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Author Monika Duždová compares life for Romani people in England and Slovakia

2.7.2020 10:51
Monika Duždová (PHOTO: Karolina Telváková)
Monika Duždová (PHOTO: Karolina Telváková)

In the spring of 2013, The New York Times published a reportage on a segregated school in Michaľany, Slovakia, calling it a "microcosm" of one of the biggest problems in Europe. At that time Romani community member Mgr.Monika Duždová (born 1968) was working as a teacher's assistant at the school under its new leadership, who had been tasked with correcting the sitution, and she contributed to breaking down the barriers between parents, pupils and teachers, which was no small feat.

Duždová was born in Prešov. She earned her Bachelor's degree at the International Business College ISM Slovakia there and her Master's at St. Elizabeth's University of Health Care and Social Work there.

After several years of experience with life in England, Duždová is now back in Slovakia, working at the Labor Office in Prešov as an expert advisor in the Department of Counseling and Education. She was interviewed about her experiences by Romano voďi magazine in the Czech Republic.

Q: Which labor market accepts Romani people better, in your opinion - the English one, or the Slovak one?

A: In Slovakia it depends on the individual. I know young Romani people who have had no problem finding work in Slovakia, but I also have had the experience of employers not recognizing a candidate is Romani based on their CV or a phone interview, inviting that person for an in-person interview, and when they meet in person, the candidate's ethnicity is a barrier. Employers will refused to hire a Romani candidate despite that person being sufficiently qualified and having enough experience. England and Slovakia cannot be compared, though. The English labor market offers a broader range of opportunities, there are far more agencies operating there, and there is also the option of working withou a contract. Mainly, though, the "we don't want Romani people at work" idea is non-existent there. Here in Slovakia the market is absolutely different - if you cannot document your experience in a field, your chance of success is minimal.

Q: Where do you see the biggest difference?

A: In England anybody can work - even with no English, with no work experience, and without completing their education. Fifteen years ago, my son had graduated from high school but not been accepted by any colleges, so my brother-in-law, who was living in England, invited him to try his luck there and make some money. Back then I was working as a teacher's assistant in Prešov, and during my vacation time I went there for a visit. I could only understand every fourth word I heard in English, but I immediately began working at a bakery nevertheless. They hired me because of my performance, not because of how I looked or my ethnicity. My husband joined us two months later and also began working in the bakery. Subsequently we both left to work for a different firm where my husband, despite not speaking English, worked as a supervisor, which in Slovakia could never have happened for somebody who couldn't speak a word of Slovak. The atmosphere, the mentality of people in England is different. In Slovakia, they label us. In the best case scenario you're still Romani, and the worst case scenario, you're a "cigán".

Q: Eventually, after two years, you returned to Slovakia and began studying at the social work university. Why did you decide to study later in life?

A: It was random. We had just returned from Slovakia because my husband had begun to suffer from health problems. I was on a bus and I saw a billboard advertising a Bachelor's program. I had always liked the field of social work. They accepted me for the Bachelor's program, and then for the Master's. I completed my degrees at the age of 46, but I was decidedly not the oldest student at university. That's another difference - if a person in the Czech Republic or Slovakia wants to keep their job, they must be qualified for it. Whoever wants to hang on to their job ahead of retirement also has to study. In England, on the other other hand, you don't have to have a college degree in a field. Almost every employer offers their own courses and training. If you demonstrate your experience and expert knowledge on top of that, the doors are open to you.

Q: You completed your university education at the age of 46 and you had graduated from college prep school at the age of 29. I assume this was caused by early motherhood?

A: I got pregnant in the first year of college prep school, I was 16. I jumped straight from puberty into the life of an adult. Family means a great deal to me, I literally lived through my children and husband. After my three children gradually grew up, I didn't want to be a housewife. I decided to finish my college prep school, to take a few years off, and then to go to college and graduate. I was aware that one's education can be improved at any age, one should never tell oneself that something won't work out, but should ask oneself whether one wants to achieve something.

Q: Some Romani families have been returning home recently to the Czech Republic or Slovakia from England. Was that because of concerns over Brexit, or even that they might be exposed to the novel coronavirus?

A: It's been out of ignorance. They were afraid about what would happen to them after Brexit. When they followed the foreign policy developments after relocating, they found out that those who have remained in England weren't crazy to stay there, they don't have to feel like they're living there to the detriment of English people. The families are functioning normally, there has been work, the children have been going to school, so now most of them have decided to go back there. That situation repeated itself with the onset of the pandemic, though, people were afraid of catching it and returned to their home countries again. It was also due to the fact that Britain did not respond to the incidences of the novel coronavirus immediately and took the restrictions imposed by other states lightly, which was, of course, a strategy that did not pay off. I have been following the situation because two of my children live there with their families. The conditions for migrants living in England are still in the process of being adjusted, different proposals have been made, such as higher annual wages for foreigners so they can remain there, but for many businesses that would cause their collapse. Britain cannot afford to get rid of Europeans, nobody need fear that. If a hard Brexit actually comes, it will mean, after the novel coronavirus, a further economic blow, mainly for Britons themselves. As for the Czech Republic, the UK is their fifth most important export market.

Q: You've been living in Slovakia for a year now, how are the differences between the central, eastern and western parts of the country perceived now?

A: It is quite noticeable and visibly different for Romani people living in settlements, above all in eastern Slovakia. The Prešov Region is famous for this, for example. The biggest difference is in housing, Romani people do not live in the same neighborhoods as the rest of the population, they live in isolation, on the outskirts of society and of each municipality. When one visits a Romani settlement, one has the feeling of going back in time to the 12th century.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: Angry and sad. The people there are living beneath any level of dignity and it doesn't have to be this way. Unreal amounts of money are being drawn from the European funds for Romani people living in settlements, and despite that, nothing has been achieved. I ask myself where the money is, whose pockets did it end up in? It's greed, hypocrisy, and indifference. Romani people could have been living like regular Slovaks long ago, but some people would have to stop enriching themselves off the backs of others, they would have to stop wanting to control and dominate others. We saw this now during the pandemic, what was done in Bystrany, Krompachov and Žehra. The entire world has seen that Romani people in eastern Slovakia are living like in the 11th century. Representatives of the state are not ashamed of it and will not participate in changing it for the better.

Q: Is it at all possible to extricate oneself from the environment of the Romani settlements?

A: Some have managed it, they have completed their studies and today they live in the bigger towns. However, others unfortunately have not known how to do this and still don't.

Q: How do politicians in Slovakia perceive the problem of Romani settlements?

A: I hope they see this the same way I do - that they should become dignified places to live. Even though the situation has changed and social workers are active there, and in some settlements they have built preschools and primary schools, it's not enough and it does not address their inclusion among the rest of the population. In the settlements, what's also lacking are basics such as drinking water supply, electricity, and sewerage. It begins with poor hygiene conditions and ends with illegal use of plots of land and unpermitted building. I believe lawmakers are doing all they can to improve the situation. People have voted for them, given them their trust, so I hope they won't disappoint us.

Q: If Romani people from there were to relocate into a regular environment, would they have faith in the majority, after their experiences from the settlements? Would they be interested in functioning among them, would they be prepared for such a change?

A: That question is actually quite appropriate and the primary school in Michaľany, where the court ruled that segregation had been proven, is an example. The Romani pupils had separate classrooms, a separate staircase, and even separate toilets. They even had their own separate yard allocated, called the "black" yard. The Romani children were not allowed to come into contact with non-Romani children. That brutal segregation, which a normal person wouldn't even believe in their wildest dreams, began in 2004 and lasted eight years. The children had become so accustomed to it that when I began working there in 2012, when the new principal and I were doing our best to mix the pupils, the Romani children had a problem with it and even their parents didn't want that kind of change.

Q: How did something like that even begin in the first place?

A: The previous principal had played the game of the non-Romani parents, she basically allowed segregation to happen so the children from the settlements would be separated from the majority-society children. She was eventually fired after eight years. The entire world followed that scandal, journalists from The New York Times even came here.

Q: Was it possible to eventually convince the parents and pupils to make that change?

A: That succeeded. In 2012, desegregation of the children was meant to happen to fulfill a court judgment that clearly stated the school had to end the segregation of Romani pupils within one year. The children were meant to begin eating in the school cafeteria together, mixing in classrooms, the "black" and "white" yards were meant to be abolished, and mutual communication was meant to begin. It wasn't easy, we managed to place several Romani pupils among the non-Romani ones, but most of the Romani parents and pupils didn't want that. Mostly they were pupils from the nearby settlement in Ostrovany who didn't want it. The other Romani puplis, from Šarišský Michaľany, were automatically assigned to the same class as non-Romani pupils.

Q: How did the parents of non-Romani children respond when you began to put children into classes together? Did the non-Romani pupils leave en masse?

A: Non-Romani parents from Šarišské Michaľany began withdrawing their children even before I had begun working at the school. That's basically how it all began. They enrolled them at the primary school in a neighboring municipality. The school lost those pupils and the principal was forced by the parents who had decided to leave their children in the school to take steps that eventually ended the incomprehensible segregation. Basically, the segregation had been invented by the non-Romani parents and the principal had implemented their ideas. None of the Romani parents were ever invited to express their opinion of the situation.

Q: How did the children from the "black" and "white" yards respond to each other when they were meant to function together?

A: We began slowly. I established a multicultural hobby group where I had both non-Romani and Romani children. After some time, a group of friends was formed and they represented the school at different events. They even went to the US Embassy together. That was how we showed not just the children, but also the parents, that if one wants something, it can work, and that segregation is unnecessary. When we took the pupils on a trip, they'd even share their beverages with each other. Eventually it was demonstrated that if each side gets to know the other, prejudices disappear. When the 2013/2014 school year began, we had all the parents come as guests and the kids gave a performance together in the atrium. The parents responded brilliantly. It was the first time that Romanes was ever spoke during the opening of the school year. In the end, the non-Romani parents thanked me and said they were proud their children had been able to be in my hobby group. We brought together the children and parents during sports days for the entire community and it turned out that disagreements very often are just the result of ignorance. Today I'm following the school from afar, I don't know how it's being run currently, but from my former colleagues I know that a primary school for the Romani children from Ostrovany has been built right in the settlement. It should open in September. So yes, segregation was eventually eliminated, but this is somehow artificial. In the meantime a new segregated school has been built and nobody is addressing that any longer.

Q: In England you worked as a teacher's assistant, then as a coordinator in the Red Zebra organization. After returning to Slovakia you are working as an expert advisor at the Labor Office. Can you briefly summarize the problems most frequently encountered by Romani job seekers there?

A: When looking for work, they are above all prevented from finding it by their low levels of education and by having a typically Romani surname, or a home address associated with a Romani neighborhood, and very often a Romani accent. Naturally, this is not always the case, but we know instances of this happening. It also happens that an employer will say upfront that he does not want a Rom as a worker. In Slovakia there is an Antidiscrimination Act, so that shouldn't be happening, but it is very problematic to document discrimination at the exact moment it is committed. If the person who has been discriminated against did not record their rejection during the phone call or doesn't have it in writing, then in practical terms it's just their allegation against the employer's.

Q: Requalifications increase one's chances of success. What are most people interested in there?

A: Women prefer courses in cooking and sewing, men prefer masonry work because most of them have experience with it, they just don't have any paper documenting their experience. Requalification will aid them with becoming employed, for example, by one of the bigger construction companies.

Q: Does it happen that the clients refuse jobs offered to them by the Labor Office? What are the most frequent reasons they refuse?

A: Jobs are mostly refused by the non-Romani clients. The reason usually is that their qualifications don't correspond to the job, the salary is low, or because of their situation with their partners. If one partner in a couple finds a job, the other automatically loses all benefits assocated with unemployment support. Romani people, on the other hand, are grateful for jobs if they are offered one after waiting a long time.

Q: Politicians allege, usually in the runup to elections, that Romani people abuse the social welfare system. Is that true?

A: To tell you the truth, I cannot comprehend those allegations. The benefit in and of itself is not even enough to cover the cost of buying food. The unemployed get very little benefit money. How can anybody abuse such benefits? If an unemployed person is ineligible for a social welfare benefit, then he or she simply will not receive it. That allegation is the biggest populism one can hear from the politicians. The Roma are becoming the victims of people who need to blame them for everything. Yes, it does happen that somebody works under the table while drawing unemployment benefit, but it's difficult to prove. However, if Slovakia would create job opportunities with appropriate salaries, people would be very glad to officially work and it wouldn't even occur to them to work under the table.

Q: I know you write both poetry and prose, one of your short stores was even published last year in the book O Mulo! Povídky o duchách zemřelých ("O Mulo! Stories of the Spirits of the Dead").

A: I also write song lyrics, but I haven't brought them "out of the drawer" into the light of day. However, I decided to write a bigger story of that kind after my husband passed away. It describes his final three weeks in hospital, when he was in an artificial coma. That time was devastating for the entire family. I wrote one chapter together with the author Květa Podhradská, who translated it into Romanes, we sent it to the Romano suno competition and won a special prize for "literary achievement in writing a novel". From the beginning I have also been a member of the Club of Romani Writers and I also contribute to the KHER publishing house. Currently I am working on another story and who knows, maybe even a book. I hope I will manage to complete that project by the end of the year and open a new chapter of my life.

First published in Romano voďi magazine in Czech.

Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Británie, RV 4/2020, segregation, Slovakia



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