Romani social worker on growing up at the Chanov housing estate in the Czech Republic
Anna Siváková, now age 21, was born in and grew up at the Chanov housing estate in the Czech Republic. After graduating from the local primary school there she decided, unlike many of her schoolmates, to continue her studies beyond compulsory education, graduating from the high school in Most with a focus on social work.
She herself says high school was not always easy, whether because of her own family's concerns or the stigma she faced about the environment she comes from. However, she says both her high school classmates and her teachers were always a big support to her.
Today Anna works at the House of Romani Culture in Chanov as a field social worker and is planning to take college entrance examinations. The primary school she attended as a child is situated directly in the center of Chanov, which is several kilomters outside of the town of Most.
Back in those days she had many hobbies and did her best to do extracurricular activities. She dedicated herself, for example, to traditional Romani dance, and together with the children's dance ensemble "Sam Roma sam" traveled all over the Czech Republic with the support of the school, as well as contributing to the children's magazine Romano voďori and regularly visiting the Chanov community center.
Anna describes that center as playing a key role in her life. Despite belonging among the successful schoolgirls, she began to have problems with her Czech language study during her upper primary years.
Her older sisters aided her as well, but it was the community center that she visited for systematic tutoring. "At the community center there were people who took care of me and if I didn't understand something they explained it to me properly and drilled it into my head," she recalls.
A decisive moment
Anna says her desire to study further was awakened when she met Iveta Millerová, also a native of Chanov who was the first woman from there to graduate from college, after which she dedicated herself to the education of the children at the housing estate and the development of the local community. Anna was inspired by thet fact that she had studied and wanted to become like her.
"I didn't want to stay on welfare my whole life, I wanted to work. I think anybody can have that desire, but somebody has to awaken it in them," Anna says.
In a demotivating environment, which Chanov doubtless is for many of its residents, people feel they have no prospects. "My classmates and friends didn't believe that I would finish high school. The girls I danced with in the ensemble supported me, though. My other peers laughed at me - 'You'll never finish! Forget about it!' I just told myself I'd show them," Anna says decisively.
According to many people, support from one's family is even more important. Such support is not, however, a matter of course, because parents very often have concerns about their children going to high school and living away from home - some that might even seem irrational, having to do with sending them into an enemy environment or the pitfalls of living far away from loved ones.
Anna says she found support from her loved ones. Her mother was convinced that her daughter could deal with making the transition to another environment and urged her to apply.
On the other hand, Anna's father was afraid for his daughter. "Dad didn't like it much in the beginning, he was afraid I'd get pregnant," she laughs - but her mother and sisters managed to work on him.
Making her first non-Romani friends
"I was very afraid that I wouldn't understand them and I was afraid of becoming disengaged," Anna says when recalling her concerns over her first day at her new school. She had never had any non-Romani friends before then.
All of her social contacts had played themselves out within the setting of the Romani housing estate. "Three Romani girls entered that school, we were all friends. However, after half a year, the others left," she says.
While Anna continued to dedicate herself to her studies after coming home on the weekends in order to deal with her transition to high school, her schoolmates preferred to have fun outdoors, and according to her, their decisions came back to haunt them. At the high school itself, Anna says she didn't have any very serious problems with her classmates because of her Romani origin.
"On the contrary, I had rather a lot of self-confidence. I told myself: I'm from Chanov and I'll just deal with things, I have what it takes. I wanted to demonstrate that to the others. That's why it wasn't at all a problem for me to tell people where I'm from," she says.
Anna does, however, mention that her classmates would sometimes make remarks about the inhabitants of the housing estate that hurt her feelings. "Sometimes I had to listen to them talk about the way we dressed at Chanov. I always told [those people] that we were just like them. We don't wear long skirts or carry bows and arrows under our belts," she laughs.
At the same time, she adds that she doesn't blame her classmates for those remarks, which she believes were more about ignorance than an intention to hurt her feelings. Sometimes the situation outside of her own class, however, was different, and she encountered misunderstandings and prejudice at the high school:
"Once we were walking to a different schoolroom and one of the students from another class began to count the Roma in our class and said we would soon be able to set up a welfare office. That was terrible, but I ignored such things," she says, adding that her non-Romani classmates stood up for her.
Support from those around you is crucial
"Some Romani parents tell their children that nothing will ever become of them and that school does not make sense for them. I think they should change that approach. They should motivate their children to want to live better," Anna explains.
In her view, parents frequently do not see any prospects in educating their children because they believe they will never find jobs anyway because of anti-Romani prejudice. "This is mainly about the individual. If one has the appetite and the will to do it, then one will do it. However, support from those around one is just as important. Without it, unfortunately, not much works," she adds.
Anna believes it is also important to receive psychological support from members of the majority society. If society confronts Romani children with prejudice, that can break them down, remove their desire to participate, and trample on it.
In her case, support from her schoolmates and teachers was one reason she liked attending high school and did her best to succeed. "What would I like to say to Romani children like me? Already when they're in primary school they must realize that there is no reason not to try to go to high school. On the contrary, if they do that they can live better and won't have to spend their lives on welfare," she says.
The Czech original of this article was first published on www.hatefree.cz.
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