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Interview: TV reporter Richard Samko

Prague, 20.8.2007 13:56, (Common Ground)

“Skinheads didn’t know what to say to a Roma journalist”

Richard Samko (29) has worked for Czech Television (the largest non-private Czech TV station) for almost 8 years. He started there as a writer of small news pieces and has managed to become a respected reporter and the second Roma anchor in the history of Czech TV. He spoke to us about his childhood in Náchod, preparation for graduation exams, his nephews and about covering skinhead meetings for Czech TV.

What were your first few years of school like?
I’m from Náchod, a town 150 km from Prague near the Polish border. For four years I attended a small elementary school, and it was very good. There were just three Roma students – me, my brother and another child. I’m from a traditional Roma family. My father has nine siblings and my mom has eight. But I grew up in a block of flats among “gádžos” (Roma term for non-Roma people) and I had two siblings – a brother and a sister. My father separated a bit from his family. He built us a block of flats with another man. He didn’t want to live with his whole family in the center of Náchod. So we lived in that block of flats among “gádžos.“ I only lived there till I was 15. At school I had no trouble. Sometimes kids laughed at me because of the color of my skin, but there weren’t serious racial problems.

Why did your father want to separate from his family?
He wanted a better future for us. He wanted us to have our own rooms and our own beds. He didn’t want us to experience what he did – for example, sleeping with all his siblings in one or two beds. He wanted to give us a different start. But we weren’t separated from the family at all. We visited our grandparents, we just didn’t live with them.

Are your parents well-educated, and did they support you in your educative process?
Both my father and mother were born in a typical poor Roma village in Slovakia and they were brought to Bohemia by their parents. My grandfather was only able to sign a letter and my father only attended the basic school for five years. All of my family members came to Bohemia to work as manual workers and they were almost illiterate. My mother only spoke Hungarian and a bit of Slovak when she came to this country. My father pushed me and my siblings hard to learn, but he never taught us himself. It was my mother who did our homework with us. (Or at least she tried.) I really admire it. They weren’t educated but they wanted us to be and they weren’t able to help us. Anyway, we did our best to fulfil their expectations because they worked very hard for us to have a better future.

What did you do after elementary school?
I went to a school for cooks and waiters in Nové Město nad Metují, a small town near Náchod.

Why did you choose this school?
I used to take part in theatre performances when I was in basic school and my favorite teacher wanted me to study dramatic art. She wanted to prepare me for it. But I didn’t have very good marks, I had two or three D’s in my school report, so it wasn’t possible for me to go to gymnasium. I chose the waiter/cook school because it wasn’t far from my home and I have always liked to cook. After finishing that school I started to run a small garden restaurant with my girlfriend, now wife, Angelika.

Dženo and Zdeněk Šámal helped me a lot

How did you end up studying in the program for young Roma journalists sponsored by the nonprofit organization Dženo?
There was a big change in my life when I was 15 years old. I started to go among Roma people. It was something like my way back to my roots. For example, we had a special day for Roma kids and they usually wanted me or one of my friends to moderate those events. So I was a kind of comedian and people knew it and that was probably the reason why they contacted me.

Then I passed the entrance exams and was accepted as a student of a six-month-long course for beginning Roma journalists. It started in October 1998 and finished in March 1999. Every week there were classes from Thursday till Saturday and after a few months we began attending TV and radio stations for practice. My big advantage was that Zdeněk Šámal was the chief of the news staff in Czech Television and he supported this project. He hired 10 of us for Czech Television, but most didn’t stay there for very long.

Why?
This is a kind of character feature of Roma. It’s hard to explain… Look, every Roma is an individual but there’s a thing that we all have in common: We want to have immediate results. Maybe it’s from the past – ‘I worked and they paid me immediately.‘ Waiting is hard for us. That’s the reason why not many Roma people study. Five years is such a long time for us. If a young guy thinks about it, he is like: ‘If I go with my grandfather to build houses, I’ll make half a million crowns in five years.’

The Roma people with whom I started to work in TV just weren’t patient enough. I waited five years till I was an anchor and two more years to become a regular employee. I didn’t have much money during that waiting period. I had to commute to Náchod but I felt that it was the chance of a lifetime and that it wouldn’t come again.

Maybe I’m not good enough in explaining the Roma approach to life to you, but it’s somewhere deep inside us, the consciousness of the transient nature of things. It’s connected with our fate, with the holocaust. You’re simply living for today and you don’t want to think about tomorrow.

Are you grateful to people from Dženo?
Of course. Ivan Veselý and Jarmila Balážová, who are no longer on speaking terms, gave me the first chance. They helped me at the beginning. And I’m in a position where plenty of Romas want to be. More Romas have started to work for Czech TV, but they can’t keep up with the fast-paced conditions. It’s even hard for students of journalism. So it’s very difficult for people who just have a few month-long courses to keep up.

Sometimes Roma people think I’m not Roma at all

Since you started to work as a journalist have you experienced people who are prejudiced against you?

I had an experience with skinheads when I started to go to Nové Město to visit Angelika. They beat me once. But no one has shouted at me on the streets or anything like that. At work my colleagues have never disapproved of me for being Roma. There were a lot of people who helped me at the beginning and nobody was against me because I was Roma. But when I started to live in Prague and I went outside my flat I felt the prejudices very strongly. But it’s getting better.

I know things aren’t completely rosy. There are also bad people among us, those who steal and so on. But I don’t know why people generalize. For example, why should I be afraid of a man who’s sitting in a restaurant beside us? I can leave my cellphone on the table close to him without any troubles. But if there was a group of Roma people sitting there instead, some people might put their bags on the far side of the table. Why?

Has anyone expressed any prejudices against you while you were interviewing people in the streets?
Whenever I appear with a camera people don’t see a Roma. They see a journalist from Czech TV first, I think. I also have funny stories. For example when I was once covering a Roma religious feast at Svatý Kopeček I interviewed a Roma guy and asked him what the differences were between Roma and non-Roma celebrations. He answered: ‘When YOU have a feast it’s completely different from OURS.’ He simply didn’t realize that I’m Roma!

At work I was warned not to go among racists, among skinheads. But I quite like such strange situations. So for almost three years I’ve been covering skinhead rallies with my colleague Karel Rožánek. Once I was somewhere outside of Prague and the atmosphere was a bit tense because there were very muscular skinheads. But you should have seen their faces when I approached them with a camera and microphone and started to ask them questions. They knew that I was Roma and they really didn’t know what to do or what to say. They were just shocked.

By seeing a Roma as a journalist?
Exactly. They were totally confused. It happens to me also from time to time when I cover their demonstrations. They really don’t know how to behave. Their mouths stand wide open. Just once I had an incident with two drunken guys, but we managed to get into the car with a cameraman and drive away. Maybe this is a way to show racists how things really are.

Parents must persuade kids to go to school

You are now preparing for graduation exams at a social-law school in Prague. Why?
I managed to finish high school for cooks and waiters but I didn’t have graduation exams. So I started a distance-learning program at an evangelic social-law high school a few years ago and now I’m just about to finish. I should pass through graduation exams on the 14th of June. I‘ve met a lot of people there, especially social workers, and I have gotten to know their troubles.

Nobody in Czech TV has pushed me into high school or to take graduation exams but it’s somewhere deep inside of me, something like: You’re Roma and you’re working in TV, there could be somebody in the future who doesn’t want you to work there and then you would be in trouble.’

Have you ever felt discriminated against at any school because of being Roma?
I never learned anything about Roma history and culture till I started to attend that course in journalism. Then I learned that there are books written in the Roma language, there are Roma authors, musicians… I don’t think it’s a problem that this information is not in textbooks. I think parents should teach it to their kids. It isn’t discrimination. It’s more like misunderstanding of conditions in which Roma people live. For example, I was very lucky because my teachers were really concerned about me. But some teachers simply don’t care when you’re behind other pupils. You sit at the back desk and they leave you alone.

Do you think there is a way to persuade all Roma kids to go to school regularly, because there is still a large portion of them who don’t?
My sister has two daughters. And they meet people who tell them they are gypsies. I try to explain the situation to them but I also tell them: “Be proud of being Roma! You have a rich culture!” And they understand that. I also encourage them to study carefully. I always tell them: “You’ll be a doctor and you’ll be a lawyer. Is that clear?” And they’ve already made this their plan. They see that I’m successful. They see me on TV and so they listen to what I’m saying carefully and I’m very happy about it. They are always proud when they get good marks and are very ashamed when they don’t succeed.

But I really don’t know how to improve the whole system, because improvements must come from within the family. Parents must persuade their kids to go to school. My parents grew up in poverty and they pushed us all to high school. So the ground is there. Parents need to realize that it is better for their kids to go to school even if some of their teachers are mean to them.

By Alice Tejkalová and Israel Tockman
Views: 1322x

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