Eastern Slovakia: Four stories that defy anti-Roma stereotypes
For people in the Czech Republic, of all the other European states, the Slovak Republic is the one closest to our hearts. After all, once we were just one nation and one state, we have a shared history, and there is basically no language barrier between us.
Eastern Slovakia is home to many Romani people. A significant part of those Roma have moved abroad in search of a better life, but many Roma have remained in the east despite its being one of the most impoverished regions in Slovakia.
Story Number One: Two salaries not enough for one family
The town of Humenné is known for its charming natural setting and hilly terrain. The picturesqueness of the landscape is spoiled only by the existence of prefabricated apartment buildings that were not designed to blend in well with their surroundings.
We interviewed a young Romani couple there who revealed right at the beginning of our conversation that while the buildings may be ugly on the outside, inside they are in a relatively good state of repair. Martin O. and his wife also emphasized to us how much one's address matters there.
One's address influences how teachers will treat one's children at school, one's position when it comes to employment, and how one is treated by the local authorities or hospital. Like most young Romani couples who have remained in Slovakia, 35-year-old Martin, his wife and their seven-year-old son live with his wife's parents.
They all live in a two-room apartment with a common kitchen and separate bedroom where Martin, his wife and child all sleep in the same room. They are unable to afford their own housing even though they both work.
"I work in a factory where I make around EUR 400, at the current rate of exchange that's less than CZK 11 000. My wife works near home, and even though she works eight-hour shifts she only makes about EUR 280 - 300. That's why we cannot afford to lease our own apartment or even get a mortgage," says Martin, who sometimes makes extra money as a musician when on the weekends, mainly in the summer, he performs with his band at parties, weddings and in restaurants.
Rents on apartments locally begin at EUR 400 a month. According to Martin's wife, the deteriorated standard of living in their town is mainly a consequence of the introduction of the euro.
"When we still had the crown everything was ok," she complains, adding that while previously she was able to buy enough groceries in the shop for 300 Slovak crowns, today the equivalent of EUR 10 does not buy enough to feed her family of three. Without her parents taking the young people in, they would not be able to afford anything.
Martin and his wife are unable to imagine what it would be like if her parents didn't work, or if her parents didn't own the apartment where they all live, or what it would be like if they had to pay market rents. Their son is in second grade and is the only Romani child in his class, which makes things doubly difficult.
"The other children avoided him, didn't play with him, didn't talk to him. First they ignored my son, then they bullied him. My son did not say anything about it to me, but I noticed the bruises on his body and that he had stomach problems every morning, that he had lost weight. In addition, his pencils and various other school supplies began to mysteriously disappear, even his expensive shoes disappeared. I began observing and I saw that a little group of white children were persecuting him on his way to and from school. They abused him and pushed him to the ground. At that moment I intervened," an embittered Martin recalls, adding that he first attempted to address the situation by reaching an agreement with those involved and when that was to no avail, he visited the homeroom teacher.
Unfortunately, the teacher did not comprehend Martin and instead blamed his son, alleging that he did not pay attention in class or bring his own supplies with him, and refusing to face up to the reason his father had paid her a visit. That was followed by a meeting with the principal - but ultimately the situation was saved by the little boy's grandmother, who paid a visit to the homeroom teacher not at school, but at home.
"My mother-in-law went at it diplomatically, she didn't go there to argue or to shout. She went to the teacher, who lives near us, and explained to her how she felt and how afraid she was for her grandson, and asked the teacher how she would feel if somebody were treating her own grandson like that," says Martin, adding that he is glad the teacher then decided to speak to all the children and explain to them that their fellow pupil does not live in a settlement, that he is their neighbor, and that she does not want him to be harmed because he is the same as they are.
The situation then calmed down for the rest of the school year. "I hope we will never have to deal with anything like that again," Martin says sincerely, revealing that a change of employment awaits him.
Martin says he will start working in Košice for a big company and will be paid EUR 1 000 a month. "During the week I will not be home, but that's the price of providing for my family, we can't live with my in-laws forever. By now they deserve some peace and quiet too," he explains.
Story Number Two: From bad grades at primary school to a Master's degree
Dana spent her childhood in one of eastern Slovakia's dozens of villages. Previously such villages were automatically divided into two parts: The Roma settlement and the village proper.
Today it is already common for Romani people to also live in the village itself, but 35 years ago that was unthinkable, and Romani people needed special permission from the mayor to move into the village. Dana grew up in a single-family home built by her father right in the center of the village on one of its most valuable plots.
Many of their neighbors back then were outraged - nobody wanted a Rom as a neighbor. "I recall how they abused us, told us to go back to the settlement, that we don't belong here. I was about six years old, but I have never forgotten it. I cannot recall Romani and Slovak children playing together, or Romani and Slovak families living on the same street. Today it's already different, thank God," remembers Dana, who also had particular experiences at primary school.
Dana was one of the "worst" pupils, and for that reason she decided to train to be a sales clerk. She enrolled into the apprentice school in Košice and quickly got accustomed to the anonymity of the city and the much less xenophobic environment there.
In Košice Dana first encountered a Romani assistant to the community and began to take an interest in Romani history. "I came from an environment where there were no Romani people with high school or college educations, in the schools they did not support us to be proud of being Romani. Suddenly I was encountering people who told me to be proud of my origins, and I had no idea why. I began to look for information about the Roma," the young woman says, describing how in the beginning it was difficult for her to communicate with other Roma because she did not speak Romanes.
"After some time my Romani friends realized I didn't speak and they began to slowly teach me what the words meant. It worked," she says.
Dana's family took a dim view of her newly-acquired language skill. They believed Romanes is just spoken by Roma from the very worst settlements.
Her family was afraid that if their daughter spoke Romanes, the majority society would ostracize her even more. Eventually Dana decided to introduce her family to her Romani friends from Košíce.
"It was a brilliant meeting, Dad's jaw was dropped almost the entire time. I introduced him to my Romani friend who was studying education in Košice and to Ms Janka, who worked as a guide for a small group of Romani children - all the people who came knew how to speak Romanes. Dad saw this wasn't some kind of bad society, that none of them would be distracting me from my studies, rather the opposite, they would show me the way," Dana enthusiastically describes her journey to discovering her roots.
After completing her instruction, Dana got an offer to work as an assistant at a primary school in the town of Michalovce, which was far from Košice but closer to her home village. While working at the school she first completed the minimum requirements to become an educator herself and then, because pedagogy began to interest her more and more, she continued on to two more years of study that helped her acquire a high school diploma.
At the age of 21 Dana became pregnant and she and her boyfriend definitively left the family nest. "So, now it's all over, I won't go to college. I was convinced of that, but on the other hand I was glad to become a mother," Dana says of the next phase of her life.
After getting married and giving birth to her daughter, the young mother told herself that she could begin studying at college while on maternity leave. The distance learning program of the Education Department at the university in Košice was the clear choice.
On the weekends while she was at college her child was cared for by her husband, her father, her mother, her brother and sometimes even her brother-in-law. She was supported by her entire family.
"My mother-in-law bragged to her friends that I was studying. It was a hectic but very happy time. After four years I told myself that I didn't want to study any further, that a Bachelor's degree was more than enough for me. After my maternity leave ended I began working at a secondary vocational school," she says.
Dana began by teaching first-year students civic education and Slovak language. Seven years later she decided to enroll in a Master's program - and learned she was pregnant again.
Her husband supported her with all of it, so the situation repeated itself, and Dana became a student again while on maternity leave. She graduated with a Master's in Social Work.
After completing her degree, she got a job at a primary school in Michalovce, where she works as a special educational-social adviser. The school has a high number of Romani pupils.
Dana's job consists of educational-psychological support to the pupils, and not just the Romani ones. She addresses conflicts and social problems at the school and collaborates with nonprofit organizations.
"When I look back on my life, it's not so bad for somebody who failed Slovak at primary school. One has to get a chance and if one takes it, one can accomplish all that one wants to," she says with a smile.
Story Number Three: A cruel fate
About 30 kilometers away from Humenné, in the village of Vranov nad Topľou, a 60-year-old lady named Ms Anna S. has been living since childhood, although she was born in the Czech town of Žatec. She still lives in the house her father built.
"Everybody in the village appreciated my Dad - he was a soldier who fought in the Second World War against Hitler, and he was also a partisan. He blew up a German convoy, he saved people from being transported to the extermination camps. He was a hero, and he looked like one. He was a handsome, tall, well-built man. Mom was from Užhorod and was the most beautiful girl in the area," she recalls with tears in her eyes.
Anna lost her father to a traffic accident when she was just 11, so she, her mother and her other six siblings were left on their own. They completed the construction on their house after her father's death.
"My youngest brother and I went to school, but my other siblings went to work. They all gave the money they earned to Mom, and she took care of us. We finished building our house with that money. During communism there was work, unlike today. Back then there was also racism and xenophobia here, of course, but today it's worse. Maybe I perceive this differently because, thanks to our Dad, the other people here took a different view of us," Anna reflects before revealing that hers was the first Romani family to build a house right in the village and not in the Romani settlement located to this day on the outskirts.
That kind of spatial segregation fulfilled a social purpose 40 years ago. Romani people who did not live in the settlement but who built a house in the village were considered "a class above", and all of Ms Anna's siblings were apprenticed, with her eldest brother attending military school.
After her other siblings married, Anna remained at home alone with a brother. They divided the house in two, each occupying one half.
"Mom remarried after Dad died and moved back to Bohemia, and I got married too, after some time - I have an adult son who already has his own life by now. I divorced my husband, he was an alcoholic, he took drugs, he stole, he began to physically abuse me. I knew he would end up in prison sooner or later. That's exactly what happened. That was the last time he ever saw either me or our son. The divorce papers were sent to him in prison. I had to save myself and our son and get away from such a person," she says as the smile disappears from her face.
The next blow in Anna's life was the death of her siblings. "First my eldest brother died, then another brother died less than two months later, and then the son of my nephew died - all three in the same year," she says with tears in her eyes.
The next fateful moment for Ms Anna was the death of her beloved mother and then, several years later, her sister. Three years ago she herself was diagnosed with cancer.
Fortunately it was not malignant, but she had to undergo a demanding operation. She was afraid to stay in the hospital, as she had not been to a hospital in more than 30 years.
"You know, I'm not rich, I can't pay the doctors their bribes. Unfortunately, doctors here in the east are accustomed to them. To a certain degree the Roma who live in England have taught the doctors to expect bribes, because when they come here for medical care, they pay the local doctors in pounds. Even though I was concerned about the hospitalization, I can't complain about it. The other patients who were with me in the same room even asked whether I'd bribed the head physician because they were taking such good care of me," Ms Anna says, describing her income as EUR 110 per month in social security.
Her electricity bill is EUR 40 per month, while the rest goes to basic groceries and medicines. "If it were not for my good friends and my son, I probably would not be able to survive. One isn't healthy and young anymore, one needs medicines, food is expensive, and where are you to supposed to get wood for the winter? Life here in Slovakia is very difficult, at least for a woman without a husband," she says sadly.
Story Number Four: She cleans and does dishes, but her daughter will be a doctor
Ms Agneska lives in a village in Slovakia that she does not want to name - it's a bigger one with a Romani settlement nearby where she and her husband are in the process of renovating their home. In this settlement you see one new house next to another.
The Roma here are competing to see who can build the more beautiful, luxurious villa. Agneska and her husband relocated 15 years ago to England, eventually settling in London.
Both are still working there. Her husband works for a transport company and drives a micro-bus, but Ms Agnezka has a more complicated working life: Half- time with a cleaning company in London where she cleans buildings and luxury apartments, half-time in a Turkish restaurant where she washes the dishes and helps in the kitchen.
"Our household in England is hectic, we get up about 5 AM, and at 6 AM my husband and I go to work. Our oldest 18-year-old daughter is responsible for the two younger children, she takes them to school," Agneska says.
"My husband comes home from work around 6 PM, I come home around 7 PM, and then I still have to cook for the next day. Sometimes I have a two-hour break between my two jobs, so I quickly go home to cook, " she describes the routine.
"That's how it works from Monday to Friday, but sometimes we even have to work on Saturday," Ms Agneska describes.
She and her husband are among the group of Roma from Slovakia who have relocated to England for work. They were long unemployed in Slovakia and the only opportunity not to become dependent on welfare was to emigrate.
Things were not easy in England either, though. In the beginning they had no luck because they did not speak English, but once they began attending courses and speaking English with each other even at home, they found jobs.
"In England you change jobs a lot, and that doesn't mean much here," Agneska says. "Here at home people say there's something wrong with you if you keep doing different jobs, but not there - if you don't like what you're doing, you move on to the next place."
She had her husband have now bought a house in their native village in Slovakia. It's an older, unfinished, single-family house that they are restoring during their vacations.
During holidays and vacations they spend a whole two months working on the garden and the house itself, which they are attempting to complete as much of as they can during the summers. After the summer break they return to England for 10 months.
"We've done it this way for several years now," Agneska explains. "While we are doing well in London, we won't be able to keep up this work tempo for much longer, so we're building a house, that way we can have a place to live and rest when we are older. If our children ever wanted to live here at some point, they will have a place," she says.
"We aren't much counting on that, though, our daughter wants to go to university, she wants to become a doctor," Agneska chuckles, adding that she herself wants to work in London for at least 10 more years before slowing down. "Who knows, maybe even our two youngest children will want to go to university, so we'll have to wait before we relax."
First published in ROMANO VOĎI magazine.
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