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August 13, 2022



The story of Magdalena Karvayová

Prague, 2.10.2014 19:50, (ROMEA)
Magdalena Karvayová (PHOTO:  ROMEA)
Magdalena Karvayová (PHOTO: ROMEA)

The case of Magdalena Karvayová is a prime example of how Czech society generates its own problems in coexistence with the Romani minority by allowing prejudices to be crudely projected into its education system. "At school a boy grabbed me in the hallway and pushed my head into a toilet bowl. When I told the teacher what happened, she told me not to complain and made me sit down," Karvayová tells us.

Now 25, her memories of primary school are full of fights and of being called a "fat dirty gypsy girl who would never amount to anything." In the third grade they wanted to reassign her into a "special school" even though her grades were fine.

Her parents, however, would not allow it - they refused both to have her examined by the educational-psychological counseling center and refused to enroll her elsewhere. They knew that only an education would make it possible for her exit the vicious circle of poverty.

Her school attendance continued to be stressful. "The older boys beat me up, Dad was always going to the school about it. Once they were holding me down by the neck in front of the school and choking me, and if Dad hadn't happened to come for me I don't what would have happened," she remembers.

Magdalena had to learn to defend herself physically because her teachers would not help her. Her father met with the school director, but nothing changed.

"I started to be aggressive - the moment someone looked at me wrong, I started up," she recalls. Today she explains it by saying she had gotten used to an aggressive environment.

At home she was watching television programs set in multiethnic school environments and dreaming of attending such a school. "Every day I prayed to God to be able to go to such a school," she remembers - and it happened.

So much love and understanding

When, after three months at the school, she was named "Best Student of the Month", her father took the certificate back to her old primary school and told them "Look, it can be done!

When she was 11, she learned from a Romani acquaintance that his sister was attending the Townshend International School in the town of Hluboká nad Vltavou, where all the instruction was in English. The Czech language was also taught there and the students came from all over the world.  

The school environment was said to be completely different from the school she was attending. When Magdalena found that out, she immediately wanted to transfer there.

At her home school the idea was laughed away and she was told she would never be able to handle it, as she didn't know a word of English. Transferring to such a faraway school also meant she would only be able to go home from time to time.

Even though she didn't shine during the interview, they gave her a chance. The school provided a scholarship, but her parents still had to contribute CZK 7 000 a month, which was a lot of money for them, as they had two other children.

Today Magdalena describes that change of environment as a miracle. The responsiveness of the teachers and tutors who helped her overcome the language barrier was something completely new for her.

"So much love and understanding! I learned how to behave and respond completely differently. I felt like I existed, that I was appreciated, that I am a human being. Before that I felt like dirt," she says.

When, after three months at the school, she was named "Best Student of the Month", her father took the certificate back to her old primary school and told them "Look, it can be done!" After graduating, she wanted to continue her studies at Charles University, but when she applied there in person, the admissions staff asked her why she was so "dark" and whether she was a foreigner.

That experience awoke bleak memories of primary school, and she decided she would no longer submit to such humiliation. Instead of defending and explaining herself, she wanted to focus on her studies.  

Magdalena applied to Anglo-American University in the Comparative Law Department. She successfully completed her degree even though she had to work during her studies as well.

I always remember where I come from

There are Romani people who graduate from college and then forget where they came from. That is not Magdalena's case.

"I had to take care of my mother and my younger sibling. When my sister turned 15, I brought her from the village to live with me in Prague so she could go to high school. We had no money for clothes. Sometimes we couldn't even buy bread. We used to bake marikľe, sort of a flatbread out of flour and water," she recalls.

Both of her younger siblings are studying at good schools today. Her complicated journey to an education has left a positive mark on her as well.

Magdalena decided to focus on the education of Romani children. She became coordinator of the Human Rights and Education Program at the Open Society Fund Prague, where she primarily worked on Romani youth and was partially involved in advocacy activities around implementing the D.H. and Others vs. Czech Republic judgment, i.e., matters of equal access to a quality education.

Then, together with Jolana Šmarhovyčová, Magdalena became the coordinator of a campaign for quality education for Romani children in the city of Ostrava. She sees her work with families at the bottom of society as having a deep purpose.  

I meet up in the Moravská Ostrava quarter with 23-year-old Jolana Šmarhovyčová and Julius Mika (age 25), one of the plaintiffs in the D.H. and Others case. "D.H." is the initials of one of the girls who sued for the right to equal access to education, and the case is referred to by those initials because the Czech Republic, during the course of the proceedings, went to far as to publicly humiliate the children who brought the lawsuit.

Jolana Šmarhovyčová used to work in Ostrava for the local civic association Life Together (Vzájemné soužití). The Open Society Fund then approached her and asked whether she wouldn't like to participate in raising Romani people's legal awareness.

Out of that effort, a campaign gradually developed involving others, such as Magdalena Karvayová. I expected that our interview would concern the "practical schools" in particular, but the problem, it seems, has shifted.  

Eliminating the impression of discrimination

What is the history of the segregation of Romani children in the schools? "Special schools" were established here after WWI for children requiring special care, i.e., for those suffering from mental disabilities or from social disadvantage.

Already in 1951, a report by the Czechoslovak Interior Ministry entitled "On the Gypsy Question" and submitted to the Interior Minister said that "The question of educating gypsy children can be addressed very easily according to the legislation currently in effect. Even if they do not belong in the special (auxiliary) schools, in places where the number of children is low, such a measure will be the most appropriate. Where there is a larger number of children, it is possible to set up a class for difficult-to-educate youth for them, of course under the presupposition that the impression of discrimination is eliminated."

The number of pupils enrolled into such schools gradually rose (from 23 000 in 1960 to 59 301 in 1988). Prior to 1989, most Romani children attended "special school".

After 1989 the political situation changed, the problem began to be discussed, and legislation was gradually amended to benefit Romani children. The most essential change was an amendment to the School Act initiated by Czech MP Monika Horáková (herself Romani) in the year 2000, thanks to which the graduates of "special schools" could at least theoretically continue their studies elsewhere.

Most Romani children are now enrolled in a primary school attended exclusively by Romani children. There is one such school serving each socially excluded locality in the city of Ostrava.

That same year, 18 Romani children sued the Czech Republic. Seven years later, the European Court for Human Rights issued its judgment confirming that the Czech Republic was not ensuring equal access to education for all children.

The D.H. judgment pointed out that cases occur in the Czech Republic of children being enrolled into schools designed to serve those with "light mental disability" even though they are not in fact disabled, and that their ethnic origins or the perception that they come from environments that are somehow disadvantaging are the actual reason for their segregation. During this whole process, the "special schools" had been renamed the "practical schools" on the basis of legislation that took effect in 2005.  

The situation today is a bit different. Jolana recalls the beginnings of her campaign:  "We informed the parents of the difference between the practical and the primary schools and learned that some children were attending practical schools even though their parents believed they were enrolled in a standard primary school. An even more frequent phenomenon is that these children attend standard primary schools that are segregated."

Jolana's original intention had been to keep Romani parents from consenting to the reassignment of their children into the "practical schools". Then it came to light that the main problem is that of segregated standard schools.

Most Romani children are now enrolled in a primary school attended exclusively by Romani children. There is one such school serving each socially excluded locality in the city of Ostrava.

Even though the instruction provided by some of these schools is based on the curriculum for "light mental disability", they do not identify themselves as "practical schools". The level of education they offer is not much higher than a "practical school" and the segregation they practice does not tip the scales in favor of interethnic coexistence.  

You all just want benefits

After Jolana realized the main problem now is segregation in primary education pure and simple, she decided to change her approach:  "We changed the campaign and focused on enrolling Romani first-graders into non-segregated schools. We began with 10 families from Hrušov and 10 from Liščina, families whom we know - we know they are interested in their children's education."  

The campaign gradually grew. The parents involved spoke with their acquaintances, their neighbors, their relatives, and brought in other parents.

Last November, 70 Romani parents attended a campaign meeting. Their children were either about to enroll into first grade or already attending grades one through three, the time when there is the greatest risk they will be recommended for reassignment into a "practical school".

"We familiarized them with the School Act so they could know what they have to do and what they don't, what they have a right to do and what they don't have a right to do. We prepared them for the registrations through role-playing," Jolana says.  

The aim was for the parents to understand whether a school director could propose that their child delay enrollment, what is needed for such a recommendation, and how educators recognize whether a child is mature enough for school. They also learned how to respond should a school director propose their child be reassigned to a "practical school".

The parents chose high-quality primary schools in their catchment area and prepared their children to enroll. Once they were prepared, an independent educator tested the children and confirmed whether they were mature enough for first grade or whether they were still lacking maturity.

The parents and set out to enroll those children who were ready into seven schools. Campaign coordinators accompanied them to provide moral support and monitor the course of the enrollments.

When Jolana demanded they be retested in her presence, the teacher retorted "You want even more benefits?"

At the school monitored by Jolana, the director tried to stop the Romani children from enrolling. He first did his best to prevent them from coming to the enrollment at all.

Before he even saw the children, the director claimed that his school would only take pupils with top assessment results. He even arranged an opportunity for the Romani children to enroll in a faraway, segregated school, telling them that a bus paid for by that school would transport the children there.  

During the enrollment process, a teacher gave the Romani children (whose mastery of the necessary skills had been independently verified) no points at all in her assessment. When Jolana demanded they be retested in her presence, the teacher retorted "You want even more benefits?"  

The stressed-out children were then retested. While their assessments turned out better, they ultimately could not be enrolled because there was "no capacity" for them.

There are many school directors in Ostrava who have concerns about enrolling Romani children, but it is possible to reach agreement with them on enrolling such children through appopriate communication. Also, the purpose of the campaign is not to inadvertently turn non-segregated schools into segregated ones.

It is in the interest of Romani parents that the number of Romani pupils in any one school not be too high. Majority-society parents will begin removing their offspring from the schools if they perceive the Romani population of the school as too large.

Despite such difficulties, however, all of the children in the campaign were eventually enrolled into good primary schools. This year 100 Romani families are participating in the action.

The campaign coordinators also want to focus on registrations into nursery schools, as segregation often begins there. Now EU structures are helping in the fight against segregation in the Czech Republic as well.  

Just last week the European Commission formally requested the Czech Republic provide information regarding discrimination against Romani children in their access to education. The country has two months to respond to Brussels.  

Based on that response, the next phase of the process will be decided. The proceedings could end up before the EU Court of Justice.

In a press release, the Czech Education Ministry has defended itself, saying the legislation at issue was the work of previous governments and that it is planning corrections. An amendment with many pro-inclusive steps has been drafted.

Nevertheless, the draft amendment has caused upheaval among civic organizations involved in the education of Romani children. Specifically, one point defines the controversial education of children in separate "special classes" as an "integration support measure".    

According to the civic organizations, that point will make it easier to reassign Romani children into the "practical schools". Kateřina Valachová, director of the Legislation Council Section at the Office of the Government, claims that the aim of the amendment is to clearly anchor the preference for educating all children in mainstream schools.

Valachová is already responding to the powerful criticism of the measure by saying that "the controversial point can be removed without affecting the rest of the proposal as long as the rest of it is preserved". We'll see how it turns out.

You'll never learn

Julius Mika, one of the participants in the D.H. case, realizes how terribly important it is to get a good education and is also actively participating in work with Romani families on this issue today. His childhood experiences are the reason.

Julius was reassigned to "special school" after a new teacher began teaching his class. He remembers how she behaved toward the Romani children.

"I was very small as a boy and they seated me in the next-to-the-last row. I asked her to move me closer to the front and she said 'You'll never learn anything anyway'," he recalls.

When the other children saw how the teacher treated the Romani pupils, they also began behaving badly toward them. After a time in "special school" he eventually returned to a standard primary school, but he lost several years because of the detour.

His own children, however, attend a non-segregated primary school because he knows full well how important it is. His younger brother, unfortunately, only completed "practical school".

His brother is not mentally retarded, but the school never taught him to read or write. When he was supposed to transfer into trade school, he resisted because he was afraid to commute there - "I can't read the bus schedule," he explained to his parents.

Awareness of the importance of education is much higher among Romani people in Ostrava than it used to be. The D.H. case has played a role in that; those involved in it still meet up regularly to help raise awareness of the importance of a quality education.

That awareness has also been increased to a significant degree thanks to the ongoing enrollment campaign, which doesn't yet have an official name. Magdalena Karvayová says that if we want a change in society, it cannot be achieved just by individuals doing their best on their own - whole communities must strive for change.

Working on the campaign, for her and for Jolana, is not about doing something for the Romani parents, but about empowering them to fight their own battles. "When we began meeting with parents and providing them with information, I understood we were on the right road. The parents got it:  Yes, now we have information and we can go fight," says Magdalena Karvayová, who already has a victory of her own behind her.  

First published on the news server Deník Referendum.

Saša Uhlová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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