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June 26, 2022



Czech Republic: Interview with Romani teen about his experiences in foster and state care

Prague, 7.10.2014 0:21, (ROMEA)
Albín Augustýn Balát (PHOTO:  Personal archive of A.A. Balát)
Albín Augustýn Balát (PHOTO: Personal archive of A.A. Balát)

ALBÍN AUGUSTÝN BALÁT is a Romani 17-year-old who has grown up in children's homes and foster care. His vision is clear - despite the initial obstacles he has faced in life, he wants to succeed in society and achieve his aims.

Now he is apprenticing to become a chef/waiter and is considering studying at a conservatory - he has written his own musical called "Faith" (Víra), works as a volunteer at the People in Need organization, and is a winner of singing competitions. "Having a dream means believing in it and making it come true," he tells  

Q:  At the age of three you began living in a children's home. Then you were raised in a foster family, but after several years you returned to the children's home.

A:  I remember my first years in the children's home. We used to go to sanatoria, once we even all flew to Mallorca. When I was six a completely unknown family came to visit us and took my sister and I for a trip to the Zoo in Ostrava. I remember the moment when we were swinging and the people asked us if we would like to join their family for some time. I immediately said yes, I want to. My sister also agreed. The next day we were packed. We traveled to Ostrova nad Ohří where our new foster family lived. We began to call them Mom and Dad. Nobody told us not to. I celebrated my seventh birthday with them. I spent six and a half years in Ostrova. Then my sister and I made a mistake that I regret to this day. After some time I had to leave the family to live at a diagnostic institute in Plzeň. I used to cry at night because I had disappointed both my new parents and myself, and I'm glad that we re-established our relationship after about half a year and that we visit each other. I go to their home for the summer holidays and for Christmas, and whenever I have a performance, they come. After my stay in the diagnostic institute my sister and I were relocated to the Children's Home in Staňkov.    

Q:  What are your memories of your foster family?

A:  I remember the love my foster family gave me and sister. The family led me to believe in God. When I was preparing to be baptised I chose the name St. Augustin - that's my baptismal patron. In the second stage I began to prepare for Holy Communion. I began to attend a primary school with an arts focus in Ostrova, where I studied dramatic literature and piano. I also played football, but that wasn't as amusing to me and I stopped. As a family we performed a concert at the Old Town Hall. Mom and I played the piano and recited monologues. I love remembering our trips to the seaside. Every year I went to a Christian camp where I found many friends, even from Slovakia, and to this day I am still in touch with them.  

Q:  You mention your sister. Are you in contact with other members of your biological family?

A:  I have a sister, Šarlota, who is my biological suster. My mother had another three children with her boyfriend, so I have half-siblings named Valentina, Valerie and Viktor. On my Dad's side I know of a Samuel, but that situation is more complicated. To tell you the truth, I don't have an inner drive to find my biological family. I think one day that path will come to us, but neither my biological father nor my biological mother have shown any interest in it. The only other person in my biological family I am in contact with is my cousin Lukáš. I last saw my biological mother during Christmas vacation last year in Ostrava. A mother who robs her own son isn't good news. I last saw my biological father at a concert given by children's homes in Uherské Hradiště, when he came to visit us. He brought us new telephones and took us to lunch at a restaurant, and then he never contacted us again. I want to live my own, independent life fully, without any obstacles. The family that abandoned me, that left me, cannot expect a relationship that lasts. Ultimately I am grateful from the bottom of my heart that I'm not with them. My foster family travels to support me at the events where I perform even though Ostrova and Staňkov are pretty far away from each other.      

Q:  What is the advantage of a foster family and what might be a weak point?

A:  To accept a child into a foster family is a very serious decision. Most children who have ended up separated from their own families have many unfortunate acquaintances and experiences behind them. Later on, those experiences come through in their behavior and their overall development. As for the weaknesses of foster families - I haven't discovered any yet, maybe I will in time. The advantage is that the foster family helps me cope with everything better than the biological one does. It's my model for the future.  

Q:  Could you describe the biggest differences between a foster family and the "family group" in a children's home?

A:  I think the differences are very clear. I can call the foster parents Mom and Dad, but at the children's home I have to call the adults "Aunt" and "Uncle" and address them formally [Author's Note:  In most children's homes today the governesses are addressed familiarly]. There are fewer people in a foster family, while at the home there are seven of us in the little group. In my foster family I have a better environment, more space than in the children's home - it's mainly more personal, I have privacy. In my foster family I experience family treatment like being hugged and kissed... Both foster care and our group in the children's home have their own charms.  

Q:  What do you appreciate about life at the children's home?

A:  The children's home offers me many opportunities. They are paying for me to go to music school, where I am now studying solo voice, and we are involved in Hanka Kynychová's project on various styles of dance. We perform at various events. We have discussions at the children's home - like on how to avoid debt, about financial literacy, about sex. During the weekend in our groups we cook for ourselves so we can learn how. The educators do their best to understand us when we don't know what to do. We're involved in arts competitions, we sing for senior citizens. The children's home is helping me prepare for my independent life.  

Q:  What do you think is wrong with the children's homes, what should they focus on so the system can improve? 

A:  It would be better if there were fewer children in a group so it could be like a real family. The aunties would be able to pay more attention to the children, and mainly they could live like a real family. They definitely should improve the groceries they buy, but basically the children's home can't do anything about that. Both at the children's home and in a family there are rules that have to be followed.

Q:  What are you studying at school and what are your plans for the future?

A:  Now I am studying in Horšovský Týn to be a chef/waiter. As pupils there we get the opportunity to work in the school's pension and its restaurant, which was built by our pupils. It's an excellent project for professional practice and training. We work there together with the teachers who give professional training. We're in the kitchen or serving in the restaurant. In the other schools they send you to some external restaurant for your practical experience and you're somewhere in the back peeling potatoes where they have no time to explain anything to you. We participated in a regional gastronomic competition, that was part of the Apetit Festival in Plzeň and we came in second. After my apprenticeship I'd like to continue with my follow-up studies and I'd like to try a music conservatory. I'm beginning to teach myself Italian, because I believe I will need it in the future. I enjoy communicatig with people, organizing events like concerts or weddings, and I hope I will become a good manager who will be able to do work he likes.        

Q:  Before we get to your big hobby, singing, is there anything else you like to do in your free time?

A:  Since September I've been a volunteer for the People in Need organization - I tutor children for them. A friend and I have opened up a parish library in Staňkov. I help the pastor in Staňkov find accommodation for trips, I organize youth meetings, and this year I will organize the Night of Churches for the second time. I'm starting to film my first video clips and my first songs. Since September a friend and I have been making a school film. I'm also writing a book about my life and my experiences. The Zámeček magazine is one of my activities, I contribute there as a children's editor - its a magazine for children in children's homes and it's now a kind of headquarters for all the homes.  

Q:  When did you begin singing? When did you realize it wasn't just ordinary singing, but the kind of singing that would help you win competitions, perform in benefit concerts, sing at weddings?

A:  My very first experience was at the age of five, when my sister and I won first place in a competition. I didn't become aware of singing per se until I was in primary school. Our school held a competition and we performed in school musicals. I also sang in the school choir for three years, and later as a soloist at the arts school. Aunt Vanda at the Children's Home in Ostrava led me toward singing from my childhood. This March I started going to a music school for solo voice - before that I trained on my own for three years. Every week I practice about eight hours. I also practice with Uncle Michal, who accompanies me on the piano. I have to say that the neighbors sometimes really love it, my neighbor waters her flowers and sings along with me.  

Q:  Where else has singing brought you? Which performances are you proudest of?

A:  I am proudest of my first concert that I recently gave in a church. I sang with my good friend Káťa. We invited guests and I had the feeling that we did a good job. The concert was to help my new musical, "Víra" (Faith). I had the opportunity to sing a musical number with Míša Nosková, who taught me how to overcome stage fright. During the dress rehearsal for a musical we were in she said out loud, in front of everyone, into the microphone, that I should do 10 squats and she counted them out loud while I did them. I've never had stage fright since.    

Q:  You've performed in several musicals, but not in a "real" one, a professional one, yet. Have you ever auditioned for a professional musical?

A:  I haven't been to any auditions yet, but I've thought about it. My dream right now is to complete my musical, which is completely new, and which will be professional, because I have many experienced people on my team. I'd like to perform in professional productions in the future.

Q:  What led you to write your own, how is it going - writing your own musical and staging it?

A:  I wrote the script completely by myself. I asked the Ve spojení ("In Contact") civic association in Prague to help me stage it. At the first meeting I handed out the script. A couple of days later I got their reactions, and they said it was admirable what I had written, for my age. Together with Barča and Roman (members of the association), we edited the script during one weekend. The music is being written by Míša and Roman - they are excellent singers. We've put out a preliminary notice asking for people interested in performing in a musical, and more than 250 people have applied! We want to give children from children's homes the opportunity to participate as well so they get to stand onstage and see the world. We want the money from the tickets to go to a good cause. It's clear that some things will have to be paid for, such as the theater, but the aim is to help others. The musical is all on the theme of "Faith". Believing in God and in love. The story is not about convincing you to believe in God, that's your free decision. For the time being I can't confirm when the premiere will be, but you'll be surprised.    

Q:  It seems you have a brilliant start at a career as a singer and creator of musicals - is there anything else that amuses you and that you'd like to excel at?

A:  Yes. Sometimes I write reports on events for the regional daily. The Zámeček magazine is of great benefit to me. When I first got a copy of it, I told myself I could write something for them, and it happened. I'd like to make it more visible, so others could learn what life in the children's homes is like. Children contribute various reports to it - the content includes both their good experiences and their bad ones. Recently I tried standing in front of a camera and reporting on information that way - and it worked! I got an offer and once I'm 18 I will be able to start working as a TV reporter.  

Q:  You're a Rom. What does your Romani identity mean to you?

A:  Yes, I am Romani and I'm proud of it. However, what I cannot say is that I am a "Gypsy". Why? I know I have this in my roots, but I do not behave like the Roma who are called that do. I mean the ones who behave badly - they are on welfare, they do not work even though there is work, they do not want to work. The adults teach their children this, they teach theirs, and it goes on and on. Then there are those who live their lives in a clean household, who work, who take good care of their children, etc. There are quite a few of them. At grade school people sometimes called me names, but today no one does. People see how I behave, that I know how to be polite. I am thankful to my foster parents for raising me, because otherwise I might have fallen into that other group. I don't know how to speak Romani at all and I don't want to. I am glad I am learning English, German and Italian. I want to show society that I am a Rom - and I am a respectable person. I have many acquaintances who have colleages at work who are Romani, and they are respectable people like anyone else.   

Lukáš Kotlár, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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