that are unique to the Czech people and the most glaring difference I saw compared to America was the difference in standard of living. Americans enjoy one of the highest standards of living and have such a different definition of poor. There are certainly poor people in America but many people think things are worse than they actually are.
How does the theory you learnt in the university differ from the reality you experience here?
In school I have studied Microfinance which focuses on the people who live on one or two dollars a day. Microfinance gives a good representation of how desperately some people live but it leaves out the politics. Politics is a huge issue for every country but the problems differ from one place to the other. Seeing the situation here in the Czech Republic is unique but not necessarily unexpected.
You can compare your home experience with the local approach to minorities. What is your experience so far?
I would say that every part of the world has prejudice and discrimination, the only difference is the stereotype and quantity of the minority. Where I live, the minorities are few and thus have to deal with a lot of discrimination. Most attacks are just verbal and do not compare to the systematic exclusion that the Roma people face.
What do you think is a mistake in Czech society’s approach to minorities? Do you think our society does something better, i.e. do you see some models of approach that American society fails to implement?
I think a big problem is the way the government deals with education and how easily minorities can be segregated within schools. Currently, students are subject to testing which includes questions about topics that are not common to everyone. Education deserves to be at the forefront of social reform. At this point, the thing I would like to see in America is an adaption of the dormitory idea. Public housing for struggling minorities and poor people in general is very inefficient in America. Housing should simply be about getting roofs over people’s heads and providing utilities to as many people as possible. Although Czech dormitories may have a lot of corruption, the idea it started on is good.
What is the most important information or realization you will take home from your stay in Czech?
The biggest take away for me is that every place has its good parts and its bad parts. In the end, however, the situation in America is certainly better than what the majority of the world experiences and I am lucky to have the opportunities that I have.
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