Roman Bílý: Decisions are made about Roma without us, that's why we are running for office
More than 150 Romani candidates are running in the local elections on 5 and 6 October. News server Romea.cz is profiling those whom we believe have the biggest chance of success because they are running in leading spots on the candidate lists of registered movements and political parties.
Roman Bílý is 37 years old and works as coordinator of social activities and as a miller. The leader of the Christian Democrat (KDU-ČSL) candidate list in the Czech town of Kadaň gave the following interview to news server Romea.cz.
Q: What are the most burning problems in the town of Kadaň and what solutions to them do you propose?
A: The excluded localities are a problem. We have two here, Prunéřov and Chomutovská Street. Currently Chomutovská Street is very problematic. You will not find any public benches to sit on in that neighborhood, no public garbage cans, no playground. Of course, that's not because the Romani residents have destroyed city property of that kind, but because the town decided to get rid of the children's playground because they were bothered by the sound of children playing there - but the point of a playground is for children to go there to run around, to play football, not to be as quiet as church mice. Another problem we are grappling with is the schools. We have a methodological guidance counselor and an assistant working at one school who are meant to keep an eye on problematic families and pupils, but if parents go to them with their problems, those staffers do not know how to advise them, they don't know how to work with the parents. For example, the problem arose that one of the boys had thrown a chair at one of the girls, but the guidance counselor and assistant were silent, they never addressed it. I feel there is a need for those staffers to be replaced by somebody from the town hall and a field social worker who would work directly in the locality, somebody whom both the parents and the school would trust. I would certainly like to improve communication and collaboration between the pupils, parents, and the school. The third thing is not a problem so much as it is about ignorance, about the public persisting in the erroneous notion that 80 % of the Romani people in our town are unemployed. The opposite is true. In our town there are three industrial zones and most Romani people are employed right there. Why doesn't anybody publicize the fact that in our town Romani unemployment is not so high? Eighty per cent of the Roma out of work? That's nonsense. Eighty per cent are employed by the industrial zones.
Q: Kadaň previously decided to address the situation of socially vulnerable residents by creating its own concept on that in collaboration with the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. Are you clear on how the problem is being addressed at the regional level?
A: First and foremost, if problems are being addressed that impact Romani people, then there should at least be a Romani person involved in designing the solutions. It should not be "about us without us", which is what has happened until now. If they are going to discuss field social workers and projects that are meant to be designed for Romani people - and that are being funded by the EU exactly because they are for Romani people - then the Romani people must participate in the discussion. Unfortunately, what happens is that people are deciding about these essential problems who do not know the locality, or the local problems, and who do not know what the actual Romani residents of our localities are bothered about. Those decision-makers may be educated people, but what does that matter if they know nothing about the issues facing Romani people? They are completely unaware that we Roma living in Kadaň don't like this. We want to be part of solving problems in our town.
Q: How do you believe the problem of Romani people working under the table should be addressed, or the over-indebtedness of Romani people that is associated with that kind of work?
A: People will always work under the table here, but on the other hand it's not as widespread a phenomenon as it was during the 1990s. Currently just those who actually are so indebted that their entire wages would be seized for collections if they were to be formally employed are working under the table. Of course, this is not just about Romani people, it's a republic-wide problem. A large percentage of the population is in collections proceedings and the numbers of them, according to statistics, continue to increase. The amounts some people owe are so high that they will not be able to pay them off during their lifetimes. That problem must be addressed country-wide by the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Naturally, solutions occur to me as well, but we must realize that the collections business is connected with trafficking in poverty and that the brave people who decide to combat this could experience harsh retaliation.
Q: The Ústecký Region does not have a very positive media image, whether that is due to unemployment, loan-sharking, or its weak economy. What are your plans to address that - and what opportunities are available to you?
A: Weak economy of this region... Well, you know, in our town there are so many industrial zones that the employees make above-average salaries... The problem lies elsewhere than in the economy. I see it as being about how people live, what conditions they are forced to live in. They make enough money, and if there are two heads of household working then it's even better, but at least 50 % of their income is spent on rent. In the Ústecký Region the rents are exorbitant and food costs more than elsewhere. The living conditions are not the cheapest, so at the end of the day, residents have above-average salaries but cannot afford to buy much with them because the cost of living does not allow it. The state has sold off almost all the housing it used to own and is not building new housing. Very few people here can afford to own their own home, to say nothing of Romani people, nobody today can fulfill the banks' conditions for credit, many young families will never qualify for a mortgage. We also lack social housing. Another problem is that a significant proportion of the population is living in residential hotels, where the housing is expensive even though that kind of accommodation should be the cheapest of all. Nobody sees any of this, though. Everybody just sees a region with a "weak economy".
Q: You have already mentioned social housing and housing generally. In the Ústecký Region there are housing benefit-free zones being put into effect across the entire region. What is your perception of those decisions?
A: The housing problem arose during the 1990s. The state-owned housing was sold off and those who bought it then established their own rents, which are exorbitant. Nobody can control how much rent is charged, but people have to live somewhere. If somebody qualifies for welfare, or has a low salary or a small pension, then that person has had the opportunity to apply for a housing subsidy from the social welfare system. Now, after X number of years, the state has ascertained that those housing subsidies are costing it billions of crowns, and once again, the finger is being pointed just at the Romani people. Wouldn't it be more effective to regulate rents? The majority society believes that if a socially vulnerable family receives a state housing subsidy then they have won the lottery. Nobody talks about the fact that this means they have paid the landlord CZK 11 500 [EUR 450] in rent and have just CZK 2 000 [EUR 78] or CZK 3 000 [EUR 117] to live on the rest of the month. The state has supported this state of affairs for years, but now all of a sudden they want to introduce a change and they announce "STOP, we will not disburse housing subsidies". They believe that gets rid of this problem, but more and more problems just crop up as a consequence. Again, those whom this will cost the most are the socially vulnerable who have no other option than to take advantage of the housing subsidies. Those who pay the very highest price are the senior citizens who have worked their entire lives and have paid their taxes, and who now are given retirement incomes of CZK 9 000 [EUR 350] per month. Nobody says what these people are supposed to live on in such a situation. This is not just about Romani people, after all. Unfortunately, we are returning to the 1990s - many people will be working under the table.
Q: What is your perception of Romani people running in local elections?
A: I see it as positive that so many Romani people are running. It's even more positive that they are leading the candidate lists. Local politics is actually an area where a bigger number of Romani people could run. I have the feeling that from the 1990s until now nothing essential has changed, but now we have finally recovered and figured out that if we want to change something we must enter politics. We must be in the parties and do our best to advocate for the interests of us Roma. It took us a while to resolve to do this, but it's connected with the increasing education levels among Romani people. We do not just want to be cooks, craftspeople, etc. Romani people have higher aims, they want to study at college and they want to be a part of politics in their own towns.
Q: Do you feel it is more advantageous for Romani people to be on the candidate lists of big political parties or to run for a Romani party?
A: First and foremost, the party should not be negative about Romani people. Each candidate must make a really good assessment of which party he or she wants to run for. The candidate must be certain the party wants to change something. Romani people and those in the majority must learn to communicate with each other, and mainly, to collaborate. We live here together and we must also address our problems together. I personally consider all the Romani candidates to be badasses, because politics is a quixotic effort. The Romani community should support us as candidates. If I look at this from the perspective of the majority society, though, then if that society is averse to Romani people, it will also be averse to a political party created just by Roma. The majority society is not currently prepared to vote for a purely Romani party, it is more acceptable to them if the Romani people are part of the candidate lists of the majority parties.
Q: How do you see your chances in these elections right now?
A: I assess my chances at 60/40. I am certain my family and friends will support me, but that will not be enough. I am a person who visits the excluded localities, I speak with the people there, they know me, and they know that I will come to their aid at any time. We all know very well how to curse about whomever it is that wins, but if we want change, we must also vote. I say this to everybody, majority-society people included. I am also pleasantly surprised by the interest being show by young people, they are even offering to volunteer for my campaign. Support from the excluded localities will be a small victory for me even if I am not ultimately elected.
Q: If you are elected, are you already thinking about whom you would form a coalition with?
A: At this moment I wouldn't want to get ahead of myself. However, if I am elected, I will give careful consideration to that. I like the Pirates, so I would consider them.
Q: You are one of a very few candidates running who is not very active through online social networks. Won't that be detrimental to you in this day and age?
A: I prefer to speak with people in person. The social networks are full of rumors and fabricated scandals. I don't want to be a part of that. I prefer to visit a locality and ask people what their problems are, what they need to improve and resolve. I will never change anything by hanging out online.
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