England's first Romani lawyer was born in the Czech Republic, helps domestic violence victims
Denisa Gannon comes from a Vlax Romani family in the Czech town of Nový Bydžov. Despite the fact that her parents do not know how to read or write, they have always supported their daughter in her education.
The effort was not always easy. In primary and secondary school in the Czech Republic she encountered cruel bullying from her fellow pupils and from teachers because of her ethnic origin.
"I sat in the first row and the teacher told me she just couldn't stand to look at me anymore. I had to go sit in the last row," she recalls.
While other Romani pupils began to leave the school because of such treatment, she decided to persist. After graduation, however, she did not manage to find work for a long time, and so she decided to go visit her brother in Great Britain.
In the beginning, because she did not know English, she worked as a cleaning lady and a waitress, and in her free time, in addition to caring for her son as a single mother, she completed her education and aided other arrivals to the UK with handling their official affairs. Later she became a teaching assistant at two schools and gradually made her way toward achieving her big dream.
"As an immigrant I was aware that it is not at all easy for those who come here," she explains. She decided to change that.
She enrolled in law school and recently after many years of purposeful work she became the first qualified Romani lawyer in Great Britain. "It just happened," she laughs.
She is working for a community law company where she is especially involved in the cases of immigrants, socially vulnerable people, or victims of domestic and sexual violence. She herself comes from a family of six children.
Gannon grew up in Nový Bydžov in eastern Bohemia. "My parents cannot read or write," she says.
Nevertheless, they have done their best all their lives to run businesses in different areas. In the beginning they performed ditch-digging work, then they did their best to run a restaurant.
"All of the business endeavors they attempted failed. The reason was their lack of education," she believes.
Her father, on top of it all, has always been visually impaired. "If you are doing your best to run a business and you don't know how to read or write it is rather complicated," she says.
The back row
As a child Denisa attended a standard primary school in her home town. That was also the place where bullying entered her family's life with full force.
"Naturally I felt differences beginning in preschool. Some children abused me there and it was absolutely horrible. Their parents, for example, forbade them to make friends with me because I am Romani," she says sadly.
She points out that this is the experience of most Romani children in the primary schools of the Czech Republic. For that reason, in her view, the other Romani children at the primary school she attended did not last long there.
"I ignored it. Some children, though, are not able to do that, they can't stay in such a situation," she explains when asked how she managed to not succumb to the pressure herself.
Her brother was reassigned to a "special school". "There was such enormous bullying there, and my brother is much darker than I am. One of the teachers even hit him. My parents could not deal with it psychologically anymore and re-enrolled him in 'special school'," she recalls.
After primary school she matriculated to a "family school" with a focus on economics. When asked what that kind of material that school taught to its students, Denisa laughs ironically: "That was an interesting school."
From her perspective, the school was not high-quality. She also encountered physical abuse there, including from some teachers.
"I sat in the first row and the teacher told me she just couldn't stand to look at me anymore. I had to go sit in the last row. There were many things like that," she recalls bitterly.
After completing "family school" she found a job as a seamstress and completed her high school diploma long-distance. During those studies she gave birth to her son, divorced, and ended up in a difficult socioeconomic situation.
Welcome to England
As a divorced mother and a Romani woman making her own living it took her a long time to find a job so she could manage to take care of her son. "Despite the fact that I had a high school education, it unfortunately did not work somehow," she says, shrugging her shoulders.
This was despite the fact that at that time a high school education was rather unusual among Romani community members. "I had the experience of looking for a job in a restaurant as a waitress or as a sales clerk in a department store, but unfortunately I had no luck," she says.
Gannon is convinced that at the time it was because of her Romani origin. "I would have a successful telephone interview, but once I arrived for the job, suddenly they were not so enthusiastic and I would learn the job had been taken," she recalls.
It was 2006, she was 22 years old, and she decided to go for a longer visit to her brother in England, where he had emigrated. This was the same brother who had been re-enrolled into "special school" because he had been so bullied at the mainstream school.
After spending time with her brother it occurred to her that she might try her luck with finding employment there. She soon found a job as a cleaner at a restaurant, aided with the dishwashing there as well and later became a prep chef.
The beginning there was tough. The English language was her biggest problem.
"Even if you get top grades at [a Czech] school, when you come to England you find out right away that you do not know English at all. You cannot understand anybody and nobody can understand you," she laughs.
Not very skilled as a hairdresser
She made a living for two years as a cleaner. Because during that time she had improved her language skills, she then began to work as a waitress.
Soon she realized she did not want to work all her life for minimum wage, so she again began to take an interest in furthering her education. "I decided to take a year-long hairdressing course. I had to still work as a waitress to make a living," she admits.
"During the course I realized that hairdressing is not my field," she laughs. The vision of a future as a hairdresser then disappeared and she told herself she would attempt a different goal.
"As an immigrant, I was aware that it is not at all easy here for those who arrive without knowing enough English," she explains. She wanted to know what her own rights were and to avoid difficulties with the different fraudsters operating around immigrants.
At the same time, she saw a great deal of room in which to aid those who had ended up in situations such as she had years before. Her desire was to make it easier for others beginning life in their new country.
She applied to law school. "It was not easy at all," she simply admits.
The studies were preceded by an entrance examination in what was for her a foreign language and a personal interview. It took more than one attempt to pass.
"At those first examinations I naturally just flew through them because I absolutely did not know what they wanted from me. I did not comprehend it at all," she says, laughing.
From her education in the Czech Republic she was accustomed to believing that it was enough to memorize material and regurgitate it. Now, however, they wanted her to comprehend and contextualize information.
She rapidly overcame her first failures and passed the examinations with flying colors. Another basic problem, though, was financing.
For the first part of her studies she borrowed money from the state with the option of paying it off once her education was completed. The amount of money was not enough, though, and she still had to work in addition to studying daily and caring for her son.
"I began here in Leicester to aid the Romani community with their English and with all that was necessary," she describes. Later the news of her capabilities and enthusiasm spread and she was offered a teaching assistant job at two different schools, one in lower primary and one in upper primary education, where she worked especially with Romani children for six years.
The long road to her dream
Completing her university studies, however, was not the end of the path to her desired job as a lawyer. She had to enroll into a so-called Legal Practice Course, which is basically a post-graduate qualification, in order to become an actual attorney.
"Even if you have those three years at university, it does not mean you are a lawyer," she explains. The barrier of money, as well as other obstacles, appeared for her again.
The two-year course cost 8 000 GBP and no loan would cover that kind of education. "You just have to have the money," she emphasizes.
She had the good fortune of being significantly supported by the Roma Education Fund, which supports Romani students especially with covering tuition and other education-related costs. Despite that scholarship not being enough, she was able to put together the necessary money for her tuition, and during her studies she also began working in a charity organization in London that focuses on strategic litigation.
First Romani woman to wear the cap and gown
After another two years she got an offer of a paid internship at the Coventry Law Centre. This was a necessary practicum that she had to complete in the field in order to become a lawyer by joining the bar association and earning her degree.
She was accepted to the bar at the beginning of this year and became the first Romani lawyer in Great Britain. She achieved this despite all of the barriers she had to face along the way as an immigrant speaking English as a foreign language and as a single mother.
"I recall that of all the people who were at my same level and were with me at university, I am the only one who has become a qualified lawyer," she says. That is because the law is a very privileged segment of education.
In her view, people from impoverished backgrounds have a much more complicated path to follow than those who come from educated, propertied families. She herself, despite this, managed mainly through her own determination and persistence.
"I just got it into my head and I will keep trying until I succeed," she says. However, she also believes her success is due to her personality.
"I never hid the fact that I am a Romani woman. Everybody knew it, even during the interviews. Maybe it was because of that sincerity. I just came in and said straight out: 'Look, I am not from the middle class, I am from this kind of background, and it's up to you whether you like me or not'," she describes.
Immigrants, the socially vulnerable, and victims of domestic violence
Today she continues to work at Coventry Law Centre in the position of a lawyer, and she is looking forward to her unique situation. Exactly because her field is social justice, she is focusing on cumulative cases as opposed to the other attorneys - i.e., cases that involve problems from different areas of law, and she is able to aid people comprehensively who are in difficult situations.
She manages to address, for a single client, difficulties with debt, housing policy, social welfare, and for example, domestic and sexual violence. She is able to regularly aid people in distress faster than if different lawyers from different fields had to share the case.
This is a big benefit to the company she works for. In her work she especially focuses on aiding immigrant families, the socially vulnerable, and victims of domestic violence.
"My work has the maximum impact on the daily lives of my clients, on their everyday existence," she explains. The work is emotionally very demanding and stressful for her.
Despite that, she would never change jobs. "I cannot imagine doing anything else," she laughs.
During her work she has also established an organization through which she does her best, in her free time, to aid people directly in the locality where she lives. In the future she would like to become a qualified adviser on problems connected with immigrating to Britain, especially on questions of acquiring permanent residency and residence permits.
For that she is currently completing more education to earn the necessary accreditation. She is famous in her town for her willingness to aid others and people share her contact information across different ethnic groups.
It just happened
Denisa Gannon remarried in 2015, her son is 15 years old now, and she is living a satisfied family life. Her story looks like something from a Hollywood film, but there is even another level to it.
The community of Vlax Roma is one of the most closed and conservative there is, and women there frequently occupy a subordinate position in which their ambition or speaking in public is very often perceived negatively as going against tradition. When asked how she managed to break down those barriers, she says with a laugh: "It just happened. My parents are terribly proud of me, though. They have always supported me in my studies and given me courage."
First published in Czech on the Czech Government's HateFree Culture server
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