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August 9, 2022



Czech Republic: Non-Romani and Romani neighbors don't communicate or share decision-making on local matters

Prague, 4.3.2015 20:21, (ROMEA)
A residential hotel on Zelená Street in the Czech town of Děčín. The sign reads
A residential hotel on Zelená Street in the Czech town of Děčín. The sign reads "Rise Up, Roma!" in Romani. (PHOTO: Jiří Šlemar)

In order to acquire prospects in life that give one hope for the future, one must have high self-esteem, pride in oneself and one's own actions, and respect for one's own identity. These are the values that the debilitating misery in the ghettos deprives their residents of.

Subordination to the mafia and the impossibility of somehow compensating for such permanent humiliation means that mere survival from hour to hour is all the ghetto offers. Such a life, defined by an absence of prospects, sometimes also involves an approach to the outside world that differs from customary concepts of coexistence.

Such an environment fundamentally infuences everyone in excluded localities. This is not a matter of skin color.

Where to begin:  Change the environment

According to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the tool that is our thought process becomes useless when the environment to which it was essential no longer exists. A change of environment necessitates a different way of thinking and our previous scale of values changes.

We can attempt positive change even in socially excluded localities, not just with Romani people, but with their "white" neighbors. The prerequisite is the aforementioned "change of environment".

In addition to debt relief, enough work, inclusive education and the launch of an ordinary social housing program, this can also be aided by providing people the opportunity to decide their own fates. The most accessible tool, closest to the people, for getting them to realize their own importance and responsibility is the opportunity to contribute to decision-making about what is going on around them.  

The first prerequisite for this is mutual communication between neighbors, irrespective of ethnicity. The Czech Government's Romani Integration Strategy counts on something like this, but some of its formulations are vaguely phrased, which means they will be implemented ad hoc.  

That will not necessarily be to the detriment of the effort. What is important is whether methods proven to work will then be attempted on a larger scale concurrently with others.

People don't talk to each other

The effort to change an environment and enhance mutual communication can take more than one form. First and foremost, however, this is not about external, visible features (although those are naturally also important) like buildings that are colorful and not grey, children's playgrounds, more greenery, sports facilities, etc.

All of this requires a great deal of money and can therefore only be gradually achieved. The most important change of all, however, will not be held back by any lack of financing.

Many difficulties in many places are due to the fact that people don't talk to each other (Czechs don't talk to Roma and Roma don't talk to Czechs) - they consider it normal to complain about their neighbors, or to exchange verbal abuse with them, instead of doing their best to reach agreement with them. Mutual mistrust is sometimes very strongly entrenched, which is why it is necessary to aid the improvement of coexistence through non-traditional approaches.  

Positive examples

Over time, various initiatives have surfaced that have attempted something like this. For example, the well-known activist Ladislav Baláž from Šumbark in the Havířov area got an idea for how to help move Romani and "white" residents of a housing estate toward improving their environment together.  

He convinced his neighbors to improve their common spaces in the building together and to start locking the street door in the evening. They took up a collection for a new lock and keys and for paint.  

Residents painted the corridors of the building together and changed the lock. Baláž succeeded with this first in his own apartment building and then in some other parts of the housing estate.  

There are well-known examples of several communities where enlightened local politicians are aware that the effort at better coexistence consists of removing the causes of animosity, not punishing the consequences of it. These examples include, for example, the community of Obrnice, where thanks to collaboration with the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, many good projects have succeeded, such as the employment of long-term unemployed people, a new drop-in center for children and youth, and the Olivín family center.

Every year all of the residents of this community meet up for the Obrnice Celebrations, etc. Another example of very good work is that done by the Life Together (Vzájemné soužití) association in Ostrava.

Its director, Kumar Vishwanathan, has always managed, in various places of conflict around the Czech Republic, to bring the stakeholders to the negotiating table. He has succeeded, among other things, in emancipating several families from the power of loan sharks, an effort that was preceded by a longer-term effort to break down the mistrust between police officers and Romani residents.  

Vishwanathan's best-known project is a coexistence village that socially vulnerable people, Romani and "white", built together and now live in. The efforts of these people and others from civil society and from municipal and state institutions are admirable.

However, these are either ad hoc cases (such as Šumbark) or efforts to improve coexistence between impoverished Romani people and the "whites" who have already been living and are living together with them in socially excluded localities. Today, however, the situation is one step removed from this:  There is a need to achieve mutual communication between people living in ghettos and those living outside them.

People don't know each other

There are no platforms in towns or villages, no places where people from "either side" might safely analyze and discuss everything that disrupts their relations as neighbors and where, over time, they could reach agreement together on how to address this disruption. By the word "safe", I mean an environment without arguing, where there will be an effort by all to listen to each other.  

Such a discussion should be moderated by someone enjoying natural authority among everyone involved. People don't know each other and take no interest in each other even though it is generally acknowledged that such knowledge would bring them closer together.  

The platforms we are talking about here could fulfill this purpose - people could create something together (a children's contest, a common activity, something done together, such as bowling, playing football, or a theatrical production) and they could learn something about one another while doing so. Appropriately, this would augment existing community methods now underway, such as the police hiring crime prevention assistants or landlords hiring concierges for apartment buildings.

Without the mutual will to come together, however, this will be hard to achieve. The reasons for such good will can be found in the existing positive examples.

News server has reported that the Spišská Nová Ves hockey club, which won the first part of the Slovak premiere league, is now fighting in the playoff with Detva to advance into the Slovak Extraliga. The excellent local atmosphere pushing these players on has been cultivated for several years now by local Romani fans.  

These Romani people don't just go to games to cheer "their" player,  František Koky. In the opening two games of the final series in Spiš, the home team could rely on a turnout that would be the envy of any team in the Slovak Extraliga itself.  

What's more, this is an example from Slovakia, where the situation between Romani people and "whites" in some places is even more exacerbated than it is in the Czech Republic. We could call such a platform for community involvement a "community center" (although it's basically all the same what it's called).

There are indubitable advantages to doing things together, meeting up, talking with each other. Common agreements on many things are then better upheld by both sides.  

Impoverished Romani people could become involved in decisions about how the community works (the locality or neighborhood), which would involve their taking more responsibility for their environment, and "whites" would have less of a tendency to demonstrate against Romani people side-by-side with the right wing extremists as a result. Everyone would win more neighbors with whom they are more frequently able to have good relations than before.

Playgrounds in the right place 

Where it is possible, and where there is money, towns and villages should build (or renovate) playgrounds and sports facilities for the needs of such platforms, ones that should be located at a slight distance from residential neighborhoods. Romani people here do have a different mentality than everyone else - they like to gather outside and they are noisier.

Strategically located playgrounds and sports facilities can be positioned so that the noise does not disturb the surrounding apartment buildings. A common platform with a playground and sports facility certainly is not a panacea that will miraculously improve coexistence within a year or two, but it does provide a certain chance of improvement.

For impoverished Romani people, it is very important that they become equal partners to their neighbors, that they have the feeling that someone takes them seriously and accepts them as they are. Such a "community center" could attempt to facilitate that partnership.

Participation in platforms

The question is how to arrange for people to actually participate in the activity of these platforms and consider them a good tool for solving local problems or for spending free time together. This can be attempted in various ways, but the most accessible will be if the platforms are held under the auspices of an authority recognized by both Romani and "white" residents who realize that repressive tactics (the ordinary ones, not the exaggerated ones) must be augmented with prevention.

Today towns and villages are attempting to address coexistence repressively, on the basis of various ordinances, frequently unconstitutional ones. This kind of repression, however, solves nothing.  

Such tactics can sometimes just move a local problem out of the area, into a neighboring community or district, but overall they will not improve coexistence. Romani participation in improving relations with neighbors and shaping the environment they live in would be an important change - with just a bit of patience on the part of everyone involved, this could be the impulse that will spark a change in the behavior and mindset of both "sides".  

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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